Monday, October 5, 2009

US U20 "Deep Dip in Egypt" underlines need for development

Today I have seen two different pieces on what the US U20's bomb out in Egypt means for player development in the US. (See these great pieces, Phil Schoen's here and Glenn Davis' here.) Player development in the US, or at least what passes for it, is a serious problem. I’ve always maintained that the elimination of the MLS Reserve League was about one thing only, reducing the player pool available to potentially strike or (more likely) be locked out should the negotiations for the new CBA somehow fail. Once a new CBA is in place, I firmly expect the Reserve League to make a return in some form, with perhaps the core of it being filled out by the dissident USL clubs.

The performance in Egypt is telling about Thomas Rongen’s limitations as a coach, but more telling about the USSF’s inability to see past its own little turf battles and monopolies to establish a true player development system. In sports, perhaps unlike life, it is better to have the players celebrated and the leagues and governing bodies in the far background. Unfortunately, this is a lesson the USSF seems unwilling to learn.

I have always sympathized with Glenn Davis' oft-stated points about getting men's soccer programs at Rice and the University of Houston, among others, in Texas. But the combination of Title IX equivalency requirements and bloated football budgets make for a witches' brew that will prevent this from happening.

As many know, for every men's scholarship slot, Title IX requires there to be a women's scholarship slot, a situation that has been an absolute boon to women's college soccer in the US, as well as softball and volleyball. However, for schools that have Division I football programs, some of which can tie up as many as 20-30 (or perhaps more) scholarship slots, there is no way to afford the creation of a non-revenue-generating men's team sport such as soccer, with a large travel budget and upwards of 10-15 (or perhaps more) scholarship slots. This would mean not only the creation of that program, but also the creation of an equivalent number of women's scholarship slots in some other (even less revenue-generating) sport (since in Rice and UH's case, both already have women's soccer programs). The costs start escalating rapidly, and very few of those outlays will be reimbursed.

Ultimately, colleges fund athletic programs to give the community something to do together. But the budget for this is not unlimited. Division I men's football and basketball generate untold sums of money, obscene sums. Other collegiate sports do not come anywhere near that. And with Title IX restrictions, which have produced wonderful things, in place, Division I colleges and universities will not create new programs where none heretofore existed.

What does this mean as far as American player development? Simply put, Division I colleges and universities are not going to be the place for player development to occur in the US. And this, in my opinion, is an altogether good thing. Player development is too important to be left to colleges and universities, whose aims are not to develop talent but to win their leagues (and as has been very often pointed out, with different rules, unlimited substitutions and at times a strange resemblance to what we know as the Beautiful Game). With Title IX, that ship has sailed and good riddance to it.

Academies like Brad Freidel's in Cleveland, the USSF's in Bradenton, the Dynamo Academy both here and in McAllen, and the extremely important resumption of the MLS Reserve League (or perhaps creation of MLS-2) are the elements of the path forward. Clubs need to take control of development, and they need to be empowered to do that by the USSF. Big kudos to Dynamo for thinking ahead on this issue and pushing for in-home development that is really the envy of the league, with the European trip indicative of an emerging "Dynamo Way."

If this all happens, then perhaps the US U-20's Deep Dip in Egypt will in the long run produce laudable results. But I really think that the MLS clubs have to take it upon themselves to force these changes. As is abundantly clear, US Soccer will not accomplish this on their own.

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