Talent not far from home
Just after squeezing through the turnstiles and quickly passing the All-Star Café in this elevated, boardwalk-like maze in the shadow of Disney's Magic Kingdom, the view you're hit with is akin to what a baseball fanatic would feel when encountered with the "Field of Dreams" in Dyersville, Iowa.
Nine of the most pristine soccer fields you'll ever come across, being used by the top youth club teams in the country. Not a blade of what I'm told is considered Tifway 419 Bermuda turf is out of place, even after two full days and nights of the Disney Soccer Showcase presented by adidas.
Usually at top-flight soccer tournaments around the country you're encountered with a bevy of college coaches who are half-scouting and half-socializing. It's no different here, as one quick walk through the park will prove when you see the likes of Sasho Cirovski from Maryland, Jay Vidovich from Wake Forest and conquering hero Mike Freitag, who is fresh off winning his first National Championship as a head coach with Indiana University, among the 200 hundred coaches in attendance.
There is one jacket that does stand out from all of the loud adidas, Nike and Puma kits adorned by the various coaching staffs, who are as interested in being seen by recruits as the recruits are being watched by them due to restrictive NCAA rules. It's that of Geoff McDougle, one of the youth scouts for the Bolton Wanderers. Outfitted in the understated Reebok jacket that you see the Bolton players wearing many a Sunday when you turn on Fox Sports World, it's a familiar sight to anyone who follows the English Premier League very closely -- just not one that usually seen at a youth tournament in America.
Yet, as McDougle states, it's something we'll be seeing more of in the future as the youth academies look more and more across the Pond for young players who have the potential to make a first-team roster at their club someday. And from what he's seeing at this tournament, McDougle isn't shy about saying that there are several 16- and 17-year-olds he's enamored with.
"I'd take quite a few of these guys back with me," he says, while keeping an eye on one field that has the U.S. Under-17 national team playing the Region II Olympic Development Program 17s. "There are a lot of young players here who could come over to England and compete right away with our players."
McDougle, who is in his fifth year with Bolton after coming over from Preston North End, found that out late last summer when one of his youth players (Under-18), 17-year-old Luke Magill, mentioned one of his friends he made while living in Connecticut, and how he might be a good player for the Academy to look at. On that simple urging, McDougle invited Johann Smith to come train with the youth side for a week in August. That week turned into two weeks. That two weeks was followed by a three-year contract offer that Smith, from the Oakwood Soccer Club in Connecticut, accepted in November and has been training in Bolton ever since.
Full disclosure: Smith was one of the top players at the club I have coached at for the past three years. I'm here coaching my 16-year-olds, while Smith would be on our U-18s if he were here this spring. He was always a force to be reckoned with at the premier club level due to his track star speed and nose for the goal, but he really didn't make a name for himself until lighting it up during last summer's adidas ESP camp when he made the All-Star team and he made most every coach's top 10 list of high school-aged players in the country. He's a player who has matured by leaps and bounds, both mentally and physically, over the past year to put himself in this type of position.
Thus far, McDougle has been delighted with his signing, and might even be accompanying the U.S. Under-18 national team to Mexico next month to keep an eye on his new striker.
"His athleticism, power, strength and his incredible pace are noticeable right away," says McDougle. "He's still a bit raw, but he has loads of potential. He's getting acclimated to his new environment right now, but he's done well since he's come over."
McDougle would love to get a boatload of Smiths to bring back with him from this tournament, but there are several restrictions.
"If it wasn't an issue with them getting European passports to play, then there'd be a lot more Americans we would sign," he says. "I'm always looking for players to invite over. Looking at the tournament here so far, I've seen a real improvement in the technical skills in players this age from the States."
Three years ago, McDougle scouted the U-17 side that had Freddy Adu, Jonathan Spector, Eddie Gaven and Danny Szetela on its roster, amongst several others who are now playing professionally. While he was impressed with the top five or six players, he felt that there was a lack of technical ability shown by this group. It was their athleticism that allowed them to be successful. But as McDougle says now, he thinks that has been changed, as he keeps seeing the level rise in America each time he comes over.
"I think a lot of it has to do with your national team," he says. "To watch that team play so well, and play so technically and tactically smart, has to have influenced all these young players. Plus, they no longer have to search far to see Americans do well. Every weekend, people all over the world watch Brian McBride, Brad Friedel and Claudio Reyna and the other Americans here. It's no longer an oddity."
After two days of watching matches, McDougle says that the top clubs at this tournament -- Scott Gallagher, Colorado Rush, Dallas Texans and Chicago Sockers to name a few - wouldn't embarrass themselves against the youth squads from the Premiership.
"It'd be a good, competitive match," he says. "There are a few sides here that would make it a good game for us to play."
What intrigues McDougle the most is how soccer isn't more popular in the States. When he asked me about this, it was hard not to roll my eyes since it's a question that all of us who are intensely involved in the sport have to answer continually.
"I look around here and see so much talent and so much passion," says McDougle, circling the fields with his head to see hundreds and hundreds of players, coaches and parents enjoying the action. "People in Europe find it absolutely amazing that such a big country with so many people have had a hard time getting soccer right over the years."
When I tell him that participation in the game and enjoyment from playing isn't the problem, but that following the game at the professional level and attending MLS and national team matches doesn't go hand-in-hand the way it should, quickly butts in.
"See, that's the thing," he says. "Our players live for watching the games. And they could not only name the rosters for most every team in England, but also for those in Scotland and Wales and all the national teams. You learn a lot by watching matches from the time you are little. When I'm over here, all I see on TV are basketball games and American football."
I inform McDougle of the soccer lineup that all the various cable stations allow fans in the U.S. to watch, and he's definitely surprised at the amount of coverage that is available. But his point is made, as the ratings for such telecasts, even on ABC or ESPN are miniscule compared to that of other sports in the U.S.
"What I have liked is that there are so many people that I have met who are working extremely hard to build the sport here," he says. "That's why I am here building connections and getting to know a bunch of managers. Our first team has been good about getting talent and our manager and scouts are tremendous about looking to various countries. Obviously, there are players like Ricardo Gardner (Jamaica) and [Jay-Jay] Okocha (Nigeria), and we just signed a lad from Tunisia (Radhi Jaidi) who plays as a central defender, so we're expanding our base."
In the future, McDougle hopes that includes more Americans, as well. While he wouldn't say the names of the players he likes in Major League Soccer -- it's Bolton's club policy -- he did say that his club is very active as far as scouting the league and has an interest in "several" players.
"MLS keeps upping its level," he says. "As the league gets more quality games -- I think MLS could use a system where each game means more (promotion-relegation someday?) -- more teams from England will be scouring the league for players."
Not to mention tournaments like the one down here in Disney.
Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com and Marc can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.