There are times when the U.S. soccer development system looks less like a pyramid and more like a Jenga tower after a few rounds of play. There are the various divisions of club soccer, high school, college, the U.S. Soccer Federation's Development Academy, the Olympic Development Program, not to mention the minor leagues that occupy the middle tiers of the U.S. structure.
As a consequence, the path to a professional career can be almost labyrinth-like, with plenty of blind alleys serving to sidetrack many a player. The sometimes prohibitive cost involved can create another significant barrier. But the various roads can be looked at another way. There is no single conduit to success. If one path ends in a dead end, a player can double back and explore other avenues.
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Of course, once the opportunity to go pro comes about, there are even tougher decisions to make. Does a player go overseas, give Mexico a try, or cast his lot with MLS? And once there, will that player make the most of the opportunity?
Given the Darwinian cauldron that is professional sports, there are no guarantees at any level. But the players profiled below show there is more than one way into -- and remaining in -- the professional ranks.
The Dark Horse
From an early age, Josh Gatt had one goal in mind: To play professional soccer in Europe. He would spend countless hours in his backyard, shooting at the regulation-sized goal his parents built for him. But he was undersized for his age well into his teenage years, and even as his talent took him to play for the Michigan Wolves in the early years of the USSF Development Academy, he was often outshone by bigger, stronger teammates.
"I was always good but never a [U-17] national team player or noticed by the system," he said via telephone. "Eventually that gave me the drive to work harder and to become better so I could be the best player."
Gatt did improve, and even had a full scholarship to Indiana lined up. But a fortuitous combination of timing and talent catapulted him toward his dream. An impressive showing at a Development Academy Showcase in Texas following his junior year in high school caught the eye of club coach Jon Spencer (not to be confused with the former Portland Timbers manager), who was putting together a traveling squad that was going to tour Europe that summer. Gatt went along (as did a young goalkeeper by the name of Bill Hamid), and by the end of the two-week tour, professional opportunities began to come his way with Bundesliga side Mainz and Austrian second division outfit Altach each offering him a contract.
With a year of high school to go, Gatt surmised he wasn't ready to leave home just yet. But both clubs were willing to wait, and with Altach providing a better opportunity for first -eam minutes, that was the option he chose. As soon as his high school season ended in late fall, he signed his first pro contract.
Yet the transition from training just twice a week with his U.S. club to a professional environment nearly broke him. Gatt called the switch "beyond difficult" with his body struggling to cope with a workload that was three times what he was used to. There were other obstacles as well.
"I was also very far behind from where I needed to be tactically and technically compared to the Austrian league," he said. "I had to work very hard every day after practice working on my first touch, my one-touch passes.
"Everything that basic professionals do now that's second nature, I had to learn and be broken down. After doubles of preseason training sessions, I had to spend 15 minutes kicking the ball against a board, one-touch, every day, to get myself adjusted to what I wasn't trained to do when I was young."
Fortunately for Gatt, the Altach staff remained patient, and after four, difficult months, he adapted and began excelling on the field. A transfer to Norwegian side Molde soon followed, where Gatt has since flourished, winning two Norwegian championships while using his blazing speed to terrorize opponents on the flank. And now he is firmly in sights of U.S. national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann, with Gatt participating in the squad's January camp. With luck, his other childhood dream of playing in a World Cup will come more into focus, validating his decision to turn pro at a young age.
He said, "Going to Europe straight out of high school was the best decision I ever made in my life and I will never regret it."
The notion of a multisport athlete seems a quaint anachronism left over from the 20th century. Specialization is the order of the day, meaning elite youth players must often decide before their teens what will be their sport.
Evidently, that news never reached the ears of Will Bruin. The Houston Dynamo forward grew up in St. Louis playing for renowned soccer club Scott Gallagher, but also played baseball and basketball into his high school years. As a consequence, Bruin declined an early offer to train with the U.S. U-17 national team.
"I had commitments to my basketball team," he recalled via telephone. "I declined [the U-17s] then, and looking back now and seeing where soccer has gotten me, it seems stupid. But you live and you learn."
That left Bruin to take the more traditional route of depending on college soccer to get to the pros, and his divided attentions didn't stop him from getting recruited to collegiate powerhouse Indiana. Bruin then made the most of that opportunity, scoring 33 goals in three seasons in Bloomington, and being named a M.A.C. Hermann Trophy semifinalist his junior season. He parlayed that success into a Generation Adidas contract with MLS.
Over the years, the college game has drawn deserved criticism because of its overall emphasis on athleticism, the lax substitution rules, and the shorter, four-month season. But it still has some positives in terms of preparing players for the pro game. The responsibilities of managing school, soccer, and social activities force players to mature. Bruin also credits the staff at Indiana for driving home the point that putting in the work in practice makes games much easier.
"I'm really grateful for the college experience," he said. "I don't think I would have been ready for the professional environment when I was younger, to live on my own, and be a professional. Even down here in Houston, my first two years, I've learned so much about being a professional. On campus, you play soccer, you're an athlete, but you've still got a bunch of other things to do. Down here in Houston, your job is to be a professional. Going to college eased that a lot."
When Jack McInerney was five years old, his youth coach went up to his mother and declared, "I'm going to be watching this kid play on television someday."
So began McInerney's ascent through the youth ranks. Growing up in Atlanta, McInerney was always playing an age level up, and his goal-scoring exploits continued as he grew older. While playing with the ODP Region III team as a 15-year-old, he caught the eye of then-U.S. U-17 manager Wilmer Cabrera who invited McInerney to take part in the team's residency program in Bradenton, Fla.
"I know at the time if you were to ask guys what they thought, they'd say they hated it because they were away from friends and family at home," he said. "I'm sure now they would say it was all worth it. But I loved it. I loved being down there. I loved living with a bunch of guys and playing every day. It was a really good experience for me."
McInerney says he feels the program prepared him about as much as possible for life as a professional. The soccer immersion was near total, although time was set aside for him to get his high school diploma. The fact he was away from friends and family forced him to grow up quickly as well.
"Obviously, we weren't paying bills and stuff like that, but just being away from home, the staff was always stressing how you're always wearing the [U.S.] crest, so you have to act professional."
Yet once he completed his two-year stint in Bradenton, decision time arrived in terms of what step he would take next. A trial with Dutch side Vitesse came to nothing, but MLS soon stepped in and "put together a deal that I couldn't really refuse" thus allowing McInerney to skip college. The Philadelphia Union made him the seventh overall pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, and while first-team minutes were scarce at times during his first two pro seasons, he ended up with nine goals in all competitions last year. As a consequence, he has no regrets about the path he has taken.
"How often do you get a chance to play professional? You could go to college and you could break your leg and never play again," McInerney said. "Or your game could just go terribly and you never get the chance. If you get this opportunity you have to take advantage of it."
Austin Berry may be coming off a Rookie of the Year season with the Chicago Fire, but ask him where he was as a 18-year-old, and it's clear he was the kind of player for whom college soccer was made.
"I was kind of far behind to be honest," he said. "For me, college, there was no other option. I got fortunate enough with timing that [head coach] Ken Lolla was able to bring me to Louisville, because I was pretty far behind on my soccer development.
"I was more of an athlete. I had some soccer sense, but I needed to play more off the ball and play at a higher level, and that was what college offered me."
But Berry isn't just a poster boy for the college game. He's also an example of the value that exists in the lower tiers of the U.S. development pyramid. In 2009, Berry suffered a broken leg just a few games into his junior season. He was allowed an extra year of college eligibility, but he needed a way to get back his fitness and sharpness.
That's when the USL Premier Development League came to his rescue, with Berry playing for the Fire's entrant in that league.
"That summer was huge for me to be able to play in all those games, get 16-17 games in to get my fitness and my mindset back. It was a good team to play with every single day, from a competitive standpoint. The Fire ran it really well. It also gave me a good look at what the professional aspect was like. We were training next to the first team every morning. And it was the same kind of schedule, so it helped me prepare."
Berry added that while the college season is short, the offseason affords extra time to iron out some of the flaws in a player's game.
"The springs and the summers were some big times for me because it gave me times away from games so we could really focus on working on the technical side," he said. "The whole year was really big."
And now the Fire is reaping the benefits.
In terms of the roads traveled to becoming a professional, Gabriel Farfan has just about covered them all. He grew up in San Diego playing club soccer for regional powerhouse La Jolla Nomads. His talents then took him to the U.S. U-17 residency program where he participated in the 2005 U-17 World Cup. Once his time there was completed, Farfan found his path to the pro game blocked. He went on trials in Holland and Denmark and the feedback was consistent.
"They both told me the same thing: that I wasn't physically mature enough to play for the first team," he said.
So Farfan enrolled at Cal State Fullerton in a bid to bulk up, and while the Titans didn't possess the highest-profile program, they did provide him with the chance to expand his game.
"[College soccer] helped me develop more technical ability just because I was on the ball almost all the time there, so I think I got a little more comfortable with the ball," he said.
It was at that point that Farfan took a huge risk, leaving school without any pro contract in hand. His second foray into Europe proved as frustrating as his first, with his lack of a European passport proving to be a major obstacle.
But then Farfan caught a break. During the 2005 U-17 World Cup, Farfan had caught the eye of Mexico U-17 manager Jesus Ramirez, and with "Chucho" about to be named manager of Club America, he encouraged Farfan to come to Mexico, where his dual citizenship wouldn't force him to be counted as a foreigner. The move enabled him to further hone his skills alongside such legends as Pavel Pardo and Salvador Cabanas, even as he spent all of his time playing in the reserves.
"I think my versatility improved," he said. "Wherever they needed an extra player, they plugged me in. I played a few months at defensive mid, right back, left back, outside mid. I was all over the field down there and it helped the versatility in my game."
That proved critical to his landing in Philadelphia following the expiration of his contract in Mexico. On the first day of training camp with the Union he was asked to play left back in an emergency, and he's played there ever since.
So which experience does he value the most?
"To be honest, I can't put one ahead of the other," he said. "In residency, getting to train with the top 30-40 players in the country was amazing. Going to college, it was a good experience. It wasn't the most competitive school that I went to, but I still think I improved and became more mature, both on the field and off. Making the decision of leaving without a solid concrete contract, that was just part of the whole journey. And going to Mexico was great. It's not very often that you get to train with top 10 players in the world."