- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 22, 2001

There will be plenty of soul-searching at U.S. Soccer's headquarters in Chicago in the days ahead after the its youth team was eliminated from the FIFA Under-17 World Championship in Trinidad and Tobago following losses to Japan, France and Nigeria.
It was a crushing blow for U.S. Soccer, which had high hopes after the Americans finished fourth at the 1999 event in New Zealand. Since 1999, U.S. Soccer has spent millions of dollars running a full-time residency program for the team in Bradenton, Fla.
In 1997, I wrote a column after the Americans were eliminated from the U-17 tournament by a 4-0 loss to Oman questioning the way youth players are mainly recruited from the wealthy suburbs, where parents can afford the outrageous costs now involved with the youth game.
I wondered back then what tiny Oman had that we didn't.
This week I'm wondering the same thing. What do Japan, France and Nigeria have that we don't when it comes to youth soccer?
"You can bet that Nigeria which doesn't have food to feed its children is not spending millions of dollars on their youth program," said Mahmood Ebrahimzadeh, director of the Olympic Development Programs (ODP) in Maryland for the last three years. "You can't buy talent."
Ebrahimzadeh believes that in order for America to make up ground, a uniform system of coaching must be established nationwide, professional clubs must get more involved in youth programs and the spiraling costs associated with youth soccer must be brought under control.
His blunt assessment rings true.
In many European countries, such as France, the nation's soccer federation dictates a method of coaching and a system of play that is taught from the national team all the way down to youth teams.
English and Dutch professional clubs, such as Manchester United and Ajax of Amsterdam, adopt myriads of youth teams from which they recruit "apprentice" players. Through the club's youth programs, youngsters are introduced to a professional atmosphere early on and discipline is very strict.
In America, little of this exists; in fact it's quite the opposite.
There is confusion when it comes to coaching at the youth level because there is no national coaching manual.
Youth players in America are rarely in touch with the professional game. D.C. United forward Santino Quaranta, who was raised in Baltimore, watched United play only twice at RFK Stadium before he joined the club this year.
"I was too busy playing club soccer," Quaranta explained.
Discipline is sometimes lax on youth teams because coaches fear losing players whose parents are paying their salaries. Consequently, some coaches are more like baby sitters.
Currently, talent is identified in America through the ODP system, a filter process to select players for the national team pool.
Seeking exposure for their children, parents steer players towards the ODP, where fees can be upwards of $925 a year. On top of that, parents can annually spend more than $3,000 to have their children play on "travel teams," so-called because they travel far to games and coaches are often paid.
In the ODP system, favoritism is rampant. Coaches who work for the ODP run their own clubs outside the program and seek to get their own players on the state ODP teams. Lower middle class and poor kids often don't stand a chance.
In the rest of the world, soccer is a cheap game. Kids play in the streets, and star players tend to come from the tough part of town. In America, competitive youth soccer is expensive and big business.
"Parents are willing to pay a lot of money here, and because of that sometimes coaches take advantage," Ebrahimzadeh said.
We are told that scholarships are available for talented kids who can't afford the costs, but coaches are more likely to recruit players whose parents can pay the fees. There are endless players trying to get onto travel teams. Thus, there is a comfort zone for coaches. Finding money to sponsor a poor but talented kid takes time and effort.
People also don't like to go begging, so many talented kids end up playing in the ethnic leagues, or remain with recreational teams.
Ebrahimzadeh says the ODP system could be much cheaper if U.S. Soccer, which received $40 million from Nike some years back to develop the youth game, got more involved and helped pay for uniforms, registration and coaching fees.
"In Europe, clubs and coaches exist for the players," Ebrahimzadeh said. "In the U.S., players exist for the coaches and clubs."
The U-17 team's recent failure should be a wakeup call for U.S. Soccer.
MLS playoffs In observance of the victims and heroes associated with the recent terrorist attacks, all teams involved in the Major League Soccer playoffs will wear Statue of Liberty patches on their left sleeve and black armbands on the jerseys. The playoffs kicked off Thursday when Dallas lost 2-0 at Chicago and continue this weekend.
D.C. United For the first time in the club's history, D.C. United led MLS in average home attendance with an average of 21,518 for 12 home games. The New York-New Jersey MetroStars were second with 20,806 for 13 games. United also had the best attendance on the road with 17,743 through 13 games.

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