While most fans of the US men's national team have their eyes firmly fixed on the road to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, they should take note: The groundwork for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup campaigns is already being laid out.
Many of the men who will likely take the field in Russia and Qatar are stepping into the national spotlight as the US Soccer Development Academy Playoffs and Showcase take place this week under the sizzling Texas sun.
Starting Monday and continuing through Friday, dozens of elite youth teams from across the country – and even a couple from north of the border, thanks to the exemption granted to allow the Vancouver Whitecaps academy teams to take part – have traveled to the FC Dallas Stadium Complex in Frisco, Texas, to compete in one of US Soccer's most prestigious youth tournaments.
Perhaps more importantly, they’re also displaying their abilities for college and US Soccer scouts eager to identify up-and-coming talents. Sixty-four teams – the top 32 regular-season finishers in each of the DA’s two age groups – are in the running for a shot at a championship in Houston next month, while others are focused on putting their best foot forward in front of those watching eyes.
If everything works the way the federation intends it to, these young men will eventually form the backbone of national teams of the future, providing Jurgen Klinsmann and his successors with wave after wave of skillful, well-trained players from which to choose. This not only includes Major League Soccer’s burgeoning academy systems, but well-established youth clubs with long track records in player development. All are evaluated in depth and must earn their membership year in, year out.
Five years after its inception, the Development Academy continues to grow each year as US Soccer admits new clubs that meet its exacting standards for player development and technical expertise, with the Portland Timbers and Montreal Impact academies set for entry this fall. And it can already point to a substantial list of alumni like Joe Corona, Bill Hamid, Juan Agudelo, Zarek Valentin, Andrew Wenger and others who are carving out pro careers and competing for national-team roles at both the junior and senior levels.
According to US Soccer, more than 250 players from 59 DA clubs have been called into various US youth national team events since the Academy’s birth – and that’s to say nothing of other top talents with foreign, or as yet undetermined, allegiance like Andy Najar and Darlington Nagbe.
In 1999 the federation took a momentous step with the creation of the Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla., and the venture immediately began to pump out top-caliber players like Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Omar Gonzalez. The Development Academy is supposed to take this process nationwide, on a much grander scale.
So if you can, keep an eye on the rising stars in Frisco this week. The future of the USMNT may depend on them.
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com.