U-17s and the Academy Curve

Friday, February 25, 2011 | View Comments
- Jason Davis

The United States qualified for the U-17 World Cup on Wednesday by defeating El Salvador 3-2 in extra time at the CONCACAF championships in Jamaica. The win puts the US in the semifinals, where they'll face the hosts later today. By most accounts, and as evidenced by the need for extra time, the US didn't show as well as expected against El Salvador and hasn't had a particularly good tournament overall (despite the final four berth and qualifying for the World Cup).

Though the result is the same, the feeling is slightly different for another semifinalist and U-17 World Cup qualifier, Canada. Perhaps we're guilty of being jaded when it comes to qualifying for these type of tournaments on this side of the 49th, but our northern neighbors are rather enjoying the success of their U-17s. Getting into a World Cup, any World Cup, is a positive sign for the Canadian men's program.

Though the US is well ahead of Canada on most levels, up to and including the senior teams, the two nations are moving towards the treading same path in the area of player development. With professional academies taking a predominant role in the process, both countries will have significant - if not overwhelming - portions of their youth international level talent (and therefore most promising prospects) attached to MLS clubs. 

A quick look at the rosters of the US and Canada for the CONCACAF tourney reveals something interesting; while Canada has already leveraged players from the country's three pro academies into their U-17 side in large measure, the United States and head coach Wilmer Cabrera remain married to the America's varied amateur club soccer structure and the Bradenton residential academy. The US has five MLS professional academy players on its roster. Canada has 17.

MLS academy players are highlighted on the rosters below.

USA CONCACAF U-17 Championship Roster

Canada CONCACAF U-17 Championship Roster

You might notice that the US roster has 20 players, while Canada has 23. I'm not quite sure why that is (the both rosters come from the respective website of their federations), but even taking out any three players for Canada hardly makes a dent in the stark contrast between the two sides. Canada's U-17 team is almost exclusively MLS academy-based players. The US team is mostly the opposite, with a few players who are both Bradenton players and attached to an MLS academy.

On the field, it's difficult to know quite what kind of impact the difference in approach is having. As mentioned above, the US is mostly underwhelming in Jamaica while Canada impresses. Reports are that the Canadians are playing an attractive possession game while the Americans hoof and chase, relying, as US teams tend to, on athleticism. But the US failing to play pretty soccer probably has little to do with how many of the American players come from MLS academies; mostly, that's just where we are as a country, particularly at the youngest levels of the international program. 

This isn't a simple matter of Canada being ahead of the curve while the US lags behind, though it appears Canada is benefiting from the fruits of pro academy labor. An easy explanation is that familiarity is serving Canada well; having so many players from so few academies means many of them obviously know each other and have played with each other. That shows up on the field where the understanding between players manifests itself in better passing.

In relation to their U-17 performance in Jamaica, the Canadian success built on this influx of MLS academy players has been termed to me by a Canadian soccer observer as "dumb luck."  Canada has greater reason to lean on the professional academies, and in shorter order than the US because their resources are much more limited. The CSA is notoriously dysfunctional, meaning it has little control/impact on how young players are taught at amateur clubs. Meanwhile, the US has a development academy structure (from which there are 13 players on the US roster, something the Federation makes sure to point out) and a residential academy in Florida they're not ready to marginalize. On one hand, it's understandable that US Soccer is continuing to rely on its own structure. On the other, professional academies will only increase in influence and production, making it disquieting that so few players from them feature with the US U-17s.

Canada has three leading professional academies for a population of 35 million people. The US, if every American MLS club is counted, has 16 for 300 million people. That fact alone makes it difficult to imagine that an American youth national team roster could ever be the almost 75% MLS academy players that the Canadian roster happens to be. The size of this country dictates taking a wider view of player development. Anything else would be irresponsible.

I don't know that we can yet say that US Soccer is "ignoring" MLS academy players (obviously there are a few on the roster, Bradenton attendees or not), or that Canada is proactively integrating theirs in a "better" way. Those judgments may have to wait on more evidence; the most that can be said is that Canada appear to be early adopters, in part because they have no other structure, while the US remains committed to a preexisting program with a decent history of past results.

For the time being, the CONCACAF championships have put the roster makeup differences on display for all to see. If each are able to win a semifinals match tonight (Canada faces Panama at 4 PM ET, the US plays Jamaica at 7 ET), they'll face each other for the regional title.

I imagine some conclusions will be drawn from that match, on both sides of the border.

MLS academies v. US Development Academy program. A false dichotomy or a referendum on current (and future) approach?

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