DENVER – Despite the US national team's recent failure to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Landon Donovan believes the nation's youth development landscape is improving and drawing closer to the level of the world's elite soccer-playing nations.
Speaking at Denver's Pepsi Center on a panel that also included Colorado Rapids interim GM Padraig Smith, US women's national team star Becky Sauerbrunn and Donovan's agent, Richard Motzkin, who represents a number of prominent American soccer players, Donovan said the development of youth academies at MLS clubs and elsewhere will help the US close the gap on more traditional soccer powers. It just may not happen as quickly as some would like.
“We have much better access now that if a young kid growing up in Colorado Springs wants to play for the Rapids at 16, in many instances, that’s the right decision for that kid versus trying to go somewhere else in the world,” he explained. “We are doing a much better job in this country at closing that gap in how we develop. There’s no question that many teams around the world are better at it still because they’ve been doing it for much longer. But we’re closing that gap significantly and now you have real option, which we didn’t have in the past.”
The discussion, part of an event sponsored by the Rapids and organized by the sports management program at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, covered issues like the battle for more equality between the men's and women's game and the need for more attention on mental health in the sport.
But with last month’s qualifying loss to Trinidad and Tobago still fresh, the question of the future of soccer in America drew out the most passionate responses.
Like Donovan, Smith expressed optimism for America's soccer future, particularly if this most recent setback becomes a teachable moment.
“I really do feel that the failure to qualify for the World Cup may be a watershed moment for the game here,” said Smith. “If we accept and agree that this is going to be a long-term process, five to fifteen years. If we start now, we can see the US become a dominant force.”
While some have insisted that more American players need to follow the European path of rising stars like Borussia Dortmund's Christian Pulisic, Motzkin cautioned that it's not the right choice for every promising talent.
Christian Pulisic celebrates a goal for the US national team vs. Trinidad and Tobago / USA Today Sports
“Every situation is unique," he said. "And ultimately the factor that most needs to be taken into account is where is that individual going to have the best opportunity to grow and develop not just as a player but as a person."
Equally important, Smith said, is continuing to increase the quality of international players in MLS to push the development of domestic talent, while at the same time making sure there is enough room on rosters for domestic players to get opportunities.
It's an equation he believes MLS has managed well so far.
“With the international slots, I think MLS has done a good job at ensuring we haven’t become overpopulated with foreign players,” Smith said. “Rosters are expending but it is a delicate balance. I think we should always positively discriminate toward younger American players where we can, but it’s not about doing it just for the sake of doing it.”
After spending much of his career in Europe, Smith said he's perhaps more optimistic about the future of MLS than the average American, as he continues to encounter enthusiasm from his colleagues abroad.
“I get calls all the time from players and administrators wanting to get involved in MLS, wanting to get over here to get involved in soccer,” he said. “The facilities, the culture, everything here has improved over recent years here in the US.”
That said, he recognizes some tough challenges remain.
“With the US having not qualified for the World Cup we really have to use this as an instigator for change,” Smith said. “We have to make sure we’re giving all of the kids here the best opportunity to succeed. If we can’t do that, we have to make changes and make the right decisions and we can do that here.”