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US is sitting on a goldmine of soccer talent

In the NEW episode, number 255, Kyle Fansler chats with ESPN’s Janusz Michallik and Kartik Krishnaiyer on the topic of the strength of American players in the transfer market.

Former player and current ESPN analyst Janusz Michallik dives into several topics with Kartik including:

• How MLS is changing the pendulum by selling major players to Europe but signing big stars to come back to the States,
• Americans that missed out on playing in Europe because MLS held them back,
• How the US is sitting on a goldmine of young talent,
• Whether MLS is selling players under the market rate,
• Will MLS ever be at the level that NASL was in its prime,
• Can Lorenzo Insigne still play for Italy while in MLS,
• How Insigne will help the US Men’s National Team players.

Listen to the show via the player above or via this link.

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  1. Turfit

    January 20, 2022 at 11:46 am

    How much of the issues with identifying talent is the type of talent that they are looking for? Look at the style of play, we promote athleticism over soccer skills with the belief that we can “teach” soccer skills. But I don’t think we do a good job teaching soccer skills. Example, how many times on the podcast has Kartik compared the NWSL and FA WSL, he mentions that the best athletes are playing in the US NWSL, but the best quality of play and skills is in FA WSL.. Will this translate to England becoming a stronger national team as they develop players with skill into better athletes???

  2. greg

    January 19, 2022 at 10:36 am

    Oh, Denmark also punches above its weight in cycling. But the cycling culture is ingrained…since the country is so flat, top talent heads for the hills in Spain, Italy & France to develop into all-arounders.

  3. greg

    January 19, 2022 at 10:34 am

    @JP – Denmark is not a speed skating country. It should be, but isn’t – the cold flats of north Jutland should theoretically be great for producing speed skaters. Oddly, we’re not much of a winter Olympics country. More summer – badminton, team handball, archery.

    I’ve read opinions that a large part of the issue with developing soccer talent in this country to rival that of others is the way talent is developed and the structure of soccer. Similar to baseball, it’s become mostly a sports for middle & upper-middle class kids because to get better means playing on travel teams and that costs money. Even regular leagues cost money & often require some level of parent involvement. Which means you need parents in jobs where they have the latitude to take afternoons or weekends off. High school teams playing in state & national comps require parent funding, either directly or thru bake sales and the like, which require a network of parents with disposable cash.

    There isn’t the culture of street & sandlot football like in South America, Africa, and the romantiziced notions of England. Or like it used to be here with baseball…playing on a field with your friends all day. In high school the athlete may play other sports, so not playing soccer all year ’round like in the top soccer countries.

    Also, there isn’t the extent of club subsidized academy programs where it’s all encompassing – sport & education, where those sandlot players are identified and signed to the academy. Middle & upper-middle class parents aren’t as likely to want their kids to go to anything but the best K-12 schools so they can get into the best colleges. And they sure as hell aren’t going to risk the kid not getting to a good college because they did an academy through age 16 & more or less blew the chance at a top college.

    So as long as the top talent is developed in a pool that is peewee teams -> organized & expensive travel teams (club & high school) -> college, most top talent won’t have had the all immersive academy experience and will never get as good as talent in the top soccer countries. Kids from less wealthy backgrounds won’t get exposed to the top competition, have more of an imperative to not mess up a route to college (elite private or state). A route for those kids exists in football, but that route as established here as soccer academy development is in Europe & other places.

    So the short of it is, if the US is to really develop a top-flight national team, the development structure in the country needs to radically change, but that’s going to require a shift in mindset about educational paths for those athletes.

  4. JP

    January 19, 2022 at 10:02 am

    @Mercator, you make some great points about the need to identify talent. While academies would help, in order to get to the point of having a large enough pool of players where the numbers work out to a small % become good enough so USMNT can compete with the world’s elite there would need to be a large culture shift in this country.

    Basketball and football are the dominant forces for athletic talent pool here. Some countries like Canada and Russia it’s hockey. Other nations soccer is obviously the top draw.

    Having all the great academies won’t get the USMNT to the top level unless the top athletic talent is driven to play soccer over the multitude of other sports that are more culturally mainstream here. With the size of our country we should also be dominate in speed skating (instead of small Netherlands and Denmark), skiing, cycling, tennis, and a host of other sports.

    So I guess it’s the chicken and the egg argument. Which comes 1st, soccer academies or talent drawn to soccer

  5. Mercator

    January 19, 2022 at 9:42 am

    @Dave – The constraint on the general lack of talent is because the MLS clubs simply haven’t done enough. The league is 25 years old, every club should have an academy like Dallas pumping out players by now. The US is HUGE – in absolute numbers there are probably few countries with more young footballers. There is no lack of athletic talent. What we lack is a comprehensive system to identify and develop that pool of talent. MLS clubs do not do enough, I live in a large metro and the MLS club still doesn’t have a real academy (their recruiting region would be 10+ million people, the size of Portugal or Belgium).

    I also think the US is in a weird position given it is a CONCACAF member. The US can basically dominate confederation competitions unless they completely bottle it. Realistically Mexico is the only potential peer. So from a USMNT perspective, there isn’t much to aim for. Beat Mexico and then what? The next and only real hurdle would be the world cup. And there is a tremendous gap in quality between playing a team like Mexico and actually trying to compete with a Brazil or Germany to win a world cup. We need to be realistic and realise that if that is really the goal we are aiming for, we are going to need a more than middle aged guys happy to get regular playing time at relegation European clubs. It’s not a question of developing the guys who have made it to Europe – their ceiling is likely set and MLS has done its job by getting them to Europe in the first place. It’s about making sure there is a large enough pipeline so the numbers game works out in your favour. To do that though, you at minimum need all 30 MLS clubs making a serious effort in their academy. That isn’t the case yet after 25 years, which I think is the real point of failure here.

  6. dave

    January 18, 2022 at 9:55 pm

    @Mercator, lots of good ideas in your posts. We agree fully on “I think Steffen would be better off playing even if he went to a lower club, but really for the US to move the needle we need new talent at keeper, one good enough to start for a top club like City.”
    I take the general lack of US talent (not nearly enough potential for your numbers pyramid to pan out this cycle) as a constraint. I think Steffen made a bad decision for his own development and it shows in the rawness of his USMNT performances. His choice, of course, as it should be.
    I read a lot of your post as “to compete for a World Cup, the US needs to . . . “. If that were to happen, it would likely coincide with a lot of good US players having key roles at top European clubs. I am more pessimistic about the many structural issues than you are.
    Specific to MLS, I agree they should sell players, the same as smaller countries and teams in Europe. I think it is to advantage (for players, MLS, US Soccer) for MLS to find and develop talent, help potential stars achieve their dreams even if elsewhere, and cash big checks for the effort. What is not to like about that model?

  7. Mercator

    January 18, 2022 at 8:43 pm

    I also should have added: money matters. Look at the soccer landscape in the US and it’s pay to play. Look at the best American athletes and most of them do not come from a background where they can pay to play. This is where the MLS academies and the money comes in. The kid who is 12 and super talented but can’t afford this travel club soccer nonsense – that’s where the academy must step in and they really need to make it free for the player because again, they can’t pay. All of these fees from selling talent, use it to stack your academy with talented kids who otherwise aren’t going to spend 5k travelling across the country to play soccer. Show those kids all the previous academy graduates who are now earning six and seven figures in Europe and tell them in 5 years that can be you – you don’t have to switch to football, basketball or baseball to make a very good living in this game. If MLS academies can tap THAT market, we would be churning out Davies type players regularly. But it requires money, it requires clubs to be in touch with their community and the youth players in the region, and none of the owners are charitable people, so they need to see some positive revenue from player sales before they will seriously make these sort of investments in the academy (remember, MLS owners care about making money, not winning).

    The funding to get real athletic talent into the game has to come from somewhere, and frankly its competing against other sports that hand out 50k scholarships for players who won’t make it professionally. MLS academies can and must fill that role, but they aren’t going to do that unless the numbers make sense, and the numbers only make sense if you are selling talent for more than it costs to produce. Go to anywhere in Europe or South America and every village has a local club, who identify these players at a very young age, sell them on to the bigger clubs in the league when they are teenagers, and the bigger club ships them to Europe at college age. The money from that sale is used by the bigger club to attract more talent from the village clubs, etc etc. The US is JUST starting to get this sort of system into place and it completely falls apart if the bigger domestic club refuses to sell to Europe.

  8. Mercator

    January 18, 2022 at 8:30 pm

    @Dave – Yes, riding the pine is rarely in a players interest, but the players also are the ones who should be making these decisions, not the club. If a player WANTS to leave and the buyer is willing to pay the fee, I don’t think the selling MLS club should really care if they player is going to start or ride the bench. Leave that to the player to decide. But, being realistic here, if a player is not starting they really aren’t going to be at a level where they are useful for a good national team unless they play for one of the 8-10 biggest clubs. Salah rode the bench at Chelsea and look at him now. Meanwhile, how many players for relegation clubs are making a huge impact on their national team (a good national team, not San Marino’s top goal scorer)?

    I would agree actually playing is certainly better for development than riding the bench, but I’m not sure a guy fighting it out weekly for a relegation level club is going to be that much better a player than a guy who regularly rides the bench at Chelsea. I would also say from a top level national team perspective, the bench rider at Chelsea probably has more potential than the guy fighting it out in the lower end of the table. We have to look at what will move the team forward and realistically another solid Fulham or Norwich player isn’t going to help us clear that hurdle, regardless of the playing time or how much they really develop. I think Steffen would be better off playing even if he went to a lower club, but really for the US to move the needle we need new talent at keeper, one good enough to start for a top club like City.

    Sorry but I do think in many respects its just a numbers game. You get 100 average talents, 10 good talents, and 1 great one. You shouldn’t expect to get a good or great one unless you have churned through a lot of average ones. MLS should be in the business of boosting those numbers. If we send 10 to Europe now, maybe 1 is statistically good enough for a top team, probably none world class. Boost that pipeline to 100 players going to Europe, and you will have a number of top level players with maybe a world class one or two thrown in. The US is already competing at the top of CONCACAF – any real change in the landscape will require being competitive at a world cup level, and those teams all have a starting 11 of top tier players, playing for the best clubs regularly. I just don’t think the guy getting a ton of minutes at 26 at a relegation club is going to move us in that direction, we have those players now. We need to be aiming for more top class talent, the sort that regularly plays for a top 5 club in a top 5 league. The only way to get there though is if the MLS academies start churning out more talent and shipping them off to Europe to see if they can make that final critical leap.

  9. dave

    January 18, 2022 at 6:46 pm

    @greg, if a player is riding the bench at City, then they are not getting meaningful playing time for Espanyol. Not sure I follow you seeing that as a false dichotomy. Maybe my post was overly verbose and insufficiently clear.
    I generally think the approach you outline is about optimal for player development – go to the best team and league where you can get regular playing time, then level up teams and leagues as and when you improve and earn better regular playing opportunities.
    I think there is sometimes impetus instead to move to the very top teams and leagues as soon as possible, even at the expense of significantly reduced opportunities to play. I see the approaches as directly in conflict, and I think players benefit more from the path that maximizes playing time.

  10. greg

    January 18, 2022 at 6:14 pm

    @dave – you set up a false dichotomy here…a top US player doesn’t have to go to Chelsea or Man City & be on the bench…go to Gladbach, Wolves, Southampton, Rennes, Espanyol, Fioentina. Or start at the 2nd division and play a lot. Get noticed after a good season or two, then move up to a better club.

  11. dave

    January 18, 2022 at 6:00 pm

    @Mercator, I think your post gets at the competing incentives. There can be a lot of benefit to transfers to Europe as you note. It is encouraging that there is a lessened SUM-MLS-US Soccer nexus that sometimes seems to stand in the way of that.
    I am also focused on players’ best interests. At the risk of over generalizing, riding the pine is not good for players during their core development years (it is probably good for many entities other than the player, which is a competing incentive). See NCAA portal transfers – I think there is growing realization that regular playing time is a must for maximizing potential.
    I suspect you and I are mostly aligned in seeing more development opportunities in Europe than in MLS. We may be less aligned in assessing a player riding the bench (or not getting called up) for Chelsea versus anchoring a team in the thick of a promotion or relegation battle. I think the latter is more likely to spur quicker and better player development. Do you prefer the former?
    Of course, if a player can anchor a team like Chelsea or Man City, all the better. I am not sure the US has many players of that caliber and potential. Has it been good for Steffen’s development to see almost no action at City when he could start somewhere else?

  12. Mercator

    January 18, 2022 at 5:13 pm

    @Dave – I actually think even if the guy is going to ride the bench, they should sell him. Look at say Pepi – if he goes and rides the bench in Germany, buy him back in a few years for half his value. Easy $20 million (less repurchase fee) put into Dallas to reinvest in their academy or other players. If the guy can’t get starting time at a mid-lower tier Bundesliga club, he was never going to develop enough in the MLS to be a real game changer for the National Team. With the expectations the US has, they need players who are at a level where they easily are one of the better players on their Top 5 League team. If a talent goes to Europe and rides the bench, well that guy wasn’t taking the US to the mountain top anyway. Get what money you can for him, invest it back into the academy, and hope the next guy that comes along is better and good enough to start.

    Also, MLS needs to be seen as a friendly seller to continue getting talent not just in the USA but from south america as well. Ultimately as the league quality improves, it becomes a better developmental ground for US homegrown talent. But if the league is stagnating because they struggle to attract talent (because they refuse to sell), the MLS will just miss the boat entirely. The whole point of the league should be to identify and nurture youth players until they are good enough to send to Ajax or something where they can turn into a real star. The MLS is not going to make real stars – its purpose is to sort and develop the 13yr olds who show up at their academy, and then to identify and send the best to a top European club by 20-22 where they can potentially develop into the world class talent we need. This is how its done literally everywhere else – look at the Argentine, Brazilian, Belgian, etc leagues. The best homegrown players are off to a top league quite early – no one expects Neymar to spend his career at Santos.

    We need to be serious and look at teams like France, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, etc. These teams have top tier players at every position, including many on the bench. That’s the level we need to be approaching if we want to go anywhere as a national team beyond stomping on small islands and occasionally beating Mexico. None of these sort of players are playing outside the top 5-6 European leagues. This shouldn’t even be a discussion to be honest.

  13. dave

    January 18, 2022 at 4:38 pm

    Another great discussion! Thank you for facilitating and sharing these.
    There are competing incentives as relates to US Soccer, MLS/NWSL, and US players. Alignment seems to be improving – SUM with fewer tentacles in everything, US Soccer and NWSL ending the allocated player program, current and potential US national team players more frequently flowing between MLS/NWSL and Europe, etc.
    For development, I think players should strive for the top league and team where they can earn consistent and meaningful playing time. Riding the bench (or not even making the bench) is not good for development. Neither is playing against overmatched competition. Seems that slowly but surely water is seeking its own level.

  14. greg

    January 18, 2022 at 3:46 pm

    Fully agree on all points by Mercator. The top US players need to play in the top leagues and MLS isn’t one. If you want the USMNT to be truly competitive in the World Cup and other international tournaments with the top teams from Europe and Central & South America the players need to play against the best players, get instruction from the top coaches. Any player worth his salt will want to play in the top Euro leagues. Countries like Denmark, Scotland & Croatia are good examples – they punch above their weight in tournaments because the players leave their domestic leagues and go play in Italy, Spain, Germany, England and France.

    I honestly wouldn’t trust USMNT players who are happy to coast in MLS. Landon Donovan disappointed in that way. I’d have loved to see him really make a go of Europe.

    And if proceeds from those sales help to fund academies and buy decent talent that doesn’t need Europe league play, then selling off is a good strategy.

  15. Mercator

    January 18, 2022 at 2:14 pm

    I think people need to be realistic. Messi could play in MLS and frankly no one would take him too seriously until he goes to Europe and proves he can play at that level with the best of the best. It’s not just a money thing – China and the Middle East have thrown crazy sums at players and they generally get average level talents at superstar prices who are quickly forgotten about by the football community because they play in a backwater and not in UEFA. Overpaying US players to stay here will only harm teams overpaying those players, and will deny upcoming talents the level of competition they require to truly reach the top (this is why I’m generally in favour of homegrown going abroad – they are overvalued and coddled in the home markets, same thing in England).

    Sell the players while you can, make the money while you can, let them try their hand in the big leagues and see how good they really are. If these players prove themselves in Europe, then maybe put in a huge offer to try to bring them back stateside. But holding on to players in the MLS lol – okay every decent player will piss off to Germany at 14 and the MLS clubs won’t even have top talent to sell. If I have a kid who is great at football – why would I send him to Dallas or something knowing if he is any good they will hold on to him as long as possible, possibly to the detriment of his long term career?

    This also keeps US expectation in check. So annoying seeing people run around talking as if Demsey, Altidore, Bradley or whoever are all-stars. These are average players in a top European league, and US fans need to realise that to set their expectations accordingly. When these players stay in the MLS, people start thinking they are actually top tier international talents and then get letdown when the US has to play actual top tier international teams. Players like Mckennie, Politic, Reyna…we have a much much better idea of their true talent now that they are playing at the top in Europe. It undeniably has improved them as players and has improved the national team (I think this is another overlooked aspect – MLS has parity, top European clubs expect to win every game. We need players with that mentality, and playing for a Juve or a Chelsea provides players with that mentality.)

    No disrespect to MLS but I think it would really harm the development of US players, the National Team and fans perceptions of US players and the national team, if MLS clubs desperately tried to hang on to any talent they produce instead of selling them off to Europe for a decent fee.

  16. Roberto

    January 18, 2022 at 9:53 am

    @Don, I’ll start here because you are correct, losing MLS’ young talent and getting over the hill players like Gonzalo Higuain in exchange is a losing proposition. Now Inter Ft. Lauderdale want to add Luiz Saurez.
    This is probably the first time that Kartik has made me mad. The MLS’s should not be a farm system for Europe. They need to keep players longer, not lose them after all the work done by some great academies. Once they sign a contract like Ricardo Pepi, they should pay back the team by staying until that contract is finished.
    Seattle also has an academy but has not sold many players, like Dallas, which is the better team? I was a season ticket holder for the original Sounders and I saw and drank beer with some of the great of that era. Those teams had to have at least two North American players, some MLS team have many home grown players on the field. The MLS is already way above the level of the old NASL. Many of those teams had almost new rosters every year.
    For the continued growth and improving play the MLS need to keep the best young players.

  17. Eplnfl

    January 18, 2022 at 8:18 am

    Well haven’t we heard about the goldmine of US talent for 25 years now? World Cup 2010 was going to be a great one for the US as I recall and well by 2018 we would be a top contender for sure. Frankly I am not seeing the talent we have taking the necessary next step.

  18. Don

    January 18, 2022 at 8:09 am

    The big difference in players coming and going to and from America and Europe (among other places in the world) is we send our top talent at a young age think U-21. Where is when we get the so called stars back or we sign a star they are already in their 30s. I’m not saying the stars of 2015 aren’t fun to watch in 2022 but I wish MLS could get and or keep some gems because most of these stars are home grown.

    Also I am getting real tired of hearing about some NBA players buying a major stake in the MLS. It rubs me the wrong way that a club like Real Salt Lake isn’t known for their players now, but they are known for D-Wade a old NBA player.

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