Major League Soccer's youth development goals face challenges from Mexico and Europe

Here's a follow-up to my recent column on the intertwined fates of Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team program.

During last month's NSCAA Convention in Los Angeles, former Mexican national team star goalkeeper Jorge Campos caused quite a stir when discussing the competition between Major League Soccer and Mexico's Liga MX for young Mexican-American players.

"At this time I think MLS gives young players a better chance of playing in the first team," Campos said.

He was speaking in Spanish, but you didn't have to know the language to notice the gasps of surprise in the room.

After the seminar ended, Campos met with a few reporters — myself, Charles Boehm of SoccerWire, and John Rojas of Univision (who served as translator). I asked Campos if he really meant what he said. He answered that he did. The root cause, he said, is a rule instituted last year which limits the number of foreign-born players allowed in a team's game-day squad to 10, and forces eight spots to be given to Mexican nationals.

This rule could have a significant impact on the ability of Mexican-American players with U.S. citizenship to sign with Liga MX teams. And make no mistake, those teams have done a lot of scouting on this side of the border.

You've heard of players such as Club América's Ventura Alvarado and Tijuana's Paul Arriola, thanks to their appearances for the senior U.S. national team. A new crop of players is on the way, including Monterrey's Jonathan Gonzalez — who's on the U-20 team headed to CONCACAF World Cup qualifying — and Sinaloa's Fernando Arce Jr. (Yes, that's the 20-year-old son of the El Tri legend.)

Campos believes that if the 10/8 rule stays in place for a while, it will have a significant impact on players' decisions to cross the border. After all, there's only so much that can be gained from getting into a team's youth pipeline if you know the odds of making the senior team are stacked against you.

"In Liga MX, it is hard to hard to give the kids a chance when you have 10 foreign players before them," Campos said. "The opportunities will come from other leagues, and the closest league with good development is MLS ... I think the kids will stay here [in America] and even some will come from Mexico to play here and look for opportunities here."

I had that conversation in mind when I spoke recently with U.S. men's national team under-20 coach and youth technical director Tab Ramos. Much of our conversation was centered around the Union's youth academy, which I wrote about for the Inquirer earlier this month.

I also spent a fair amount of time picking his brain about the difficult decisions that players and their families face when deciding between foreign and domestic contract offers. The chance to play in Europe or Mexico is a huge thing, and rightly so. But oftentimes, reality doesn't live up to the hype.

Of course, the player can bear some responsibility for that if he doesn't adjust to a new life abroad. But there are other factors too. Especially this one: If a coach who believes in an American player is fired and replaced by someone who doesn't, the dynamic for that player can change in a heartbeat.

In recent years, we've seen a number of players in situations like that. Some of them have sought different jobs abroad. Others have come to MLS, perhaps because of a good salary offer or the ability to raise a family on American soil.

Those in the latter group have often been called failures.

Is that a fair charge? 

Ultimately, a decision to come home is up to each individual. We can support it or denounce it, and either emotion will have no effect on anyone but ourselves.

Just as importantly, sometimes failure ends up being a good thing for the player. That's an experience Ramos went through personally during his playing days. It informs the advice he gives U.S. youth national team prospects now.

My conversation with Ramos touched on the subject many times in many ways. Check them out, and draw your own conclusions.

Players go over there [abroad] for a year or two and then they return. It's not for them, it's not easy for them to make it to the first team, or it could be that they're not good enough. Or it could be that they get a deal with a local club here and they would rather come home after spending a couple years overseas. It does happen. That's why I say it's very much on an individual case-by-case [basis].

When you look at Christian Pulisic's path, he was already involved with Dortmund at a little bit younger [age]. He was able to get a European passport, and obviously he was good enough to move up within his club quickly. That's the best-case scenario. Well, that's not the case for everyone. Christian is special. He's a great player, he's a great talent, and that happened for him, but it's not realistic that it's going to happen for everyone.

There's many who go to Europe, train there for a year, it doesn't work out, they have to turn around and come back home and look for another team.

Even for all the players who end up going to Europe and not making to the first team, I think that's a great experience. They come back better players when they left, because now they know a lot more about the game. They know more about the culture of the game. They're as well-prepared as they can be.

Some of them just end up being not good enough, period. That could be that in some sort of way they're a failure, but I think in general I see it as a great experience for young players. If they do decide to go to Europe, don't make it, and then come back, I think those are all good soccer experiences.

You look at the history of players in general, and even the great players — I don't want to consider myself a great player, but I'm saying — all the players from the national team that made it up to a certain level — they all required having gone to places and not making it.

I remember in 1988, I went to Sabadell, a second-division team in Spain, and they didn't take me. I happened to be injured at the time, but they didn't take me. I went to Leeds United and was there for a week and a half, and although I played two reserve games, and it looked like they were going to sign me, they didn't sign me.

So there is some failure involved in trying to make it to the top. It always doesn't come easy. You look at guys like Eric Wynalda, guys from the past who have gone to Europe who didn't make it right away and had to go from team to team to try to stick with a team.

It's not easy, and it's not easy now, because clubs have requirements. Maybe you're not good enough for one team, but you're good enough for another where they need your position. There's a lot of things, [like] the culture of being in one city, that determines you're not good enough for Europe. You may just not be good enough for that particular place where you've just gone.

So, how long can you do this? That's up to the individual player. Maybe somebody wants to say, 'You know what, I want to turn around and go home,' and some of them say, 'No, you know what? I didn't make it here, I'm going to go to this other club and I'm going to go this other club, and eventually I'm going to make it.' It does happen for most who just have that perseverance, and you need that.

Some of the bigger names that I just mentioned are guys who obviously made it, and made it to the top of the national team for a long time. There is failure involved in making it. It doesn't just happen.

I believe MLS teams have better environments for players to develop in than Liga MX. Having said that, I think that Mexico has a U-20 league that provides players to the first team that is not matched by anything we have here yet. That's a gap that we at U.S. Soccer are trying to work together with MLS to try to fill, because I do think that Liga MX has a U-20 league underneath that's extremely competitive, that prepares the players really well to move up to the first division.

Now, if you're one of the better players in Mexico, you will flourish in one of these leagues. But if you're not, the environment of each club, it's not a great one to develop a player in. So as long as you're in one of the best ones, you're going to be in an environment that's going to help you to get to the first team. Otherwise, you're just not.

I partly agree with Jorge [Campos] and what he says, but I do think we still have a ways to go in terms of our competition in general, and we're trying to fix that.

One of the difficulties that MLS has at the moment is even for the younger players who get signed to homegrown contracts, even if they get moved up to the USL, the USL only plays between March and in most cases the end of September. So you're only playing a little bit over the [other] half of the year. If you take in preseason where the players start maybe at the end of January, now you're looking at the end of January to the end of September. It's a little bit more. 

When you compare that to the European model where the players basically get four or five weeks off out of the year, they're basically playing a lot less here.

For some players, staying home has a much bigger value. They're happier at home, they know the environment, they can develop at home, they have their parents. All those things, and that works. And for some players, it just works to go to Europe early and to be in an environment where they get pushed for 11 months out of the year.


The Twitter handle above is for my general news reporting. My soccer handle is @thegoalkeeper. Contact me there for any questions about this post.

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