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Landon Donovan, unequivocally the best soccer player the United States has ever seen, has never been shy about expressing his feelings regarding the American system of soccer.
Usually, these comments are inflammatory in nature, with Donovan calling out Jurgen Klinsmann, Sunil Gulati, or some MLS executive, in the hopes of making headlines, and perhaps, enacting change. However, since announcing his desire to pursue coaching last month, Donovan has cooled it on the hot takes, opting to take a more professional approach to his discussion of the beautiful game, rather than attempting to generate media buzz.
That’s exactly what makes his most recent comments so poignant.
When asked about the issues with American soccer recently, Donovan supplied the following quote, “If I’m an MLS coach, I understand I’ve got to win on Saturday to keep my job. So if it’s the choice between playing an 18-year-old who I think has more potential than the guy who’s playing, but right now the guy who’s playing is a little better, you’re probably going to take the safe bet.”
According to Donovan, that mentality is a problem, and I’d venture to guess there are quite a few leagues around the world where coaches would completely agree with him.
The issue derives from the set up of MLS as a closed, single-entity league where the clubs don’t really go beyond their normal roster. While a partnership with the USL has helped groom a minor league system in the United States, ultimately, MLS teams simply don’t have the resources at their disposal to get young kids time. Across Europe and South America, the ability to loan young players to lower level teams for play time purposes helps move along young kids developmentally. In the United States, the relative absence of these minor leagues stifles that development.
Of course this is so pertinent because as the world watches the Olympic soccer tournament, the American team is decidedly absent. While the United States has qualified for the most recent U-17 and U-20 World Cup, Donovan sees a disconnect developing when these players become young professionals. Because of the pressure to win in MLS, coaches are encouraged to play veterans, leaving the development of young players stalling, and behind the rest of the world. Thus, by the time the United States gets to the U-23 level and attempts to qualify for the Olympics, the teams that were once even with the Americans have leaped ahead.
So how do we fix this problem? Well, it certainly won’t be easy.
The first step is continuing to develop the relationship between MLS and USL clubs, while allowing the clubs involved to maintain their players. There seems to be a real worry around MLS about Liga MX teams poaching the best youth players from USL, which has led the MLS sides to be more protective. If U.S. Soccer can devise a system that helps clubs protect their youth players, it will help development significantly.
Otherwise, the only option for MLS teams is to loan out their younger players, which may or may not work out in the favor of both the team and the player. Loans go awry all too often for MLS to count on that as their primary focus for player development, making the USL option far more palatable.
Nonetheless, it’s nice to see the face of American soccer making constructive comments for a change about youth development. For a player whose interactions with the media have mostly been petty jabs at various soccer officials around the country and the globe, seeing a comment that actually makes sense in the context of the current soccer landscape is certainly refreshing.