I get annoyed when I hear fans of the US Soccer program state that we need to put more young players in the English Premier League. Yes, we need to put more players in Europe, but no we do not have to put more young, developiong players in the Premier League. Take the list of players who have gone to Premier League clubs from the US at a young age: Jovan Kirovski, John Thorrington, Frank Simek, Zac Whitebread ,Kenny Cooper, and Jonathan Spector and contrast that with the list of players who have gone to Holland or Germany at a young age: John O’Brien, Gregg Berhalter, DaMarcus Beasley, Cory Gibbs, Steve Cherundolo, Chad Deering, and Michael Bradley. It has been accurately pointed out to me in defense of English Football that some players who showed raw potential in South American have dramatically improved once getting to England: That very well may be the case but for American players whose early training in the United States lacks the type of technical skill emphasis of South America, going to the continent seems to be a more reasonable long term bet for a player’s development than going to England. In England many pundits, including Martin Samuel of the Times indicate that English academies teaching of technique and ball skills is not up to the same standard as it is on the continent. (Samuel wrote a column after England’s 2-0 loss to Croatia in Zagreb about this topic and was pillaged as you would expect by the Times online readers, but his point hit home with me based on the experiences of American players on both the continent and England.) For this piece I want to focus specifically on the development of two players who knew one another growing up in the same area, knew each other well as kids and whose paths diverted when both signed professional contracts after leaving the Bradenton Academy a few years ago. By all accounts at the time Spector was the much more seasoned and desirable player to have on your side.
Jonathan Spector was for a very long time considered the best U.S. back line prospect. The reviews coming out of the Bradenton Academy in 2003 on this kid were as I recall amazing. The feeling was we had perhaps our first consistent back line player who could slide outside or play inside in a long long time. At 17, Spector due to his ability to get an EU passport signed with Manchester United. Bradley on the other hand came out of the Bradenton Academy and signed with the US Pro-40 program the same year (he was 16) and was drafted by the Metrostars who were coached by his father, Bob Bradley.
Spector got to play for Manchester United right away at the ripe old age of 17. I recall my pride when he entered the 2004 Community Shield match since Tim Howard was in United’s lineup also. For the first time ever we had two Americans playing at the same time for one of the biggest clubs in Europe. (Unless you consider Bayer Leverkusen one of the biggest clubs in which case this feat had been accomplished probably over a dozen times in the past). At the same time Manchester United had Kenny Cooper as a reserve team player and Frank Simek was on Arsenal’s youth team. My fear that Spector would be another Jovan Kirovski or John Thorrington, a kid plucked at a young age by United and then never fully developed was allayed, or so I thought. Spector was supposed to be loaned out to Blackburn later that season but somehow the deal fell through. At season’s end Spector had played just twice in competitive matches, but with World Cup 2006 creeping up on us, the fear was Spector would not be ready and Bruce Arena may have to look somewhere else for help on the backline. Spector had gotten several call ups from Arena for qualifiers but often times was rusty and left off the bench when the match took place. The next season Spector was loaned to Charlton Athletic and he played twenty times for the Addicks as they fought relegation in Alan Curbishley’s final season. However it didn’t seem like Spector was improving: he was adequate especially for a club like Charlton, but certainly not of a national team standard. His sense of positioning, touch, etc hadn’t improved since his first game in England. Much like the other names I mentioned, players (with the exception of Beasley) that had much more hype surrounding them then the guys who ultimately went to Holland or Germany, Spector was treading water and was not selected for the World Cup, although the selection of Chris Albright to replace Cory Gibbs when he went down with injury still has to be questioned.
Michael Bradley in the meantime was playing for the Metrostars. After missing his entire first season with an injury he played decently enough in 2005 to attract the interest of Heerenveen who bought him. Bradley played decently with the Metros but in fact improved dramatically as a player after a few months of legendary Dutch training. His first touch was better, his passing was crisper, his ball winning was better, his runs forward were timed more accurately. I watched Bradley play in a match towards the end of Erevidise season and couldn’t believe he was the same kid who I had thought shouldn’t be on the pitch (and was only there because of his dad) in MLS. Bradley got a call up to the National Team for the pre World Cup friendlies than returned to Holland to begin the next season where again he showed major improvement.
Meanwhile Spector was transferred to West Ham United. He clearly hadn’t developed the way Manchester United wanted and until Alan Curbishley surprisingly returned to management, Spector was not even making the Hammers match squad. But Alan Pardew’s dismissal meant Spector was back in the good graces of management. West Ham was a terrible team and Curbishley began moving Spector around to cover the deficiencies in defense. Spector played on both sides of the backline, and in a holding midfield role as the Hammers miraculously staved off relegation. However, when Spector was called into the US team for the Gold Cup and for Fall 2007 friendlies he once again showed a poor understanding of positioning and when not to make a back pass. (A trait he could have picked up from Carlos Bocanegra, a Bob Bradley favorite whose poor play for the National Team going back to the qualifying for the 2006 World Cup has me of the belief he should be dropped all together from the US setup.)
This past summer Michael Bradley prior to his sending off in the Gold Cup semifinal was impressive to say the least. At the Home Depot Center in June I heard fans after both the Guatemala and Trinidad matches compliment Bradley for being beyond his years in maturity, stature and technique. He took this same attitude to the U-20 World Cup where along with Freddy Adu and Danny Szetela he spearheaded the US’ impressive run including a win over Pato and Brazil.
The 2007-08 season has been a revelation for Bradley. He’s the 3rd leading scorer in the Dutch first division and considered one of the best players the United States has produced in recent years. Spector, on the other hand seems to be again treading water or worse regressing as he comes off the bench and gives a 10-15 minute effort late in matches for West Ham. While these two cases of development can be seen as isolated, as I mentioned at the outset, traditionally American players going to Holland and Germany have developed much quicker with better long term results than those going to England, who often times have more hype surrounding them. Coincidence? I doubt it.