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American players increasingly explore opportunities with, draw interest from, European clubs
 
FROM: TOPDRAWER SOCCER

”That’s how they do it in Europe.”
 
It has to be one of the most repeated phrases in elite youth soccer circles. The European professional model, or at least a veiled understanding of it, tends to be the de facto example and goal for most American clubs and other developmental endeavors.
 
And not surprisingly so. Between a wonderful international tradition, the most successful and lucrative professional leagues, and a huge influx of coaches from the UEFA countries, the most ambitious and serious American youth players are bound to entertain visions of European grandeur when contemplating their soccer future.
More importantly, with our own national developmental structure still relatively immature, it only makes sense for the more serious American youth player to hope for something more akin to what his European counterpart experiences at a young age.
 
Before I continue, let me point out in deference to our South American friends and Soccer America’s Paul Gardner, I understand there is a strong professional system there as well, and that is has done quite well in developing players. I focus on Europe because of the professional end result (the best South American players end up going there as well) and because it is a milder cultural adjustment for most Americans. Whatever the basic reasons, most American soccer players have their eyes set on Europe, not South America).
 
While much energy and thought are being expended in efforts to reform the American system, individual families often are in a default mode of “that’s great, but it won’t happen while our child is playing youth soccer.” While most subsequently try to make the best of the circumstances around them (and for many, this ends up being quite good), others are not content to wait. There is an increasing interest in players as young as 12 going overseas to train, and it’s not as impossible as you might think.
 
Zac Steinberger is one such player. The 12-year old Southern Californian plays with Irvine Strikers, one of the top clubs in the country. He is a regular kid who enjoys horsing around with friends, going to school and being with his family, but he is very motivated when it comes to being as good as he can be, and he’s quite good.
”I want to be a professional,” Zac says plainly. “And I want to do the things that will help me get there.”
 
Zac’s mother Pam has made it a point to learn about what those things are. Through an intensive bit of research, including talking to top coaches and reading a number of books, she sees the European model of training as a key to giving her son a better chance of realizing his dream. While the family is very happy with the training program available with their club, they are very interested in seeking out additional opportunities for Zac to train overseas, either temporarily or permanently.
The important thing to remember here is that Zac is just one example. Increasingly, families are willing to take some extraordinary steps for players of his age to get the best training opportunity available.
 
This is not entirely new. Players like John O’Brien, Jovan Kirovski and Landon Donovan were quite the trailblazers in leaving the U.S. as teenagers to begin their professional careers in Europe. Others have done the same with less fanfare, but FIFA rules now prohibit a player from turning professional in a country other than his own until he is 18 years old. A player can however, enroll with a club’s youth academy and receive the benefits of a full-time training program.
 
What is the difference?
 
Advocates of the European model will cite four main things:
 
1. Professional involvement: Perhaps the biggest thing is a greater sense of being a part of a professional club. Thomas Rongen, head coach at the new Chivas USA franchise in Major League Soccer, and a veteran of the vaunted Ajax youth system in his Dutch homeland, said the sense of continuity and purpose in a true club youth setup is largely missing here, and is hard to replace.
 
”Our training at the grass roots level is a bit hit and miss, without a good philosophy as they would have with Ajax or Chivas,” Rongen said. “It’s great to see how players develop underneath a clear method of coaching, and a system of play. At a professional club it’s the same from U8 to the professional level At the very early stages the players are taught how to deal with the ball first and foremost and then later formed in systems within positions to enhance their strengths. The coaches coach along a certain line of methodology. It’s something we would love to implement for young players (at Chivas USA).”
 
With American professional teams taking only a cursory interest in youth development thus far, this kind of uniformity is difficult to come up with in the U.S. Rongen notes that some of the larger clubs in the country are trying to emulate this in their own programs. But it should also be noted that without top-level professional involvement, such programs still have to deal with the tyranny of the urgent, including finances driven by parents who are mainly interested in winning. This makes the youth scene very competitive, but often hurts the development of the most gifted players.
 
2. Qualitative difference: It would be incorrect and unfair to try and make a blanket statement about the training being better in one place than another. Clearly the U.S. is producing an increasingly strong cadre of coaches (and national coaching acumen and education effort will be the subjects of a future article in this series), and there are some good players being produced. But coach after coach on both sides of the pond continue to mention how early our top club teams are working on match-play/tactics, as well as playing a huge number of games in a year. In comparison, the European model places a heavy emphasis early on technical development and tries to keep the match schedule to once per week.
 
John Fisher works with very good players in the Philadelphia area and has formed a company, Youth Professional Training, dedicated to granting top U.S. players the opportunity to train under the guidance of top European academy professionals. Fisher notes that spending training time preparing players to win matches is just not done at the younger ages. ”They will bring a promising player in at 9 or 10 and he might spend his entire youth career with that club, and they don’t care if they win a single game. The only thing they care about is if a kid has they tools they need so they can sign him to a contract,” Fisher said. “Here in America it’s the exact opposite. Unfortunately that dictates what is done in training and team selection, and the more gifted technical kids often get ignored for those who hit harder and run faster.”
 
Jerome de Bontin is a board member at AS Monaco, runners-up in last season’s UEFA Champions League. de Bontin lives in the U.S. and has a relationship with top American youth club Chicago Magic. He has helped arrange for trials for young American players and recalls taking a few top youngsters overseas last year. What he saw when the players, including current and former Bradenton residency participants, took part in training with their French counterparts, was an eye-opener.
 
”In the drill session, the U.S. kids were so far behind it was embarrassing. In standard foot drills where the ball had to stay in the air, well the Monaco kids could do them with their eyes closed and our boys could not do it,” de Bontin said. “In Europe they really push skill work early on. Then when we put our boys in a game, their competitivenss and stamina allowed them to look very competitive and in many instances better than the playera they were with. It was striking how in a competitive environment, the U.S. kids were as good as their counterparts, but in the technical work, they were way behind. What I keep saying is, put more time in with u11, u12 and u13 players on technique and keep everything else the same. “
 
3. Quantitative Difference:
Garrett Gunther is a recently-turned 16-year old from Long Beach who is playing this year on the Racing Genk U17 team in Belgium. Gunther shared that the top-flight club’s youth program features training every afternoon from Monday through Thursday, plus midday training Tuesday and Thursday. Fridays and Sundays are off, with Saturdays reserved for matchdays, but the 6 training sessions per week, for one match, is a ratio much better than the typical American youth club, which trains two or perhaps three times a week (and the American landscape is full of horror stories for coaches who tried to convince parents to train three times a week rather than two).
 
4. Cultural immersion
Ask any top player or coach who has spent time overseas and they will all comment about the ability to totally lose oneself in the soccer atmosphere. Top youth players are always encouraged to watch the best professionals and in Europe, it’s as easy as turning around. It continues to disappoint how few among even the top layer of American players pay much of any attention to the best practitioners of the craft they state they wish to pursue.
How do you get there?
 
For those convinced of the benefit of putting young players in such an environment, the real challenge is to find an opportunity to get there. While any number of entities will take groups of players to play matches overseas (the benefit of these, depending on who is doing it, ranges from a pretty good experience to a pretty big ripoff), securing an opportunity for a full-time enrollment into a professional club’s academy is more of a challenge.
 
Even John Fisher, whose YPT organization specializes in helping top players explore this opportunity, admits the path to Europe is uphill.
”The first thing I tell people is that it’s not easy. There are no guarantees whatsoever,” he said. “I’m very selective with the players we take overseas. I’ve been lucky to make good contacts and if I don’t take the right players, that door won’t be opened again.”

 
Fisher also puts on a summer residency camp for players aged 11 to 16, where coaches of top academies such as Manchester United, Inter Milan and Bayern Munich, send coaches to conduct a European-style training regimen. American coaches are also invited to observe, and Fisher networks with other coaches on these methods. Fisher is dedicated to improving the understanding and ability of the American coaching cadre, but recognizes that this is not the primary goal for the European clubs. ”Part of the reason why they are sending coaches over is they know there are players over here,” he said. “Over there, if a 12-year old kid is the next big thing, every club knows who they are. Every club tries to get you. They look across the Atlantic and they know our country is exploding, so they are more than willing to work with an entire group of very good players. “
 
Young American players beginning to turn heads
 
Jerome de Bontin said the Europeans are indeed beginning to see the U.S. as a major source of playing talent. When the European transfer market went through major deflation a couple of years ago, clubs had to regroup and rethink their player development processes. One of the primary steps was to reinvigorate the academy setup. While English clubs are greatly handicapped in pursuing U.S. players due to tough work permit restrictions, clubs from most continental European nations are not.
”Up to the point they join MLS, all those (American) players are free. There’s no money to be paid to Chicago Magic or whatever club starts to develop them,” he said. “If I get them from anywhere else I have to pay some money.”
 
de Bontin said while not every European professional is convinced about the U.S. market, the evolution is inevitable. ”It’s not heavy at this point, Europe still suffers from condescending attitude about America,’ he said. “But whether they are skeptical or not is irrelevant. The truth is it is happening, and there are twice as many Americans playing there now as were five years ago. “
 
For Surf SC player Garrett Gunther, the ticket overseas came somewhat unexpectedly. He played on an independent all-star team on European trips for three summers in a row. When a top youth coach from Belgium identified him as one of the players on the team that he believed were of sufficient caliber to play with a professional youth side, Gunther’s family followed up by arranging a visit to a Belgian club last spring. This resulted in a brief trial with Genk during which the forward scored a pair of goals in a training match against Dutch side PSV Eindhoven and was offered a slot in the club’s academy for the following year (with the family being given all of 48 hours to decide).
 
Having arranged to attend a highly-regarded school through an exchange student program in order to protect college eligibity, Gunther was enrolled and is currently the U17 team’s leading scorer despite playing up a year. He has done well in school despite having to learn Flemish on the run, and is currently considering an invitation to come back to the club for a 2nd year.
”Actually the adjustment has been pretty easy for me. The club has been very helpful to me and the kids are really easy to get along with,” he said. “The hardest part is proving to them you can play, to get their trust so they’ll give you the ball. At first they weren’t sure what I could do, but after a while of just playing, I gained their trust.”
 
While the lure of continued professional development has an obvious appeal for such a young man, missing family, friends and his home culture are just as obviously appeals the other way. For even younger players, such as Zac Steinbarger, it would be expected for parents to be on hand if they are to enter a full-time setup.
 
Fisher points out that the traveling group he takes to Europe, while hopefully having a meaningful experience, shouldn’t mistake the benefit for that received via full-time enrollment. ”When we take a kid on the European tour, 10 days in Europe are not going to solve his problems, “ Fisher said. “What it can do at the least however, is give him an idea of what a European player his age goes through every day of year to try and make it at the professional level.”
 
And in the next few years we will get an idea of how any number of top American young players like Zac Steinbarger and Garrett Gunther can try to make it “the way they do it in Europe.”


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