Why Can't the U.S. Build a Soccer Star - WSJ.com
Funny thing about the emergence of Chicharito for Manchester United and Mexico. Somehow the presence of one exceptional forward has given everyone the impression that the entire US system of player development is broken because, as the above article says, we haven't developed a superstar (which I'm pretty sure is code for dominant goal-scoring forward). The implication is also that Mexico has it all figured out now that they've developed Hernandez and he is starting for one of the top few clubs in the world at a young age. Here's the thing, if you look around the world, no one seems to have figured out the secret to regularly producing exceptional goal-scoring talent. The implication seems to be that there is an assembly line of Chicharito clones ready to invade the football world while the US is turning out players who are barely good enough for MLS. The evidence just doesn't point to this being the case.
1. Our Chicharito is Playing for Italy
If Guiseppi Rossi had decided to play for the USA instead of Italy, he'd be our answer to Chicharito, a prolific forward being courted by the best clubs in the world. He didn't make that decision but if he had, are we even having this conversation? If you add in players like Hangeland and Subotic who also grew up in the States and have gone on to excellent careers for other countries, the argument gets even weaker.
2. Better Depth
Outside of Hernandez, I'd argue that the US has produced more talent for the top European leagues than Mexico has. Friedel, Keller, Howard, McBride, Dempsey, Reyna, Harkes, Lalas, Holden, Churendolo, etc. have created a tradition of high quality American exports that Mexico can't match for quantity of quality beyond Chicharito and Marquez. The "next wave" of players like Guardado, dos Santos, Castillo, etc. haven't been able to make the grade overseas despite being good enough to dominate in CONCACAF play and the Mexican league.
The production of high quality, international star forwards is a spotty thing. The fact that tiny Belgium may have two young ones on their hands while a bigger country like France has struggled since Henry, Anelka, et al have passed their prime. The fact that the author of the linked article references one exceptional forward from a bunch of emerging or smaller soccer nations proves the point. They haven't cracked some code, they've just gotten that one lucky confluence of skill, opportunity, and athletic talent all coming together in the right package. We've only REALLY been trying to develop soccer stars for a generation or two. Sometimes the luck of the draw works in your favor and sometimes it doesn't.
4. Best Athletes
Lets not dismiss the "our best athletes" don't play soccer theory just because the best soccer player in the world is 5'7". There are plenty of exceptional athletes of that stature who play baseball (usually as middle infielders) or basketball (as undersized point guards - Mugsy Boges anyone? Spud Webb?). I'd imagine we're just getting to the point that those with extremely high end athletic talent (and I mean the entire package - physical capability and the mental side) consider soccer a reasonable alternative to more traditional sporting pursuits like football, basketball, and baseball. The fact that we know that things are changing doesn't mean that the same environment applied to players of Chicharito's generation who are at the early stages of their professional careers. The real question is whether the system (and all of the alternative routes to stardom) is serving the young players of TODAY. By and large there isn't much that we can likely to do change the fortunes of anyone 18 years and older. It is also worth noting that the "Best Soccer Player in the World" was mostly trained in a country other than his own from a pretty early age.
I'm not saying that the US is doing a great job of player development or that there aren't lots of places we could improve. What I am saying is that the fact that Mexico has one really good forward doesn't mean that we've suddenly fallen horribly behind our biggest rival (or anyone else) in player development. It just means that this happens to be their turn to have an exceptional player on the world stage. Remember, we could be equally fortunate if we did a better job of selling the USMNT program to Rossi, Hangeland, and Subotic.
My guess is that two things will rapidly improve the ability of the US to produce extremely high quality players - MLS acdemies, and the improving reputation of American soccer.
MLS academies present the best opportunity. Clubs will understand that it is in their best interest to develop inexpensive talent over the long term rather than push youth players to win individual matches. With local options that will likely do a better job of placating parents about educational quality and staying closer to home, combined with a stronger motivation to develop talent as opposed to win matches, MLS academies will increase the volume of high quality player development as compared to the high school/regional club/college system (too focused on winning and not intensive enough) or the US development program (not big enough). Indeed, players like Juan Agedulo and Andy Najar highlight the impact that MLS academies are already having on club and national teams.
The other best option will be players, like Messi or Rossi, leaving their native country to train at the best places in the world (like Barca) and then coming home to represent the US. And that will only happen when US soccer is seen on par with the more established soccer-playing nations. Maybe we'll never compete with Italy or Argentina for a world-class player's allegiances, but the US needs to be in the mix with the next tier of nations.