Where is America's La Masia?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011 | View Comments
- Keith Hickey

So an American kid has joined FC Barcelona's famed youth academy, La Masia. Honestly, that he has done so isn't a story for me. Granted, along with France's Clairefontaine, and the youth system at Ajax (which for me, is the best production line of any club ever), Barcelona is probably the best producer and developer of talent in the world, but there are plenty of talented kids who join youth programs every year, and only a tiny fraction of them become top-level pros. While we would be thrilled if Ben Lederman becomes an American Messi (or even just an American Gai Assulin or Giovanni Dos Santos), it's not really a story until he becomes so.

No, what interests and bothers me is why young Lederman had to go to Spain to find a world-class youth program.

The United States has something like three and a half million amateur youth players, roughly equivalent to the entire population of Uruguay (And we've never produced a Luis Suarez, much less a Diego Forlan). These kids are spread across leagues all over the country, with the Olympic Development Program and various elite youth clubs pulling the best out of the morass of amateur mediocrity.

The USSF's residency academy in Bradenton has seen a number of high-quality youngsters pass through its doors, but it's a mere finishing school, and can hardly be compared to the soccer Hogwarts that produces Barcelona's wizards. The USSF has 40 players in residency for the whole nation. Barcelona has over 300 in a dozen youth teams, all for just one club. The results speak for themselves.

No MLS club has yet created anything like the truly elite systems of Europe. Toronto FC was recently lauded for its new $20 million (Canadian dollars, I believe) training facility and youth center. Barcelona's bill runs well over $8 million (American) per year.

The Arkansas ODP, to pick an example entirely at random, holds training sessions once a month for six months of the year, as well as various camps. Barcelona's young players train for two hours every day after school, and then do gym work. And everything - from room and board to teachers and books to the 56 employees who tend to the kids - is paid for by the club. Players even receive a stipend to provide them with some spending money. That's a far cry from the classist "pay-to-play" system that prevails in this country and excludes a huge number of potential young stars.

Now, MLS has made a number of strides when it comes to identifying potential stars, and the home-grown initiative is making huge strides towards getting talented kids into quality pro environments and onto the field as soon as possible, but we've still got a long way to go before we catch up with the best programs.
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