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The Missing Years: U.S. Soccer’s Development Gap

Brian Sciaretta explored the past three decades of player development and noticed few players born in the early 1990s have panned out—a situation that continues to haunt the men's national team.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
October 05, 2017
5:00 PM

MUCH HAS BEEN MADE about the poor performances of the United States men’s national team, not just in terms of the September qualifiers but dating back to the Jurgen Klinsmann era when the team struggled mightily in 2015.

Pundits have questioned tactics, player selection, heart, and a whole other set of issues. What is rarely discussed, however, is a black hole of development among the American-born/raised players born in 1990-1994 and 1996.

When you look at historical production of American players to the national team, typically every birth year produces between one and three players who have staying power with the national team. Some years are exceptional and others are below average. But overall, history has shown a consistent pattern of development with no major gaps—until now.

The 1990 birth year initiated the most significant gap in modern American soccer in terms of national team production. This poor run of players ends 1994, which is probably the worst-ever birth year for modern American soccer. After a rebound in 1995, 1996 proved to be another bad year.

This problem has been apparent for quite some time. When you look at the youth national team results and rosters for both the U-17 and U-20 levels from 2009 through 2013 in major competitions, you will find teams that didn’t perform well on the field and produced very few national team players. These teams even failed to produce many consistent professionals—the types of athletes who raise the professional game domestically.

Of the players in this age group were not on a path for success dating back to their mid-teenage years—before they even signed their first professional contracts. So it wasn’t necessarily the fault of clubs either in MLS, Europe, Mexico, or even the lower professional ranks or college.

But it leads to interesting questions. What caused this fall-off? Was the right talent from these years never identified properly? Was the talent never there to begin with and is simply the case of an off generation?

The good news for U.S. Soccer is that, starting with the 1995 birth year, the trend seems to be reversing. American-born/raised talent seems to be significantly improving—both domestic-based players as well as those playing abroad.

The problem is significant right now, however, because the lack of players born in the 1990-1994 range (along with bad signs for the 1996-born contingent) will continue to plague the national team both now and in the years ahead. These players are now aged 21 and 23-27—a key age range for any team. 

Historical Development

Some historical context is in order, so I looked at the birth year production throughout the last several decades, starting with the players born in the early 1970s who were then part of the 2002 World Cup team. I did not include players who only featured in a few friendlies or were experimental Gold Cup call-ups.

And bear in mind, it is not relevant to include players who were raised almost exclusively outside of this country (like John Brooks, Fabian Johnson, Aron Johannsson, and Jermaine Jones) as their production does not reflect American soccer development.

U.S. Players born in the 1970s

1971: Joe-Max Moore, Tony Sanneh, Mike Sorber, Brad Friedel
1972: Marcus Hahnemann, Brian McBride, Chris Armas
1973: Gregg Berhalter, Claudio Reyna, Eddie Pope
1974: Greg Vanney, Steve Ralston, Eddie Lewis, Frankie Hedjuk, Brian Maisonneuve, Ante Razov
1975: No notable player
1976: Pablo Mastroeni, Clint Mathis, Jovan Kirovski
1977: Ben Olsen, Josh Wolff, John O'Brien, Jimmy Conrad
1978: Brian Ching
1979: Chris Albright, Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Jay DeMerit, Tim Howard, Pat Noonan, Nick Rimando

Already here you can see that American player development is moving along at a respectable pace. The players born in 1973 graduated from college in 1995 and were able to make a transition to MLS in its inaugural year.

The players born prior to that played in Europe or treaded water domestically until the start of MLS—like Brian McBride or Tony Sanneh.

Combined with a previous generation including John Harkes, Tab Ramos, Eric Wynalda, and others who found success abroad, the U.S. men’s national team had enough domestically produced talent to be competitive in the 1990s. Prior generations lacked this depth and often struggled.

Most noteworthy, however, is that most birth years produced players with national team staying power. Every two year span here had at least two players with long-term success with the national team combined with others that, while not necessarily integral members of the team, were more than serviceable.

These players born in the 1970s were largely responsible for taking the mantle after the disaster of the 1998 World Cup and helped build the national team into a unit that could compete at a high level.

Players born in the 1980s

1980: Danny Califf, , Taylor Twellman, Cory Gibbs
1981: Edson Buddle, Brad Davis, Conor Casey, Alan Gordon
1982: Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman, Herculez Gomez, Oguchi Onyewu, Clarence Goodson
1983: Clint Dempsey, Bobby Convey, Ricardo Clark, Chris Wondolowski
1984: Jonathan Bornstein, Michael Parkhurst, Brad Guzan, Eddie Johnson, Justin Mapp, Chad Marshall, Santino Quaranta, Luis Robles, Frank Simek, Heath Pearce
1985: Geoff Cameron, Benny Feilhaber, Robbie Findley, Stuart Holden, Sacha Kljestan, Brad Evans
1986: Maurice Edu, Michael Orozco, Jonathan Spector, Graham Zusi, Lee Nguyen, Edgar Castillo, Charlie Davies
1987: Tim Ream, Robbie Rogers, Alejandro Bedoya, Matt Besler, Michael Bradley, Jose Torres, Chris Pontius, Dax McCarty, Tony Beltran
1988: Omar Gonzalez, Eric Lichaj
1989: Jozy Altidore, Jorge Villafana, Freddy Adu, Sean Johnson

The highlight of the decade came in 1982 and 1983 which were monster birth-years for American soccer, producing many of the programs all-time best players. Then the birth years from 1985-1987 continued the upward trend with World Cup-caliber players like Cameron, Holden, Feilhaber, Edu, Besler, Bedoya, and Bradley.

The Missing Years: 1990-1994 & 1996

The start of the 1990s marked the beginning of a dry spell of player production—a trend that has had a negative impact on the national team because these players should now be in their prime and comprise the core of Bruce Arena’s team. As you can see below, that has not panned out.

1990: Darlington Nagbe, Joe Corona, Brek Shea, Bill Hamid, Matt Hedges, Ethan Finlay, Miguel Ibarra
1991: Greg Garza, Kelyn Rowe, Gyasi Zardes, Steve Birnbaum
1992: Bobby Wood, Sebastian Lletget, Ventura Alvarado, Perry Kitchen, Joe Gyau, Juan Agudelo
1993: DeAndre Yedlin
1994: Jordan Morris

What you have here is a dramatic drop of player contribution to the national team from the previous era of players. Of this smaller group, only Bobby Wood and DeAndre Yedlin have been consistent contributors, with Darlington Nagbe only becoming starter in 2017. Jordan Morris is currently an option off the bench and Gyasi Zardes is used less frequently than he was in 2015 and 2016 under Klinsmann and could fade out of the picture before the 2018 World Cup.

But that’s essentially it over a five-year period—three national team starters and one bench player.

There is very little depth either. The many different paths of American development (abroad, college, developmental academies, MLS academies) produced next to nothing during these years and the national team is paying a price now.

While this generation is still young and normally it would be unwise to say the list is complete for players of this age, it doesn’t look likely to change in this case since the younger years are the least productive.

The youngest age group is 1994 and it is hard to overstate just how bad that birth year has been not just for producing American-born/raised players for the national team but also for producing quality professionals. After Morris, the list is thin, with Dillon Serna, Alex Bono, Nick Lima, and Brandon Vincent represent the best of the bunch. The addition of foreign-born/developed John Brooks masks this problem a bit.

The 1993 birth year might also see the inclusion of Walker Zimmerman, Wil Trapp, Tim Parker, or Cody Cropper but all are a long way off from the full national team. The most likely player to improve his standing is Sebastian Lletget (born in 1992) who is recovering from a long-term injury but still only has three caps.

Also significant, this age group features quite a few highly regarded prospects who turned out to be busts. Injury played a part in the cases of Omar Salgado, Marc Pelosi, Will Packwood, and Charles Renken. Some prospects were high-profile busts, including Freddy Adu and Gale Agbossoumonde. Others like Brek Shea, Luis Gil, Shane O’Neill, and Jack McInerney might turn into serviceable pros but they don’t appear to be long-term national team contributors as many predicted.

While there are several legitimate prospects in this age group, the quantity has dropped significantly when compared with the birth years in the 1970s and 1980s.

For example, if you take a position like central midfield, Arena primarily relies on players in their 30s: Michael Bradley, Dax McCarty, Geoff Cameron, and Sacha Kljestan. After that he has to go all the way down to youngsters like Kellyn Acosta,22, Cristian Roldan, 22, or hopefuls like Weston McKennie, 19, or Jonathan Gonzalez,18.

And it’s the same for many other positions on the field.

A problem that had been building

A big takeaway is that youth national teams matter and do reflect the strength of the player development program.

During the strong birth years of the 1980s, there was improved performances of youth national teams at World Cups for the players of this age. The 1999 U-17 advanced to the semifinals and Landon Donovan won the Golden Ball. The 2003 U.S. U-20 advanced to the quarterfinals and played great soccer in the process. The 2005 U-20 team also impressed, as did the 2007 team that made a run to the quarterfinals and beat some very good teams.

With the U.S. youth national teams from the “missing years,” however, the lack of talent was apparent.

2007 U-17 World Cup team: Only Brek Shea and Greg Garza have been capped and neither are in the current player pool.

2009 U-17 World Cup team: Only Luis Gil, Perry Kitchen, and Juan Agudelo have been capped. Gil and Kitchen are no longer in the player pool. Agudelo is, at best, the fifth forward on the national team.

2009 U-20 World Cup team: Only Sean Johnson, Mix Diskerud, Jorge Villafana, and Brek Shea have been capped. Diskerud was formerly a regular and made a World Cup team but is no longer in the picture. Villafana remains in the current pool and is a potential starter although he was born in 1989 –before the Missing Years.

2011 U-20 World Cup qualifying team: From the team that didn't qualify for the World Cup the players Bobby Wood, Sebastian Lletget, Greg Garza, Joe Gyau, Kelyn Rowe, Perry Kitchen, and Gale Agbossoumonde have earned caps. Wood is a top U.S. player and a key member of the national team. Lletget was given his first three caps in 2017 and might be in the picture again depending on is recovery. Garza was in the pool briefly but does not appear to be in the mix right now.

2013 U-20 World Cup team: Only DeAndre Yedlin, Wil Trapp, Luis Gil, and Caleb Stanko were capped (this does not include Kellyn Acosta who made this team playing “up” an age level and doesn't represent this age range). Of those in this team’s age range, only Yedlin is in the national picture.

In other words, these five youth teams produced just three regular players (Yedlin, Wood, and pre-Missing Year’s Villafana) in the present day national team picture, with the possible addition of Lletget.

Did U.S. Soccer identify the right talent for the youth teams during these years? Did it have a big enough player pool? Many players progressed upward through the youth national team system but were they good enough? Or were they promoted for the sake of continuity and familiarity?

Perhaps these lean years were simply a down period. Dutch-born Thomas Rongen was the head coach for the U.S. U-20 team for four cycles and he achieved success with quarterfinal runs at the World Cup in 2003 and 2007 and produced six players who made it to the World Cup (Dempsey, Clark, Johnson, Convey, Altidore, and Bradley). But he was also the coach in 2009 and 2011 which were part of the years in this downturn.

“I think it was a real interesting time of synergy with U.S. Soccer trying to find itself,” Thomas Rongen said. “There were some young players in Europe….The predominant players at that time were still in college and some were in MLS but weren't getting playing time, to be honest with you.”

“But I think in the end of the day you put this down to what happens also in the rest of the world where you have sometimes some bad cycles. I think my home country [the Netherlands] is a great example. It's not like they changed their academy structure or Ajax changed its philosophy. The country is still producing some very good players but not the Nistelrooys, the Rjkaards, or the Bergkamps. Ajax just sold several players that will go on and help the national team but we are going through a four-to-six year period right now with no Euros or no World Cup.”

Janusz Michallik, a former United States national team defender and current analyst for ESPN, SIRIUSXM, and the YES Network, acknowledges that it might have been a down cycle for the American soccer but also wonders if that down cycle was exacerbated by the lack of opportunities players had at that time before MLS academies expanded, reserve teams in the USL were created, and homegrown signing rules went fully into effect.

“I also think that the reason might have been when you look at the development of MLS and its academies now versus when those players would be growing up, now you have more opportunities to see them in meaningful games,” Michallik said. “Maybe there were some more talented players because it was hard to take the risk on them because when would you have seen them? The youth World Cups? Olympics? Or maybe one or two weeks of qualifying? How could you confirm if they could play? Academies were just developing and in MLS back then, young players weren't getting chances.

“There was a period of time when it was hard for an 18- or 19-year-old to start in MLS—like the Tyler Adams of the world. When we're talking about those years, maybe it wasn't about believing in opportunity.”

The Rebound and a Look Forward

The good news for U.S. Soccer and its fans is that there is a positive trend after the missing years. 1995 marked a very strong birth year and hints at more of what is likely to come.

1995: Matt Miazga, Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, Cristian Roldan, Lynden Gooch, Ethan Horvath, Jesse Gonzalez
1996: Emerson Hyndman
1997 and beyond: Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Jonathan Gonzalez, Josh Sargent, Justen Glad, Erik Palmer-Brown, Nick Taitague

In this age group, there is a major reverse trend of American developed talent. While not all of the players listed have been capped due to their age, there are some promising signs to consider.

The 1995 birth year alone produced five players on the 2017 Gold Cup-winning team, with as many as six being in the mix for the World Cup squad next summer (should the U.S. qualify). There are also a series of good role players who should make for good professionals and possibly even a late bloomer into the national team one day, including Tommy Thompson, Zack Steffen, Alex Muyl, Marco Delgado, and Russell Canouse. All of this was missing in the previous five years.

The following year, 1996, was a step back with Emerson Hyndman carrying the torch as a prospect. Rubio Rubin was once a top prospect but he has fallen off. Perhaps some of the current crop of NCAA seniors will pan out and boost this age level.

The years beyond 1997 are continuing in the right direction even beyond Christian Pulisic. Players like Tyler Adams and Justen Glad are excelling in MLS. Jonathan Gonzalez is shining in Mexico. Weston McKennie is in the Bundesliga and Nick Taitague is not far behind. Erik Palmer-Brown just inked a deal with Manchester City and Josh Sargent will be heading abroad next year.

“First of all we have to acknowledge the fact that soccer has improved so much over the past 10 years alone,” said U.S. Soccer youth technical director and U-20 head coach Tab Ramos. “That makes a huge difference. I think there is more talent just because there are a lot more good environments for players to train. The next thing you notice over the past few cycles is that our team has gotten younger rather than older. I think that comes down to us being able to know all the players in our age group—not just the U-20 age group, but all the age groups. Now we can give opportunities to younger players.”

“These are kind of the things we weren't able to do six or seven years ago that now are a lot easier for us,” Ramos said. “All of those little things contribute to us being able to do better.”

Unsurprisingly, recent youth national teams are playing better. The past two U-20 teams have advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals and the 2017 squad did so without many of its best players.

The implementation of full-time coaches for U-19, U-18, and U-16 national teams has been a boost for these recent classes. In prior generations, there were only U-20 and U-17 national teams with occasional U-18 camps. Now there is a consistent stream of national teams for every birth year from the U-14 through the U-20 levels.

This means there are more players in the national team system than ever before, and this increased focus has identified significant talent. Cameron Carter-Vickers broke into the U.S. system with the U-18 team. McKennie was identified by Schalke while playing with the U.S. U-18 team as well. Taitague has been a consistent force at these levels too. In 2016, Adams was able to remain closely involved with U.S. Soccer before breaking into the U-20 late in the cycle where he had a big impact at the World Cup. 

U.S. U-17 national coach John Hackworth believes that the turnaround has come with a better overall structure and organization that casts a much wider net than ever before.

“Tab Ramos deserves a lot of credit,” Hackworth said. “A full-time U-19 coach, U-18 coach, a U-16 coach, a U-15 coach. This is the first time we've ever had that. We're working together.”

“On the big picture, we've grown other parts of U.S. Soccer from the Development Academy and we now have a talent ID department,” he added. “The scouting department was people working in the Development Academy and doing scouting. That is now separated. We have a high-performance department now. There is so many growth areas within U.S. Soccer and the idea is those things trickle down and are in a collaborative effort with our clubs. And our clubs are now investing more in youth development than ever before.” 

What does it all mean?

After looking at the trend lines, it’s clear that better days are likely on the horizon but the short term will continue to be rocky—all the way through the 2018 World Cup. Should the U.S. team qualify, Arena will be short on players from the key ages of 24-28. Both he and Klinsmann have had to rely heavily on players who are 30-plus for longer periods of time (Zusi, Besler, Cameron, Bradley, Dempsey, Bedoya, Howard, Wondolowski) and these veterans have not had much competition along the way from younger players—until now.

It’s hard to say why the Missing Years generation failed to produce. That age range has been a disappointment from its early teenage years and continues to have limited impact on the national team. Was it poor development or was the talent never there to begin with? The most likely explanation is that it was a combination of both. Older players utilized the same developmental avenues and were far more successful. But maybe youth national teams and other youth programs did not scout, identify, and explore big enough player pools with a wide enough net.

Regardless of why it happened, the consequences of such gap in talent production are huge. In international soccer, there is always talk about “golden generations” and teams rising and fading. The United States might never need a golden generation to continue its ascent. But it definitely needs to avoid another talent gap like the one found during these Missing Years.

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