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Player Development Questions

On ESPN Soccernet, Fred Guzman takes U.S. soccer to task for not providing enough opportunity for the development of kids from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds.

The U.S. is a place where the parents of 12-year-olds are buying their kids $100-plus shoes and self-respecting teams are outfitting their preteen players in top-of-the-line sweats, jerseys and shorts from brand-name suppliers ...Elsewhere, the best players generally come from a much different socioeconomic background. In Brazil, from the shanty towns known as favelas. In Mexico, Argentina and the rest of South America, from the dirt-poor barrios. In the major European cities, from the lower-working-class neighborhoods where immigrants tend to congregate ... ODP [Olympic Development Program] is all about organized youth soccer. To receive exposure, kids have to play with visible traveling clubs that compete in high-profile tournaments. But it costs big money to play on one of the premier clubs.

In spite of appearances based on these excerpts, Guzman's piece is not a heavy-handed, politically correct diatribe. Instead, he considers at some length and with some subtlety the obstacles facing young soccer players from poorer backgrounds.

In the end, though, his piece raised more questions than providing answers as to the paths that permit talented younger players in other sports to rise out of obscurity. He notes professional academies in baseball for Caribbean youths. However, those are not the paths to player recognition or development in football, basketball, or baseball in the U.S. Instead, schools and competitions between them provide the mechanism. Why not in soccer?

One suggestion is that participation rates in the other sports are high enough to provide much better competition and so help develop better players, but that answer does not really satisfy me. I witnessed Billy Sims gaining 270 yards in a 2A Texas football playoff game in 1974. He was truly a man playing boys. Nonetheless, he was not hard to identify as a real talent. David Overstreet, who also played for Oklahoma and later the Dolphins, was a legend at Big Sandy -- a Class "B" school. Granted, some of the "technical" skill required in soccer may not be required of a football running back, but baseball players develop highly "technical" skills that also are identified in high school.

The relative lack of size of the soccer world in the U.S. may explain the difference. Pro scouts and college coaches scour the country looking at players. Several watched games (football, basketball, baseball) in my small hometown of 12,000 people while I was in high school -- not to watch me but some of my classmates or competitors. Soccer's relative lack of financial wherewithal and personnel do not permit such intensive scouting. Instead, much more reliance must be placed on special camps and tournaments.

The flip side of this question is why it is that sports academies sponsored by pro teams have not cropped up across sports such as basketball in the U.S. as they do for soccer in other countries, but that's a separate post.