- The Washington Times - Monday, June 17, 2002

JEONJU, South Korea The United States believes it's on the verge of becoming a world soccer power. All it needs is a way to discover future stars before they're old enough to drive.
There are more U.S. youth leagues than ever, full of players dreaming of becoming big names at the World Cup or in professional soccer at home and abroad.
And with the success of the Americans at this year's tournament, enthusiasm surely will grow along with talent.
"The kids are playing better than Landon Donovan when he was 10 years old," said Bob Contiguglia, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, referring to one of the young stars on the U.S. team.
After nearly half a century as a soccer outsider, the United States returned to the World Cup in 1990 and went 0-3 in Italy. While the Americans advanced to the second round four years later, when they were the host of the tournament, they finished last among the 32 teams at the 1998 World Cup in France.
With a win against Mexico today in Jeonju, the Americans would advance to a quarterfinal matchup with Germany, which would be their best performance since the first World Cup in 1930, when they lost in the semifinals.
"We're developing a level of competency. We're making progress," U.S. coach Bruce Arena said.
But to reach the highest levels, Arena said the professional league in the United States, Major League Soccer, has to emulate the largest European clubs. And that means finding and developing young talent.
Manchester United isn't just made up of the multimillionaires who play in England's Premier League. It employs a full-time reserve team and has an under-19 team, an under-17 team and a women's team.
Manchester United signs players to apprentice deals when they are 16, guaranteeing them three years with the club. They go to school two days a week and can sign pro contracts when they turn 17. Among the players on Manchester United's 1992 under-17 team, which won England's Football Association Youth Cup, were David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes, all big stars now.
When the United States returned to the World Cup 12 years ago, it was with a team of postcollege and still-in-college All-Stars. But the NCAA limits schools to 20 regular-season games a year over a 132-day season and has rules designating periods in the offseason when college athletes can play for amateur clubs.
The USSF decided that instead of preparing for proms, budding stars should concentrate on corner kicks. In 1997, it established Project 40, allowing up to 40 elite players, some as young as 16, to become full-time professionals in exchange for small salaries and a promise to pay their future college costs. Two years later, it established a full-time residency program for under-17 players at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where they attend class in the morning and practice in the afternoon, still retaining NCAA eligibility.
Youth national teams are flourishing in the United States, with Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley leading the Americans to the semifinals of the 1999 FIFA Under-17 World Championship, and Donovan and Josh Wolff helping the Americans to the semifinals of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, generally limited to players under 23.
Still, more young players need to be groomed for top-level soccer, Arena says.
"It is misleading," Arena said. "We don't have enough in those age groups. We can slap 11 on the field and do pretty well, but we don't have the numbers behind it. We have 30 in residency in Bradenton; we need hundreds."
Beasley and Donovan, both 20, are among the top U.S. players at the World Cup. Santino Quaranta, who signed with MLS when he was just 16, is the leading scorer for D.C. United, and he's just 17.
Arena wants MLS teams to start youth teams and development programs. New York/New Jersey, D.C. United, Los Angeles and Columbus established reserve teams, and MLS commissioner Don Garber says more are coming, but it takes money and time.
"I'm sure the Liverpool system that's in place today wasn't there 50 years ago," Garber said. "Clearly, this is a major priority for our league, and it's going to happen in the next number of years."
Asked how long, he estimated two or three years. But even after that, it will take time for those systems to become established.
"It takes a generation; it takes decades," he said. "I think we've come much further than we ever thought we would, but it still takes a long time."
Goalie Tony Meola, on his third World Cup team, looks at the youth and sees the quality of U.S. soccer improving.
"The other major sports in our country, you look at the footballs and the hockeys, they've got a 100 years of tradition behind them, and certainly we aren't at that level yet," he said. "You look at Major League Soccer, this is our seventh year now, we are probably a lot further along in our seventh year than they were in their seventh year."
Contiguglia, a Denver-based heart surgeon who succeeded Alan Rothenberg as the USSF president four years ago, points to the better level of youth coaching and how 13.8 million boys and girls from 6 to 18 were playing soccer in 2000. That's second only to basketball (20.6 million) and ahead of football (9.4 million), volleyball (8.3 million) and baseball (7.2 million), according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association.
"The game is moving forward," Contiguglia said. "Soccer is ingrained in the American culture."


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide