The U.S. has one of the largest soccer player pools in the world. It's a sleeping giant in the soccer world, yet has been unable to produce the consistent quality needed to become a world cup champion contender.
If the U.S. wants to be world champions in soccer, it has to accomplish one of two things, if not both. First thing is to improve the level of play in Major League Soccer (MLS) to that of the top European leagues. The second is to find a way to infiltrate the European leagues with more U.S. players. It will not be able to go all the way and win a world cup until this happens. The level of competition has to be raised across the board in the US in order to compete with the best soccer nations around the globe.
For the immediate future, the answer for the U.S. national team is to get more of their players into European leagues. In turn, this will slow down the development of the MLS. I happen to believe that the MLS will one day be one of the top leagues in the world. It is an American trait to strive to be the best at everything, and that inherent culture to be the best will eventually work for MLS. For the time being, it has to be the European leagues that get our players ready for world-class international competition. Only the players that can access a European passport or have played for the US national team on a regular basis can get work permits to play in the European leagues; however, in order to win a world cup, the U.S. has to start producing world-class players. At this moment, our players playing in Europe is the only way to maximize their potential.
Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey are prime examples. Both of these U.S. National Team players perform week in and week out in the English Premier League in Europe. Since playing in Europe, both of these players have raised their abilities. If the U.S. team is going to be successful, it's critical for these players to perform at their best this World Cup.
The player development system in the U.S. is built around college. This is the only country in the world that is structured this way. Quietly, a lot of MLS coaches will tell you that the Premier Development League (PDL) is vitally important in the development of the American player, and that colleges do not prepare the players adequately. While most of our best talent is playing in college and the PDL between the ages of 18 to 22, other top nations have their best talent signed at the professional clubs in Europe as early as 14 years old. I am not suggesting that we need to send our best away at 14; however, without a top class major league filled with some of the best players in the world, our best players will never reach their full potential. This is why I believe we must continue to send our players to Europe, and are a long way off from producing a pool of world class players at the international level; consequently, we will not have the ability to win a world cup for a long time to come.
Our best players will advance to the MLS and probably never get the chance to play in the top European leagues; there are far too few that can access that opportunity. This is very unfortunate because as a nation we produce world-class athletes in almost every other sport. In soccer, we produce great but not world class players.
Anton Peterlin, for example, formerly of the Ventura County Fusion in the PDL league, signed with Everton of the English premier league after a 10-day trial with them in May 2009. He was able to secure a European passport because his parents were born in Denmark. Peterlin may or may not turn out to be an impact at the international level in the future. He turned down the opportunity to sign for the Chicago Fire and San Jose Earthquakes of the MLS to sign for Everton in the English Premier League. If Peterlin were ever to become successful at Everton and maintain a regular 1st team spot, he would be far better prepared for the US national team than a MLS player. The fact remains that he is one of the few that has the opportunity to develop in one of the best clubs in the world. It would be great to be able to get more players into that situation. It would enable us to groom more players that could have an impact at the international level. For now, it's just our national team players that can obtain the work permits.
Grant Guthrie is an example of a Jesters player who has incredible technical ability, but was unable to get into the US national team system as a youth. After college, Guthrie had stints with Serie B and C clubs in Italy, but was unable to obtain a work-visa to stay on with any club. His hope would have been to work his way into Serie A, which is the top league in Italy. Instead Grant has the opportunity to excel with the Jesters and hope to get picked up by a MLS team.
As I mentioned earlier, it is extremely important that we raise the overall level of our players in the U.S. in order to compete against the national powerhouses. Until our domestic major league is able to compete as a world power, the only way for our top U.S. national team players to be able to compete against the best is by playing overseas with and against the worlds top players.
Having said all of this, credit has to be given to U.S. soccer for the rapid growth and success they have achieved in the last 20 years on the international stage. Even though we now have a growing soccer fan base in America that wants to see their country win a World Cup, a plan must be laid out to at least become a contender for a world cup championship. That is not the case at the moment. We need to continue to encourage and send our full national team players to Europe, while we wait for our domestic league to become an elite world league. We will probably have to keep losing the Grant Guthrie's from the system until they can find other routes to maximize their potential.