In the past, European clubs have been able to lure top American players with lucrative contracts. However, in recent years MLS has become a more attractive option for Americans looking to play soccer professionally.
The premier league is a competition that has been in existence for decades. Barcelona, Villarreal and other European clubs are competing with MLS for America’s top talent.
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To counteract this, Sanford ensured that players that go through his organization do more than just play soccer. He said that “part of our approach is for them to build an affection for D.C. United.” This include attending games, working as a ball kid on occasion, and engaging with first-team players in person or through Zoom. “So when we get to the point when we’re sitting down with mum and dad and the player and they have to make a choice, they have a love for the club,” says the coach.
Sanford was seated inside Audi Field on Washington’s Buzzard Point, 20 minutes from where Villarreal would train that evening, when he spoke on a June day. How many other European clubs were as close or even closer? Sanford said, “Barcelona has an academy a few kilometers from here.” “Benfica, Panathinaikos, Liverpool,” says the player. These are big-budget worldwide brands.
“They can come over and test the market with little risk,” Sanford added. “Check to see what sticks and what doesn’t. They live in wealthy neighborhoods where they may make a little profit. Then, if they end up getting a player, that’s even better.”
The Major League Soccer (MLS) recognizes the value of American talent. At every major event, scouts from foreign clubs flood the field. Agents are as well. Sanford smirked as he added, “To discover the next Christian Pulisic.”
Rokas Pukstas, a member of the US youth national team with a Lithuanian father who plays for Croatia’s Hadjuk Split, was one of the players they scouted closely. When Pukstas suddenly departed Sporting Kansas City’s academy in 2019 to join in Barcelona’s residential program in Casa Grande, Arizona, he was dazzling everyone. He told me there was nothing wrong with Kansas City, but he didn’t appreciate how the Major League Soccer tried to dictate his fate. “Basically, I figured that if I went to Barcelona, I could go to Europe,” he said.
Pukstas was granted a full scholarship by Barcelona because of his talent. Some of his colleagues, on the other hand, were spending upwards of $70,000 each year. He replied, “Which is awful.” “Everything is paid for by MLS academies, including host families, food, and other necessities. However, you must next visit MLS.”
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Sanford believes that a player would be better off spending a few years in MLS and then, if he’s talented enough, negotiating his way into Europe on his own terms. He replied, “We can get you there just as easily.” “With Chris Durkin, we’ve done it before. We signed him, he did his time here, and when he decided to go on, we let him.”
Durkin made his D.C. United debut as a 16-year-old in 2016. Over the course of three seasons, he appeared in 36 MLS games, playing at the top level in America while honing his skills. D.C. United sold him for more than $1 million to Sint-Truidense, a Belgian club where he’d been on loan, last year — $1 million more than if he’d gone while still a junior.
As if it were a feeder league, MLS didn’t want its teams to lose their emerging talents to Europe until now. That seemed out of step with the expansion teams’ eight- and nine-figure entrance fees, particularly because many of the European clubs acquiring these players weren’t valued anything near that much. The league, on the other hand, has grown to recognize the importance of players with MLS experience thriving in other leagues across the globe. Newcastle United paid more than $26 million for Atlanta United striker Miguel Almiron in 2019, shattering the club’s record and boosting the league’s prestige. “We have to be both a buyer and a seller in order to operate in a manner where the economics make sense,” says MLS’ Durbin.
MLS players have been moved to clubs like as AS Roma, FC Salzburg, and Borussia Monchengladbach this year. “It’s a watershed moment for American talent gaining recognition,” says Jason Levien, majority owner of D.C. United and co-owner of Swansea City in Wales. “I believe it will alter America’s absorption into global football.”
The increasing number of American academies with European connections, according to Levien, is both a danger and an opportunity to the current system. “It’s an indication that the United States will be generating an increasing amount of global talent,” he adds. “This means we’ll have to raise our game in terms of training.”
He and his partners are building a 30-acre complex near Leesburg, Virginia, as part of this. The four-field facility will not only be utilized by D.C. United’s first team, but also by the whole youth academy. However, there are currently just three teams in the academy: U15, U16, and U17. Earnie Stewart, the USSF’s sports director, believes it is much too late to start training players at the “sub-15 level.”
“We’re mistaken if we believe we can start at 14 in the United States when all these kids on the other side of the Atlantic are beginning at 6 with professional coaches and excellent structure,” he adds. “There’s no way we’ll be able to make up for those eight years; it’s impossible.”
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Stewart departed the U.S. Soccer headquarters in downtown Chicago on a Monday afternoon in September. For years, he’d heard about these branded academies, but he’d never seen one. It wasn’t due to a lack of choices. He could have visited clubs connected with Liverpool, Olympiakos, Red Star Belgrade, Borussia Dortmund, Dinamo Zagreb, and Chivas de Mexico all within a short trip. Instead, he went to a high school on the outskirts of town, where a session of Barcelona’s academy would be held in the evening.
Barcelona had academies in 54 places across the globe before the epidemic. The average number of people enrolled was about 500. That means 20,000 soccer-playing youngsters wore Barcelona jerseys to practice, and 20,000 of them were brainwashed in the club’s tiki-taka tactical style, which has been in use for a generation. When Stewart spoke with Xavi Mondelo, the director of Barcelona’s North American academies, he said, “We love to say that if you outfit the kids in black and white, you will know that they are Barca.” “Why? They’re playing in a distinct manner. The most essential aspect of our game is ball control.”
Barcelona has been the most active in building academies in the United States. There are at least 11 in the United States, with more planned. Several of them are owned or co-owned by the club, including the residential academy in Arizona that is the closest replica to La Masia anywhere on the planet.
As the young players began to arrive, Stewart noticed Nico Estevez, the former Valencia head coach who is now an assistant with Gregg Berhalter’s United States men’s national team; Estevez has a 9-year-old son who plays at the Barca academy.
According to Estevez, a coach educated in Barcelona’s system resides in Chicago and teaches the technique full-time at the academy. Mondelo, who was on his way to the scene, nodded. “When they realize that it’s not just a brand, that we strive to teach them philosophy, values, and culture,” he added, “the parents think, ‘Wow, this is different from what we’re accustomed to.” “‘This is the genuine deal.’”
“Which is much more valuable than a Saturday victory,” Stewart added.
Stewart, who currently serves as the United States Soccer Federation’s sports director, is keeping an eye on what the major European teams are up to. ‘We’re mistaken if we believe we can start at 14 in the United States when all these kids on the other side of the Atlantic are beginning at 6 with professional trainers and excellent organization.’ ISI Photos/Getty Images/Brad Smith
They still have to win those games, which is a concern. The Chicago academy’s faculty chose not to participate in weekend competitions when it first launched in 2019. They didn’t like the notion of being eliminated from the tournament after only one defeat. “It placed too much focus on winning,” Alejandro Esteban, the Chicago club’s Barcelona-trained coach, said. “However, in the United States these days, if you don’t participate in these competitions, you aren’t competing at all.” As a result, you must adjust.
“It won’t work if you do everything precisely as we do in Barcelona.”
The American parents are perplexed as to why the children do not train every day but just a few times a week, despite the fact that this is the same timetable as La Masia. Isn’t it preferable to do it more often? Why don’t their kids perform push-ups and sprints like the other youngsters in the neighborhood? Because that question persisted, Esteban and his staff decided to allow their teams to perform a few minutes of conventional warm-ups, not to prepare the players, but to appease the parents. “They assume we’re doing conditioning,” Esteban said, “but it’s just 10 minutes.”
Even those ten minutes gave Barcelona’s methodological team pause, as they questioned why they were required. Many American parents were new to soccer, according to Mondelo. Because they couldn’t readily monitor their children’s progress, they wanted to see them working hard in order to justify the family’s expenditures.
While the cost of the residential program is expensive, players may win scholarships depending on their skill. Barcelona has academies all around the United States and the world, with approximately 500 students in each of its 54 schools. Barcelona Residency Academy provided this image.
Stewart stated at the conclusion of practice that he thought the students had a good time. “They couldn’t possibly be wrong. They were on stage the whole time “he said And he thinks that this is the most important element in developing potential. It’s almost difficult to predict who will grow into an exceptional player, so why try? Teach them all how to play the game. Place them in games with players of comparable skill levels so they may learn from both success and disappointment. And make sure they have a good time to keep the fire going. Their own paths will become clear soon enough.
That seemed very similar to what Barcelona and Villarreal were doing. Stewart said that there was just one issue. They have no intrinsic connection to American soccer, unlike MLS teams. Barcelona had a billion dollars in debt last he heard, with an economic position so bad that it couldn’t find a way to retain Lionel Messi. It didn’t seem good if that was also the future of American soccer. Instead, academies like Barcelona’s and Villarreal’s should serve as models for MLS counterparts.
“”If they are successful in sending youngsters to college and professional teams in five years,” Stewart predicted, “other clubs will be asking ‘Oooh, what are they doing?’” This will encourage them to follow suit. What would happen if Barcelona decides they can no longer afford to do this and declares “we’re out?”?”
Stewart walked straight to the parking lot. A bunch of youngsters wearing red Barcelona jerseys rushed past him with a scream as he approached his vehicle. They were laughing into the night, carrying soccer balls under their arms like running backs.
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