The Future of Football? Making a case for North America

Thierry Henry New York

Arsenal signed a 15-year-old American recently, while Barcelona snapped up a 10-year-old from the States. Just how is the future of 'soccer' shaping up in the USA and Canada?


The top teams in Europe are always on the lookout for the next generation of superstars with scouting departments working day and night around the globe, trying to unearth the next Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.

It would seem obvious for many teams to be looking towards Spain and Germany, as they have been the nations that have churned out so many gifted youngsters in recent years. South American nations are always great candidates when it comes to producing wonderkids.

However, across the major European leagues, the presence of American and Canadian born players has steadily been growing and it should not be surprising if many more start to make names for themselves.

It would seem conceivable that nations such as China, Russia and other countries from the middle east could be powerhouses in the coming years, considering the amount of money their wealthy citizens currently are throwing at the game.

Russia have already established themselves as a force on the international scene, but the youth set-ups in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates haven't received quite the same financial input as the first-team projects at Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain amongst others.

Look across the Atlantic however, and we find two countries that are at the top of the world rankings in many other sports, but for some reason seem to have lagged behind in the football world.

The North American sporting market has been dominated by professional basketball, baseball, American football and ice hockey leagues throughout the previous generations.

Take a quick glance at current salaries paid to the players in each of these leagues and you'll find that the athletes are on par with, if not exceeding the wages that most footballers in Europe earn. Furthermore, the summer and winter Olympics have been won by both the USA and Canada respectively in the last three years.

This is evidence enough that the infrastructure for sport as an entertainment business, the financial backing and the production of world-class athletes are present across the pond. But, and a big but at that, the traditional culture of Americans and Canadians has never really included football and doesn't have the same historical value as it does in Europe and South America.

This is probably the main reason why Canada, with all due respect, is an irrelevant quantity on the international scene, while the USA has only recently begun to establish itself as a genuinely competitive team.

To take an optimistic view though, recent studies have shown that football, or soccer, is now the second most popular sport amongst youth in the United States and the number one most played organized sport in Canada. The world's game has clearly caught up with North America, and the novel popularity plus changes in the youth programs could lead to a wave of superstars of American and Canadian nationality.

One such change is the adoption of the academy system used by most European clubs. Major League Soccer, the biggest professional soccer league in North America and home to stars like Thierry Henry and formerly David Beckham, has based its supply of youngsters on the University/College athletic system, much like Basketball and American Football.

This developmental system has had some success, with players such as Maurice Edu (Rangers, Stoke) and Clint Dempsey (Fulham, Tottenham) drafted into the MLS.

This success and the development of players is limited though, as much of the athletes' time is dedicated to academic studies as well as football. This is definitely a commendable approach because academia should never be disregarded, however the integration of youth academies and teams will enable talented youngsters to dedicate all their resources into chasing their football dreams.

All MLS teams now have an established academy, enabling their trainees to practice full time under the watchful eye of professional coaches.

It will obviously take time for these newly founded youth institutions to grow into production lines that can be talked about in the same breath as La Masia or the Ajax Youth Academy. But having had experience playing against both MLS and Premier League academy teams, I can tell you that the standard of play at the highest youth levels is surprisingly even.

Only a couple of years ago, I played a Chicago-based team who featured a central defender by the name of Perry Kitchen, who is now a first-team fixture for DC United of the MLS, with an international and potentially European club future ahead of him. Also, the ratio of academy products now a part of the first-team squads in the MLS is rivaling the quantity of many European teams, proof that North America is catching up.

With a sophisticated and practical approach to grassroots football being implemented, both Canada and the USA will have a chance to harness the potential that has long been present.

You only have to look towards the likes of Owen Hargreaves, Jonathan de Guzman, Asmir Begovic and Junior Hoilett to see that Canada has produced talented players, despite none of them deciding to play for the country in which they grew up. Other players from North America like Jermaine Jones and Atiba Hutchinson currently ply their trade for top European sides Schalke and PSV Eindhoven respectively.

If you dig even further, leading clubs have recently moved to sign young American players to their own academy's: 15 year old Gedion Zelalem has been signed by Arsenal and 10 year old Ben Lederman signed for Barcelona recently. There is certainly no guarantee that these particular youngsters will become superstars, but the fact that some of the wealthiest and most successful football clubs in the world are now looking towards North America for talent is a strong indication that there is a considerable talent pool yet to be fully discovered.

In recent years, Europe's top clubs have made an effort to grow the game in North America and gain followers in an untapped market via summer tours. In future years, expect these same clubs to be looking there for players as well as fans. The newly expanded youth system and MLS league have certainly created a prime infrastructure for future success.

As well, the sheer amount of youth athletes combined with specialized coaching and stronger competition will ensure that many more North American players will be ready to challenge their European and South American counterparts, if not surpass them.

The football world should be ready for an explosion of talent coming from America and Canada in the not too distant future and who knows, maybe they will one day be the players setting the standard for teams all over the world.


image: © structures nyc

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