The Winding Roads of the American Player Pathway

In Europe, the player pathway is known and understood. A player plays for a local club, gets recognized and scouted, receives an opportunity to prove himself at a bigger club, and the progression continues until you reach the top. Not every player travels the same road. Some move up the ladder quicker than others. Some play in obscurity for years before getting their opportunity, but the pathway is still the same: smaller club to biggest clubs.

Geography, not talent, is the most important factor that determines the opportunity for the average American soccer player. The U.S. only has a couple dozen territories with access to the highest level of the sport. If a player happens to live in one of these territories like Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Atlanta, or Seattle, the odds of discovery are exponentially higher than if you are a player in New Mexico, Idaho, West Virginia, or Alabama.

Major League Soccer, currently the highest level of the sport in America, does not have independent clubs. MLS LLC is a single entity league with franchises, similar to a McDonald’s or Burger King. To limit franchises from competing for talent, the league imposes a 75 mile territory boundary for each franchise. If a player lives in or close to that territory, they will have a chance to be scouted. The merit of their work, their talent, can be the significant determining factor as to whether or nor they get an opportunity to play in a MLS Academy.

Anywhere else, your best option is to move. Some move closer or into MLS territories. Some move overseas where the training and opportunity to be discovered is far superior to anything a player could receive in the U.S., including an MLS Academy. The option to move overseas is not available to most players for various reasons: EU status, family work situations, etc. The overseas option is the exception, not the rule. For most players outside of an MLS franchise territory, there simply aren’t many great options, much less good ones.

The U.S. Soccer system could have some of the best talent in the world. In my conversations with some top scouts and coaches, there seems to be a consensus that America is a sleeping giant when it comes to producing top class players, but finding them is currently the hardest part with 99% of players not having access to the top level of the sport in the U.S. A franchise system with a couple dozen markets will never give U.S. Soccer the opportunity to maximize the quality of the talent pool. Too many will slip through the cracks, or in this case gaping holes.

The American Player Pathway could take a number of different routes depending on where a player resides. For example, a player living in a MLS Franchise Territory could play for a small club, get scouted, and join the MLS Academy. This player still doesn’t have a great chance of playing with the First Team (Top Pro Team) of the MLS Franchise for a variety of reasons. Many of these players go to college instead. Some come back to the league later, but most players don’t.

If a player lives outside an MLS Franchise Territory, the options are far more confusing. A player could play at a local club and never leave until they quit playing. A player could play for their local club, their middle school, their high school, their college, some amateur soccer, etc until they decide to quit playing. Some leave after high school and try to make it overseas.

The real shame in the U.S. Soccer system is the unnecessary chaos and confusion for families, not to mention the costs which we will cover in future posts and Soccer Works episodes. It doesn’t have to be this way. If U.S. Soccer provided a connected system of leagues for independent clubs, the United States would cover a lot more of the country much faster.

For now, the MLS LLC control over the United States Soccer Federation prevents 99% of American families from getting the opportunity to see their child rise to the top primarily because of their hard work and their talent. The only way to change the current system is to unite behind a common purpose and vision of giving every city and town access to the top level of the sport in America.





Listen to Episode 16 of Soccer Works here.

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