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It Seems To Me . . .

An NHL model for MLS.

By Robert Wagman
Special to SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Tuesday, September 1, 1998) -- The key recommendation in the Queiroz Report -- "Q Report" to you insiders -- on the revamping of United States soccer to make this country competitive on the world stage is the establishment of a full-fledged professional league for players under the age of 19. Queiroz points to a similar program established in France almost twenty years ago, whose graduates now make up most of the France squad that won this year’s World Cup.

The most likely scenario would be for this new junior professional league to be established as part of, or at least in cooperation with, Major League Soccer. In other words, each MLS team would develop a youth side who would train in partnership with the senior club, and would play an active schedule among themselves, with minor league professional teams and with foreign youth sides.

As Queiroz envisions the system, it would seem to differ from MLS’ current Project 40 in two major ways. Much younger players would be admitted, probably as young as 15 or 16 if they had the potential; and there would not be any of this putting money away for some future college education. You would finish your high school education, but in reality you would be a young professional soccer player, period.

This makes eminent sense. Anyone familiar with the professional leagues of England, Germany, Italy, France and Holland knows that the vast majority of professional players are developed through the extensive youth/reserve systems that exist in each of these countries. But for such a system to even begin here, a coupled of very high hurdles must be overcome.

The first is the belief, universally expressed by everyone high up in the United States Soccer Federation that the United States is fundamentally different from Europe or South America in the goal of universal higher education. Simply put, young men, to say nothing of their parents, would likely not consider giving up college -- and probably a free college education -- in the pursuit of a possible professional soccer career.

Someone so central to the process as Sunil Gulati, MLS deputy commissioner and the man in charge of U.S. Soccer’s fledgling 2010 project says "If I had kids with the potential of being professional soccer players, I honestly don’t know if I could recommend they not go to college."

The second hurdle is cost. Many top European clubs spend more than $2 million annually on their youth/reserve programs. MLS is struggling now. They are adhering to a long range plan that hopefully will have the league in the black by year seven or eight. Right now MLS simply can not afford to fund a youth/reserve program.

Which bring me around to my thinking about the National Hockey League. Through the Ontario Hockey Association, in cooperation with the NHL, there exists what can only be described as a two-tier, young professional program. Players going into "Junior A" give up U.S. college eligibility, but are put on the fast track for the NHL or other professional leagues. Those in the lower level "Junior B" program retain college eligibility, but will likely have a much longer road to a professional career.

Even though college hockey is much closer to the professional game than college soccer is to professional soccer for a number of reasons we can discuss in a future column, relatively few top-flight NHL professionals come through the college ranks. Young hockey players and their parents are willing to make these kinds of decisions and to give up a college education in exchange for the training they need. Gymnasts’ parents send them to train at very young ages. Parents will make these choices if a program is in place that shows a clear progression into the professional ranks.

Micah Cooks is one of the more skilled young players in this country. His parents have been willing to make a decision about education and soccer. Cooks will forgo his senior year in a U.S. high school so he can play on Ajax’s reserve squad. He will finish high school in Amsterdam. Last year Cooks was away so much with the under-18 side that he was not able to complete enough credits at the academic demanding private school he was attending in the Washington, D.C., suburbs to be invited back for his senior year. (Now there is an interesting problem for U.S. Soccer: can a player travel with one of the elite squads without jeopardizing academic standing?)

On the other question cost -- the NHL helps support Junior A, but many of the teams actually are more than self-supporting. That may be a factor of hockey crazy Canada, and of the small towns that many Junior A teams call home.

U.S. Soccer should look long and hard at the junior hockey program as it ponders the issues raised in the Q-Report.

Bob Wagman wrote a nationally syndicated political column for Scripps-Howard for many years. At the same time he has covered soccer in North America for British and South African newspapers since the days of the North American Soccer League. His "Football In America" column now appears regularly in British newspapers. He can be e-mailed at MobileWag@aol.com.