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The Geography of American Player Development: a look at where talent originates

The United States is a huge country both geographically and in population. Its potential as a soccer nation is limitless but harnessing that talent has been elusive. Through exhaustive research, ASN’s Jamie Hill looks at which areas of the country are productive and which underperform.

BY Jamie Hill Posted
February 21, 2019
11:00 AM
IF ALL ROADS lead to Rome, all American soccer conversations eventually lead to a debate around the challenges of player development. American youth development has undeniably progressed since the ramshackle days of the 1980s, but even if American soccer fans, media, and executives struggle to reach consensus on what needs to be done, everybody agrees that US soccer is far from its maximum potential.

The United States is a vast country that comprises hundreds of cities, each with their own youth soccer development ecosystem. Some are large cities with a heavyweight MLS academy close at hand. Others are small cities where the path to professional soccer is unclear and uncertain. Each is a unique combination of factors: size, weather, cultural heritage, youth club system, economic status, soccer traditions.

In the wake of modern American soccer’s nadir, the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, it seemed a sensible time to dive deep into the weeds and analyze the state of the modern American player pool. Simply put, what are the most fertile breeding grounds for soccer professionals in the United States? By looking closely at which areas are producing the most pros, it is possible to identify those cities whose youth soccer infrastructure excelling and those cities that are struggling in that regard.

The data used in this analysis was assembled in the following fashion:

• All active professionals as of fall 2018, which means MLS and USL players are classified with their 2018 clubs and foreign-based players are classified with their club in the fall of the 2018-19 season.
• Players are organized by metropolitan area of origin, as defined by the US Census. In a few cases where players came from rural areas, they are organized by micropolitan area, also defined by the US Census.
• The metropolitan area of origin is based on where a player grew up, not where he was born
• All players who grew up in a metropolitan area are counted, even if they play for another country or don’t have US citizenship. Likewise, American players who developed abroad were excluded from this analysis.

The Big Metropolitan Areas (>2.5m people)

Most players come from where one might expect: the largest cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, DC, and Dallas lead the way. This insight is as unsurprising as it is uninstructive. When measured by the ratio of pro players produced to metro-wide population, a different picture emerges. Of the 23 metro areas with a population greater than 2,500,000, there is a massive spectrum of productivity.

At the top is Denver, which can lay claim to 24 active pros, including the likes of Ethan Horvath, Roger Espinoza, Dillon Serna, Tesho Akindele, Brendan Hines-Ike, and Shane O’Neill. Only eight cities have produced more pros than Denver despite the fact that Denver is only the 19th largest metro area in the country. Denver’s productivity may be even higher on the women’s side of the game; Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Jaelene Hinkle all call the city home. Denver’s male players have the benefit of a pipeline to MLS and although the Colorado Rapids are not the most hyped academy in MLS by a long shot, Cole Bassett’s surprisingly quick emergence and investments in players like Matt Hundley indicate that there is more to come.

A number of cities clock in just behind Denver. San Diego is home to eternally good weather and an interest in the sport that frequently manifests itself in the form of the highest market TV ratings for national soccer broadcasts. San Diego, however, is the third-largest MSA without a professional soccer team, something that is bound to change sooner or later.

Third on the list is Saint Louis, a city with a proud soccer tradition that produced an outsized portion of legendary American teams such as the 1950 US World Cup squad. Currently, Saint Louis’ contingent is led by Josh Sargent, Tim Ream, Will Bruin, and Joe Willis. (Although he did not spend much time developing in the area, renowned Bosnian striker Vedad Ibisevic also played a few seasons of HS and college soccer in the area.)

Seattle is a city that has climbed up the efficiency rankings. In recent years the metro area has produced players such as DeAndre Yedlin, Jordan Morris, Kelyn Rowe, and Lamar Neagle. The depth of talent from Seattle remains to be seen, but the success of the Seattle Sounders’ youth teams, driven by both local talent and players recruited from around the western US, bodes well for the future.

However, many cities lag behind Denver’s pace. Most notably, Denver has produced pros at a rate more than four times greater than that of Houston, the nation’s biggest underperformer among big metropolitan areas. Houston is a perplexing case, as it seemingly has many components needed for success. It is home to a massive population of close to 7 million people, it has an extremely diverse population including 2.5 million Hispanics alone, and it is home to an MLS club. While the Houston Dynamo have not exactly won accolades for their commitment and success in youth development, non-MLS academies have not produced talent at nearly the same rate as non-MLS cities like San Diego, St. Louis, or Charlotte.

There have been some signs of success, such as Texans SC Houston’s U19 title in the Development Academy. The club’s triumph led to the departure of their two most promising prospects, Chris Richards and Christian Cappis — and notably, they skipped town to FC Dallas rather than switching to the Dynamo. Dallas and Houston are roughly equivalent in size, but are on entirely different tiers in soccer youth development.

While Houston is the most eyebrow-raising laggard, they are not alone. Detroit, Boston, Phoenix, and Miami round out the bottom five. All but Boston lack an MLS team; Boston and Detroit both experience difficult winter weather.

The Mid-Size Metropolitan Areas (1m – 2.5m people) and Small Metropolitan Areas (<1m people)

If the variation among large metropolitan areas is significant, the difference between the top and bottom cities in the mid-size bracket is a yawning chasm. The most productive areas are Kansas City, Sacramento, Las Vegas, and Raleigh, whose population/pros ratio is under 200,000. On the bottom of the rankings, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Hartford, and Nashville have a ratio of over 1,000,000. One city, Memphis, has produced zero active professionals. The well is particularly dry in Tennessee, which is represented by five players in this analysis, four of whom are from eastern Tennessee (Knoxville & Johnson City).

Despite the presence of an increasingly active academy, San Jose has not been especially productive. Most of the Bay Area’s professionals hail from the East Bay rather than the South Bay or San Francisco itself.

A major question for these markets is the pathway to the professional ranks. A handful of metro areas of this size have MLS teams, but most will never be in contention for a first division club. One way this problem could be solved is if USL clubs seriously engaged with youth development, but the size of that financial commitment and the lack of clear return on investment (MLS clubs rarely pay transfer fees to USL) make that, at best, a medium-term hope.

In small metropolitan areas, it’s hard to draw hard and fast conclusions because the sample size is small. The vast majority of small metropolitan areas have produced between 0-2 professional players. As one might suspect, there are regions that stand out in positive and negative ways.

Four cities stand out as unusually productive in this category:

• Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, CA
• Santa Rosa, CA
• Lancaster, PA
• Harrisburg, PA

These cities aren’t just cranking out USL players: there is both quantity and quality coming from these regions. Two modestly-sized cities in central Pennsylvania have collectively produced three players currently in the national team pool (Christian Pulisic, Russell Canouse, and Keegan Rosenberry) as well as other notable players such as Zarek Valentin and the recently-retired Andrew Wenger.

Meanwhile, Santa Rosa has produced top-level youth national team players like Jonathan Gonzalez and Brady Scott. The Santa Barbara/Santa Maria area has produced YNTers such as Justin Vom Steeg and John Requejo. Their number doesn’t include Julian Araujo, a top-level defensive prospect likely to join the professional ranks soon.

A Nexus of Coaching and Culture

What makes the top metro areas productive? Why have two small cities in central Pennsylvania produced a half a dozen players apiece when many similarly-sized or larger cities have produced no players at all? Russell Canouse points to the presence of a strong local youth club and a strong local culture: “PA Classics has done a great job developing talent in that area. But guys also come from good families where normally they are hard-working people - and that shows normally in their play and that shows in how the develop from young professionals into professionals. It's really neat actually to see the number of players come out of that area and make it professionally.”

There’s a suggestion that once there is an uptick in the number of good youth players in a region, the ability to compete against and compare oneself to other top players offers many benefits. Nick Taitague, who grew up playing against Chris Durkin in Richmond, told ASN: “We always used to train together. We didn't play for the same club but we were always around each other. We played 3 vs. 3 together and we played futsal together. We've known each other. It's great to see where he's at. He's always had it. I told him that when he was 12 or 14 years old and he wasn't getting called into the national team.”

Certainly, there are clear historical examples of the confluence of population density, immigrant culture, and coaching coming together to generate remarkable results. In New Jersey in the late 1980s and early 1990s, St. Benedict’s in New Jersey fielded a team with both Claudio Reyna and Gregg Berhalter (with Tab Ramos coming before them at Benedicts) — not exactly your average high school soccer squad.

But the strength of the St. Benedicts program reflected the overall talent boom in New Jersey at a time before MLS existed. During this period, the state of 8 million people was consistently producing players who would go on to play at high levels. This points to the importance of having a strong culture for the sport mixed with international competition spread out over a small geographic area.

Former St. Benedict’s coach Rick Jacobs characterized the nexus of culture and talent in the Garden State: “Sometimes stuff happens when adults, programs, kids and families take risks are in the same area at the same time…A place like New Jersey and the Newark area has always gotten tremendous amount immigrants from all over. [John] Harkes was Scottish, [Tony] Meola was Italian, Tab [Ramos] is Uruguayan, Claudio [Reyna] is Argentinian and Portuguese.”

Peter Vermes was another USMNT player who emerged from New Jersey at this time and he was followed soon after by Richie Williams and Tim Howard. Top coaches such as former national team manager Bob Bradley and U.S. U-23 coach Glenn “Mooch” Myernick both grew up coaching in New Jersey and former U.S. national team coach Manny Schellscheidt immigrated to the United States in New Jersey where he started a legendary coaching career. On the women’s side, elite USWNT players like Carli Lloyd, Tobin Heath, and Heather O’Reilly all came out of New Jersey inside the span of just a few years.

If every part of the country were as productive as northern New Jersey during the 1980s proportionate to its size, the overall level of talent in the US would be sky-high.

Regional Pitfalls

Certain regions of the country have seen their fields lie fallow. It is not surprising to see minimal returns from sparsely populated places like northern New England, the upper Great Plains, and certain areas of the Mountain West. These areas will never have the highest potential due to low population and poor weather. Setting aside individual cities, the overall region with the greatest room for growth is the Deep South.

While Atlanta is an above-average producer, states like Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Arkansas are very much on the opposite side of the ledger. There are some signs of life in some of those places: Alabama may only have three players in this analysis, but two of them are top U20 prospects Chris Richards and Brandon Servania. Over the winter a fourth, J.J. Williams, signed a Generation Adidas contract giving Alabama a sudden 300% small-sample-size boost in numbers over a calendar year. Meanwhile, Arkansas regained representation in the pro ranks when Thomas Roberts signed with FC Dallas. Whether the emergence of a handful of top-level prospects is foreshadowing a larger rate of production from the Deep South remains to be seen.

Urban & Suburban Soccer & “Slipping Through the Cracks”

An outright majority of Americans live in a suburban environment, but 98 million Americans (31% of the population) live in urban counties. These urban counties are badly underrepresented in the professional ranks. The New York metro area, which is represented in this analysis by 93 players, is a typical example. The vast majority of players hail from northern New Jersey, Long Island, or Westchester. Only a few, such as Manhattan’s Alex Muyl, actually grew up in the city.

The reasons for this are complex. The population of urban counties tracks more closely with the demographics that US youth development has typically struggled to connect with and provide opportunities for: higher poverty, higher populations of people of color. Cities often lack sufficient space to play. This underserved population is an excellent opportunity for development-focused MLS academies. Indeed, some MLS clubs have begun funding the construction of urban fields. This winter, both NYRB and NYCFC signed homegrown players from the Bronx and Brooklyn respectively.

A Virtuous Cycle for Development, Travel, and Costs

In American youth development, there is a constant tension between the desire to provide the highest level of competition possible and the desire to reduce costs for families. The United States is a geographically vast country. England is slightly smaller than Alabama. Germany is only twice the size of Missouri. The Netherlands is half the size of West Virginia.

As long as most American metropolitan areas cannot produce many soccer players of sufficient quality, there will be significant pressure to create elite youth leagues with a massive geographic footprint in order to sustain a high level of play. That inevitably leads to extensive travel for youth players and families, which is expensive and can induce psychological and emotional burnout. The Development Academy already requires extensive travel.

If a potential breakaway MLS youth league ever comes to fruition, elite young players will be logging mileage that would render even hardened European professionals aghast. When you look at the previously mentioned New Jersey phenomenon in the 1980's and 1990's, it highlights that a key to good development is having strong pockets within the country that contained over a small geographic area. This can lead to better access competition and a positive culture for the sport. The plan for MLS clubs to remove their youth teams from the DA and create a league spread out over the entire country seems to run counter to what works. 

The only way to reduce travel costs and emotional burnout without sacrificing the quality of play in youth leagues is for each and every metropolitan area to produce good players at a higher rate. The disparity in production across American cities suggests that there is plenty that can be done to improve youth development in most metropolitan areas. There is also little reason why even top performers like Denver and Kansas City cannot continue to improve. Beginning to understand the catalysts for and obstacles to success across the map so that best practices can spread more quickly is the first step.

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