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ASN Weekly Debate

Why Can't the United States Develop Teenage Stars?

In our weekly Crossfire segment, Noah Davis and Ryan O'Hanlon try to figure out why the progress of teenage soccer prodigies stalls. Not surprisingly, they have some ideas.
BY Noah Davis and Ryan O'Hanlon Posted
May 10, 2013
1:00 PM
Noah Davis: Okay, RyRy. Jozy Altidore scored the game-winner in the Dutch Cup to finish an impressive season. What do you think of his play?

O'Hanlon: I think: 31 goals is a lot of goals. Jozy Altidore is 23. These are promising numbers.

Davis: Thirty-one is a lot of goals in any league, even a relatively garbage one like the Dutch first division. And, as we've noted here before, Altidore has gotten better at doing other things like holding the ball up and not having it fly off his chest at about a million miles per hour. Still, 23 somehow sounds old to me. Not in real life, at least I hope not, but in soccer terms. Why did it take him so long to emerge?

O'Hanlon: Can I say: a combination of everything? It's not like his club situation has really ever been that stable, right? He's playing with some pretty good young players in Holland. The team had a lot to play for, too, which probably didn't hurt. And he's clearly gotten better/matured as all humans do as they progress through their 20s.

Davis: Those are facts about him not getting better, not reasons for it. I will grant you that some of the peripherals at AZ worked in his favor, but wouldn't his club situation have been more stable if he was as good now as he was then? Why can the rest of the world produce players who can compete in Europe at 18 or 19 or 20 and the U.S. can't seem to?

O'Hanlon: I don't know. I think that's kind of overblown, to be honest. Obviously, a lot of that gets into the whole How to Improve American Soccer question, but it probably has a lot to do with what goes down at the youth level. Still, Pedro didn't get his first cap for Spain until he was a couple months shy of 23, and David Villas first cap didn't come until he was Jozy's age. it's not the same thing, sure, but it's not so dissimilar. I think we make way too big of a deal about guys not doing enough in their early 20s.

Davis: My issue is not so much the age but the absence of improvement. It seems like so many promising young players (Altidore, Juan Agudelo, Freddy Adu) just sort of stop improving around 18. Some of them find their way back, others don't. And it's annoying. Plus, you don't think it's a little concerning that the last American ToC (Teen of Consequence) to succeed on the world stage was Landon Donovan?

O'Hanlon: Isn't that a failing on American Soccer's part, though? There's no apparatus for them to get world-class training and to be brought along slowly. Did Altidore, Agudelo, or Adu get anything—outside of exposure—from playing in MLS at such a young age? I'd say "no," not in the terms of this conversation, at least. So, it's a different way of succeeding, I think. To measure it and expect it to be a perfect, gradual, always-progressing improvement is unfair to the players.

Davis: Yes and no. At some level, an individual player's development comes down to how much that individual player wants to get better, right? But here's where U.S. Soccer comes in: I don't think there's enough top-level talent, which means the best players don't have to push themselves. Then when they run into a difficult spot, they don't know what to do. The options are work ridiculously hard or not. Either way, they are pro athletes getting paid very well. I would choose the latter, too.

O'Hanlon: I agree. It's a really unique situation. And I can probably count the number of totally-self-motivating-but-also-super-talented athletes on one finger. It'll be interesting, then, to see how all the u-17 guys coming through various European youth academies turn out, don't you think? It's really difficult for me to say that Freddy Adu wouldn't have been way better served by coming up through the [name your elite European club] system rather than playing in MLS as a 14 year old.

Davis: And, to its credit, US Soccer will tell you as much. Tony Lapore, the U-15 coach, said he'd rather have players go to European and South America now. But he hopes that will change in five years. Still, the count of totally-self-motivating-but-also-super-talented soccer players in the last decade is zero, right? That's pretty bad.

O'Hanlon: Motivation will only get you so far, though, right? There are certain things you learn and pick up and get better at by playing with better players and playing in games. Yet, you can't just make that happen, so it's a vicious cycle I guess.

Davis: So Donovan was just a magical case of luck and skill?

O'Hanlon: I think he was a unique case, no? I mean, we've talked about how he's such a unique personality for an athlete. To try to replicate whatever made him what he was (and remember, a lot of people hated him when he was 23), just seems weird to me.

Davis: What about Damarcus Beasley, who was also on that team and also made an impact when he was in his teens? (And Donovan did a lot of relatively unlikable things when he was in his early 20s, but few of them were directly related to his play.)

O'Hanlon: I'm not sure I agree. People were calling him a failure because of what happened/would soon happen with Leverkusen. And Beasley was great until he was 25, then he basically plummeted. Wouldn't we rather the success to come later than that?

Davis: He won two MLS Cups and was U.S. Soccer Player of the Year three times before he was 23. Anyone who said he was a failure is a moron, but yes, they were. As for Beasley and age, I don't care when success comes, I would just like it to come. And I don't think we've seen that many player hit the high he did.

O'Hanlon: That's fair. And well, that brings us back to Altidore, then, who scored 31 goals in the same league Beasley played in. Thirty-one goals is a shitload of goals. That's a pretty high high, and he seems poised to "take the next step," which Beasley, for whatever reason, never did.

Davis: Let's hope so.

Noah Davis and Ryan O'Hanlon do this every week. Sometimes there is intelligence.

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