U.S. lacks candidate for award

January 5, 2006
Dell'ApaBy Frank Dell'Apa

There are several strong candidates for the first FIFA Young Player award (under 21 years old), which will be announced after next year's World Cup finals in Germany. None of those candidates, though, will represent the U.S.

The only U.S. players born after the Jan. 1, 1985 cutoff date with a possibility of being on the World Cup roster are Freddy Adu and Jonathan Spector, neither of whom is projected to be an important part of the team in '06. Other possibilities for the Young Player trophy include Ryan Babel (The Netherlands), Lionel Messi (Argentina), Lukas Podolski (Germany), Wayne Rooney (England), Cesc Fabregas (Spain) and Philippe Senderos (Switzerland).

AP / Dino VournasFreddy Adu would be the best candidate for the award but might not even make the U.S. World Cup squad.

Babel (Ajax) and Podolski (FC Cologne) are on the verge of moving to bigger clubs. Messi (Barcelona), Rooney (Manchester United), Fabregas and Senderos (both Arsenal) are already there. By 2010, those players will be established performers on the international scene, and in 2014 and 2018 they will be the leaders of their national teams. Is the U.S. producing comparable prospects?

Of the finalists for the U.S. Soccer Federation young athlete of the year, only Eddie Gaven is a starter for a professional team, and Gaven finished behind Benny Feilhaber in the voting. The lack of young prospects on the U.S. national team raises questions about player development and sounds the alarm for future World Cups. Or is this just a down cycle in U.S. player development?

In 2002, DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan would have been top candidates for the Gillette-sponsored award, indicating the potential of the United States for producing teenage prospects. But both Beasley and Donovan turned down college opportunities to sign professional contracts, launching their careers at about the same age as the Rooneys of the world. Adu and Spector also went professional early, otherwise the United States might not have a single nominee for the Best Young Player trophy.

So, is college soccer helping or hurting the game in the United States? There is no easy answer to this question. The collegiate system does delay players' emergence onto the international scene. But there are benefits to the college game and it is not going to disappear, so we should appreciate the pragmatic options provided by Major League Soccer's Project-40 and the Bradenton Soccer Academy.

There are many examples of the differences between the U.S. developmental system and the rest of the world, which is one reason why I saved a roster of the Mexico U-17 team from the 1997 Dallas Cup, curious to see where those players would end up.

Mexico sent the U-17s to play in the Under-20 division to prepare for the FIFA tournament in Egypt. The game we witnessed in March of '97 in Dallas matched the Mexicans against the Renato Cesarini club from Argentina, which had humiliated a U.S. club in its previous match. The Argentinean club, named for one of the country's greatest players -- Renato Cesarini starred in Argentina and with Juventus and the Italian national team in the 1930s -- had matched the U.S. players in size and strength and was far superior in guile.

Mexico's U-17s were outsized and there had to be concern about their ability to confront the Argentineans' maturity; many players on the Mexican squad were 15 or 16 years old. The Mexican goalkeeper was Jose de Jesus Corona, who is 25 now and stands slightly taller than 6 feet. Corona dwarfed his U-17 teammates. But Mexico remained composed against opponents' hard-charging tactics, and their quickness and skill frustrated the Argentineans.

It is doubtful whether many of those Mexican players would have been selected for the U.S. program. Their lack of physical stature alone would have discouraged any chance of big-time collegiate interest. Yet, every player on the Mexican team went on to have a professional opportunity. Even now, nine years later, about half of that group is listed on the rosters of first division clubs in Mexico.

Nor was that an exceptional Mexican team. In fact, Mexico added players for the FIFA U-17 finals in Egypt but still did not advance out of group play. Neither did the U.S., with a team that included four current professionals -- Danny Califf, Luchi Gonzalez, Marshall Leonard and Taylor Twellman. Brazil defeated Ghana, 2-1, for the 1997 U-17 championship, thanks to Ronaldinho Gaucho.

Two years later, Beasley and Donovan emerged to lead the U.S. to the semifinals of the FIFA U-17s in New Zealand. And that '99 U.S. team included 11 players currently on professional rosters. Beasley and Donovan were the top two vote-getters for the Golden Ball award, but would they have been as accomplished had they enrolled in universities?

Collegiate programs can either delay or retard a soccer player's progress because of the limits on games and training sessions. Players often do benefit and progress from performing on a college team, but they would progress even more in a professional development program. The common wisdom now is that a year or two in college is all right for someone with professional aspirations, since they are advancing themselves educationally, as well; but three or four years might be too long away from the real world of soccer.

But both the collegiate and professional systems are evolving. Pro clubs in Europe are offering educational options, sometimes requiring young players to attend classes. And the U.S. educational system is accommodating players in all sports who seek to become professionals.

It would be interesting if college soccer opened the door to the professional world a little wider. Brigham Young University disdained NCAA soccer, entering its club team in the PDL. In time, BYU could compete at the fully professional level, or at least against pro teams in cup play. Such a progression is not imminent, but if BYU started recruiting, say, high-level Brazilians (as the school did in building its basketball program in the 1970s), then went deep into the U.S. Open Cup tournament, there might be a temptation to accelerate its professional ambitions.

This certainly will not happen anytime soon. But should other college soccer programs break away from NCAA restrictions (yes, I know they might risk losing funding and even jeopardizing the institution's tax-free status), they could set up international rivalries with UNAM Pumas, UANL Tigres, Universidad Catolica, Universidad de Chile. D.C. United was eliminated by Chile's U. Catolica in the Copa Sudamericana last year. Maybe the University of Maryland could take up the challenge.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.