CARSON, Calif. – When Landon Donovan looks at how the development of young talent in the US has changed since he arrived on the scene in the late 1990s, he knows it's a driving force in America's rise as a soccer country.
Donovan, 31, who emerged with the US team that reached the FIFA U-17 World Cup semifinals in 1999 – and won the Golden Ball as tournament in MVP – and has been a critical part of America's World Cup teams since 2002, is impressed by the strides that have been made in developing talent in the last few years.
“[Kids today] have a lot more options than we ever had,” said Donovan, who signed with Bayer Leverkusen when he was 16 but has played in MLS since 2000, before the US national team's training session Thursday morning at StubHub Center. “When I came up, your option was to either sign with a pro team at 16 or 17 if you wanted that, or you go to college. And all those teams you were signing with were overseas.
“Now we have really good academies in the States where kids don't feel they need to go overseas. We have a number of kids here in LA [with the Galaxy] that have opportunities to train and play with the first team, so they don't have to feel like they need to go somewhere else to get that. That's changed a lot, and that's going to be the way forward.”
Donovan emerged from the U-17 national team's residency in Bradenton, Fla., and two of his 1999 teammates also are part of US coach Jurgen Klinsmann's pool ahead of the coming World Cup: Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman, who has been in camp with the national team all month preparing for Saturday's friendly against South Korea (5 pm ET, ESPN2/UniMas), and DaMarcus Beasley, who plays with Puebla in Mexico and is aiming for his fourth World Cup.
Sheffield Wednesday defender Oguchi Onyewu, who was part of the 2006 and 2010 World Cup teams, also was part of the 1999 group. And Portland Timbers defender Michael Harrington received his first senior national team call-up for the January camp, joining Donovan and Beckerman.
There is more talent today, Donovan said.
“It seems now, every week or two there's a young kid at some academy somewhere that's American that's coming through the ranks, and that wouldn't have happened years ago,” he said. “… We've said for a long time it's fine to compete in the World Cups and Confederations Cups and [CONCACAF] Gold Cups and that kind of stuff, but the way we really get better is by our young kids getting better. And now we have an opportunity to develop that here.”