As soccer nations, the US and Canada are still very young.
With that comes a lack of structure at the professional levels of the game, when compared to the more “mature” soccer nations of Europe. There are fewer professional playing opportunities for the young North American players and a lack of clear pathways to play professionally.
Major League Soccer (MLS) does provide some options for young players; however, with only 20 teams for all of the US and Canada, opportunities are limited. MLS academies typically train 3-4 times/week with one game (which duplicates European academies) but this type of program is typically limited to players within a 1-1.5-hour drive time of the team’s training facilities.
There is a similar drive-time restriction at various age-groups for young players in England attending professional club academies, but the difference is that there are 92 professional clubs in England, meaning that the majority of young players are within a relatively short driving distance.
I have been fortunate to observe team players and the academy sessions at several European clubs and would conclude that young North American players have good technical ability and up to ages U12 can more than hold their own.
A gap appears from U12-U14, though, on the male side of the game, as the young European players at these ages tend to understand the game better. They take more responsibility during the game for their own performances and those around them. They demand the ball, have a vision for what they want to do, and are more capable of executing moves at a high tempo on a consistent basis.
I would say, though, that North American female elite players of any age can, on average, hold their own against Europeans. By the time they get to the U14 age the young European male players are quicker, stronger and much more physical in their play. On the “development” side of things, they also have sports scientists monitoring their development. In addition, they have a clear pathway to a career in professional football and are hungry to succeed. We are still lacking most of these things in North American soccer.
In my opinion, there are a couple of key ingredients young North American players must have if they are to successfully pursue playing options in Europe:
• Accessibility to an EEC passport, through parents or perhaps grandparents, as this makes it easier for European clubs to sign them within European Union regulations
• Commitment to focusing on improving their technical skills up to U12 levels
• After U12, be in an environment that mirrors the European model for development — player development over winning (MLS or private-academies)
• Opportunity to train in at one of the professional club academies or receive instruction from academy staff of professional clubs (For example, through our affiliation with the Wolves FC academy our young players receive a min. of 6 hours of training from Wolves academy staff in Canada each year with the additional options of being invited to attend a 3 days’ residential camp (Rome, Georgia) or 1 week training at the Wolves FC academy in England)
• Competitive games focussed on improving soccer education versus winning games. Within these games, players should learn what it takes to play multiple positions
• Develop confidence in their ability and mental strength to challenge themselves in training and impose themselves in games
• Opportunities to travel and play in Europe for an extended time i.e. greater than 1 month. These opportunities may also combine education with training as part of an overall development model.
If our young players are good enough and follow this process, then I believe that they can create opportunities for themselves to play overseas.
It is a very competitive environment in Europe. It is also more difficult for North American players to get signed as they do have to be significantly better than local players. But it is possible and with hard work and dedication, it can be achieved.
Just remember: “Hard work beats talent…especially when talent does not work hard”.