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Op-Ed \ Dan Roudebush

MLS shortsighted in player development.

By Dan Roudebush
Special to SoccerTimes

(Tuesday, March 23, 1999) -- Just when the United States men's team starts to give you some hope, the long-range picture turns ugly.

For lack of long-term thinking on the part of Major League Soccer owners consider the interview MLS commissioner Doug Logan gave to Mike Woitalla of Soccer America, comments he repeated in a recent teleconference.

The last question of the interview.

Soccer America: Does the league have plans for youth development, as distinct from the U.S. Soccer Federations? Or does the single-entity setup prevent teams from running their own youth programs?

Doug Logan: "There is awkwardness trying to do things close to traditional development team ways. I imagine you can create an universe and where a team roster is 40 instead 20 -- 20 ascribed to a B team. But the traditional European and South American system of having club involvement down to a youth level breaks down on a couple of fronts. No. 1, it runs counter to single-entity system of players being employees of the league rather than of the teams. Why is it in the best interest of the coach from Dallas to find a young player he's ultimately going to lose to Kansas City?"

Jeez, we were right in past commentaries about single-entity as an MLS precept preventing pro development by pros. But it's pure BS or very weak thinking. You could still do development under single entity. In fact, some say it might be better with a chief training czar helping all clubs setup a la Ajax or whoever, letting the local clubs scout and recruit with on site coaches under czarist direction. After training and washouts permit the local clubs two or three discovery players into Project-40 or a reserve team before pooling the remaining ones for a P-40 draft. There are work-arounds until the player's suit is settled (the real issue). When single-entity dies, a simple matter for the clubs to take over their part of the program.

Doug Logan: "Beyond that, you run athwart the college eligibility problems in this country."

There are work-arounds this also. Hockey and college basketball are faced with similar problems from Canadian and European players coming over. There are reinstatement procedures for pro youth washouts ( loss of a year's eligibility) and rumors of a basketball-driven committee set up to investigate absolving entering freshmen of all past sins. Not to mention MLS should be recruiting more blue collar players than guys bent on improving their educational status. The ones who can't afford $300 a month for club dues in a United States Soccer Federation system geared to earn college scholarships.

Doug Logan: "I don't see us getting into what some people say we need -- a developmental system at the club level -- for as far as the eye can see."

This is an extremely short-sighted view. The MLS is being squeezed by foreign competition, both on the field and in the TV ratings with a better product. Clubs are moving in over here to pick up the top players without transfer fees. They will get them as long as the USSF does the work. And look at Feynoord who just signed an exchange agreement with a Belgium club Why? Because Italian and other money clubs are investing in Brazil clubs and elsewhere to get the best players and work training exchanges. Those with less dollars need to strike alliances.

If Feynoord's Rob Baan (one smart hombre) says this is the future wave, rest assured it is. Will an Italian club purchase a D3 Pro League team? Then what? How does Logan think MLS play will reach top international standards when the better players won't be here?

Doug Logan: "That doesn't mean we can't have a very large role in the development of the American player. For right now, it will be either in stand-alone programs at a higher age, like Project-40, with some assistance from the Federation or the U.S. Soccer Foundation,"

For 19 players (gambling half a dozen foreigners will take out citizenship)? Who is he kidding? Lack of good U.S. players is one of the reasons they have had to delay expansion.

Doug Logan: "Or by being supportive of youth programs, whether they be residential programs, or PDO or any of the other initiatives that we are four-square behind that are in their formative years in the Federation."

I've never seen so much flag waving in my life.So much for the MLS brain trust. Absolutely no strategic thinking about how the U.S. market fits in internationally. Four years they have been diddling with trying to attract new audiences with gimmickry instead of concentrating on getting existing fans in the park with a top product.

Development takes time. And due to the time it takes to fill the pipe, a cost lag that makes the initial few years pretty cheap. Had MLS instituted a youth pro development system four years ago, however small, we might have young stars such as Michael Owen or Nicolas Anelka out there to pack them in. But better to have these young players four years from now than never. To wait another four years to even start, meaning an eight years out to see results, is suicide. Might as well pull the plug now and watch Manchester on the tube (many are). It's time MLS got off the dime and did it right. At least get started inexpensively with high school juniors and seniors and call it a pre- P-40 training program.

Aha you say, Project 2010 will ride to the rescue. In the same issue of Soccer America, 2010 is estimated to cost, would you believe, $30 million a year?!! All, of course, STILL run by the USSF amateurs with organizational baggage that couldn't be changed in your lifetime. Not even a whisper of pro youth development.

And nowhere in there is there anything about maintaining the vitality of the MLS and raising the level of pro play. Without MLS, long term the U.S. national team is dead meat. We don't need showcase under-17s and U-20's. They rarely play in the Big Show no matter what nation they come from. We need a top-flight pro league second to none. Which, if you are asking, would come from a traditional pro club youth system? SA eyeballed it at $8-10 million league wise (sticking to high school ages, we think it's around half that, but let that slide for now). Lots cheaper than $30 million right?

But according to D.C. United president and general manager Kevin Payne "MLS isn't there yet". Yes owners like the Hunt family are broke? OK give them credit. Maybe they are investing in stadiums.

So get the dollars the USSF is going to spend. The $30 million is suppose to come $10 mil each from Nike and IMG, and fee increases. (Yes raising the tykes registration. Raise hell about this, I think SAs Paul Kennedy is right about no will from many USSF members), and the remainder from the U.S. Soccer Foundation and new initiatives.

What I want to know is why is the USSF spending $30 mil? When MLS can do pro development cheaper ( for certain) and better (if done as proven in the international market)? Why not divert the Nike money and have the owners cough up some matching funds, letting the Soccer Foundation put up some bucks for club training facilities open to all? At a third to two thirds less than 2010.

This will ensure both an international competitive MLS and a strong national squad. Maybe then the audiences will come, in person and on the tube.

Dan Roudebush, along with Dan Barnes, maintains the "Soccer Commentary" web site at www.visi.com/~dpbarnes/Commentary/. Roudebush and Barnes devote considerable effort to promoting a national fan movement supporting the idea that player development in the United States should be taken over by the pro leagues.

Articles and opinions expressed by other columnists are not necessarily the opinion of SoccerTimes.