Voices: Rodney Wallace

The blueprint: How MLS NEXT is bridging the gap from youth to pro

FRISCO, Texas – What’s more important in the youth game: development or winning?

For me the youth game is about developing winning habits, and the MLS NEXT Cup is providing just that: a platform for the best talent in the country to display their game and express who they are as players to the public eye.

Yes, the pressures are real and some prospects might feel it more than others. At any given moment, a great performance can change a player’s life, which is why having a winning mentality is crucial.

A player like Weston McKennie knows what it means to be in this type of tournament and what it can offer a player. It wasn’t too long ago that the US men's national team standout was playing on the same fields as these kids with his home state's FC Dallas academy and not, like he is now, playing for Juventus in the Italian Serie A as one of their biggest stars.

He’s an example to follow for the players in the academies along with Jesus Ferriera (FC Dallas academy), Cade Cowell (San Jose Earthquakes academy), Giovanni Reyna (New York City FC academy) and many others who came up through the ranks of an MLS academy system. Their stories offer a reality for these players in MLS NEXT because, just like Weston made it out of Dallas to Germany and now Juventus, it sends the message that reaching the game at the highest level is attainable and not impossible.

Watching kids play at the youth level is a “flashback moment that brings so many memories," McKennie, who was in attendance at Frisco Monday, told MLSsoccer.com. "To have these games live for the world to see is a huge advantage.”

I’ve had the privilege to compete, win, and lift trophies on these fields at various stages of my career. From competing in Nationals at the age of 16 with the Casa Mia Bays, to winning the 2008 College Cup with the University of Maryland, to lifting a Western Conference Championship trophy at Toyota Stadium, which took me to winning an MLS Cup with the Portland Timbers in 2015.

Looking back, I feel as if I have a special connection to this complex in Frisco, and I am proud to represent a percentage of players that understand what it is like to make sacrifices to chase the dream of making a professional debut.

MLS Next is doing an incredible job at providing youth clubs from across the country a platform to showcase their players to show the world – and yes, I say the world because these games are being broadcasted on Twitch and YouTube – what these players, clubs and organizations are all about.

This is not only an opportunity for the players themselves, but also an opportunity for coaches to display and impose their club’s philosophy on the opposition. Some academies come from an already existing style of play molded by their first team in Major League Soccer. Other historic clubs not affiliated with Major League Soccer such as BW Gottschee, Baltimore Armour and Solar FC are part of an elite group of young talent, with the same hopes and dreams to be seen by these MLS academy programs.

The styles and philosophies might differ, but all of these kids have a unique opportunity in front of them. They have a chance to perform and compete for a major trophy and show the world what they are personally made of.

A path for everyone

Now, let’s keep it 100 right now: not every player that is taking part in the MLS NEXT Cup will make it to the professional level. This is just a reality. The question is, what can these young players do to give themselves the best opportunity to grow into young professionals?

Let’s not forget that these are still young people who are still in the development stages of their careers and lives. Regardless of whether they are playing for the Under-15s or the Under-19s, the recipe for success remains the same, with the key ingredient being the ability to not shy away from making mistakes.

As the game continues to evolve, so do the coaching styles. And adaptation is key. This is the time to improve as leaders and mentors to these kids. Obsessing about the game as a coach is something that will bring success on the field, but it’s important to remember that not every player is built the same.

Some players respond better than others to criticism. It would be selfish to get away from the bigger picture and forget that some players have had a different upbringing than others.

Many factors in the modern game have changed. The level is now more demanding and tactically it requires a high level of concentration. In that regard, MLS Next is giving players, coaches and teams the opportunity to not only be good, but become great.

As explained to me by Charles Ranken, who is now the assistant coach for the St. Louis Academy U-16s, there are huge gaps between the players at a young age. For Charles, every moment is an opportunity to teach and make an impact. He made a crucial point that some players are just okay, while some others truly have a grasp for what the game is really about.

The one factor he focuses deeply on with his players is the desire within. The desire to wake up every morning and give the maximum effort in training, the desire to chase down a player full field in the 80th minute, and the desire to never back down from the opponent.

And Charles knows, as he has had to overcome his own struggles from a young age. Coming from Zambia in 2003, Charles knew he was talented, but he also knew at an early age that talent alone wasn’t going to cut it. He quickly found his lane and in 2017 he was rewarded by his play with a spot on the U-17 National Residency Program. Charles was 13 years old at the time.

After dominating that age group, he found himself getting called up to the US U-20 men's national team. With the speculation that he could be the next American soccer phenom, Charles knew that because of his size he had to work three times as hard. He had no fears and that made him special. Unfortunately, he dealt with heavy adversity having torn his right ACL twice in the span of two years.

Speaking to Charles now, you would never know what he went through because of how kind and soft-spoken he is. He describes the present moment as an opportunity to teach his players that the desire comes first. To him, that’s the base of the game and everything else will come with attention to detail and willingness to learn.

From experience, Ranken knows the game can be taken away at any age, so he wants his young St. Louis players to cherish the moments. Now in a position to give back to the game, he says “my desire to keep fighting is what’s keeping me in this game, this is why I’m coaching and still involved with the game that brings me so much joy.”

Mistakes will happen

Players are expected to make mistakes in MLS NEXT, as they happen at all levels of the game, but what matters are the type of mistakes they are making.

Youth players won’t be faulted by a missed pass, a missed opportunity at goal, or even losing a match. When these things happen it’s important to correct the mistakes and build from the positives.

The intention will always go further at this level than maybe constant execution. It should also be noted that taking away bad habits like negative body language is a key part of the process. It’s all about building from their mistakes and allowing the player to feel comfortable enough to have the desire to stand up and have the confidence to try harder passes, such as those in between the lines or making diagonal runs in between defenders. The more a player understands the value of perfecting skills they see their idols perform week in week out, it will allow them to grow and quickly adapt to the high demands the game brings.

While analyzing an Under-15 Real Salt Lake academy match, I was fortunate to speak with one of the U-19 USYMNT coaches and it was refreshing to hear that one of the main qualities they look for in players is their determination. It might seem obvious, but determination doesn’t just mean how hard a player runs for a ball. Determination means details like sleep, recovery, being a student of the game, having respect for the club, leadership, and maximizing one’s personal potential. It means taking care of the body, making sure fitness is a priority, and the willingness to sacrifice a good time now for long-term success.

The game of soccer will reward these players if they know what they are best at, how they can get better, and how quickly the information given can be absorbed.

The reward of this hard work will be all worth it this weekend when a new MLS NEXT Cup champion is crowned. There is no better experience than the experience gained from competing and winning meaningful trophies.