John Napier – Does Europe or South America Provide Better Opportunities For The Elite American Youth Player?
John Napier is a former professional soccer player who represented his country of birth Northern Ireland at every International level. He had a distinguished seventeen year professional playing career, starting with Bolton Wanderers in 1961-67. Napier also played for Brighton & Hove Albion and Bradford City in England as well as the NASL in America for the Baltimore Comets and the San Diego Jaws. Napier has coached at the professional level in England, and since the 70’s, the multiple time MVP Napier has shared his expertise developing youth players. A highly respected youth soccer coach, Napier coaches with the San Diego Soccer Club and also identifies players, and coaches for Cal South ODP and has had numerous National Championship winning teams. Napier is a regular columnist sharing his insights on player development and the joys of soccer.
The big debate going on in youth soccer right now: Is America or Europe better for youth player development? Is it better for the best young American talent to go abroad to learn their apprenticeship in this world dominated sport? How does college fit in or not fit in to the equation?
Watching the U.S. Play Ireland recently, I witnessed one of my former Cal South ODP players Bobby Wood playing for the US National Team in Dublin.
This started my mind thinking back, way back!
Bobby was only 15 years old in 2007 when he joined German club 1860 Munich. A that time, he was playing for Irvine Strikers in California and was still in high school. I could see he was an outstanding young player with tremendous potential and a bright future.
I also remember — in the same time frame — many of my young ODP Hispanic/American players eager to go pro, headed South to sign up for Mexican Professional teams rather than attend college in the USA. Some are still there today earning a living playing soccer, and doing really well.
Turning back the time to 1992 my thoughts now turn to another young American high school player who is now retired US International, Jovan Kirovski.
I knew Jovan Kirovski from being from being in the area. One night, he and his family were were sitting next to me in a restaurant in my local town having his last family get-together before leaving for Manchester United the next day. Kirovski was also only 15 years old and I had a brief conversation that night with the family and wished him good luck. Kirovski played for the Nomads SC in San Diego and attended San Pasqual High School in Escondido.
Kirovski had a great career in Europe and later in the MLS with the LA Galaxy. Kirovski is now employed on the LA Galaxy coaching staff, giving back his experience to all those young and eager Academy players.
Both these young players and their families from different generations made life-changing decisions to move to Europe that proved to be tremendously successful.
There are many other young American players in European and at South American clubs right now, learning their trade and hoping that it will take them to the highest level.
But how many of those players have chosen that path at the tender age of 14, 15 and or 16 years old? Not many!
One player that did move at an even younger age of 11 is the California native Ben Lederman, who has been training in the Barcelona youth system for the last two years.
Ben has made great progress as a youth soccer player training in Spain. There are big expectations that he may one day become the first American to play in the Barcelona first team, but that is still a long way off.
Ben has been fortunate that all his family was able to move with him to Spain, and this alone gives him a better chance of survival in his new soccer environment.
The big debate going on right now “Is it better for the best young American talent to go abroad to learn their apprenticeship in this global sport”?
Even US Soccer’s National Head Coach Jürgen Klinsmann has been “accused” by the MLS of his disloyalty to the Academy soccer system and of encouraging young players to seek training options in Europe.
That is a big debate right now, and right or wrong, it opens the door for discussions on the impact of college on Americans wanting to play soccer. I
f the really good players are not playing at a high level of professional soccer at the young ages of 17 through 21 — are they left behind?
In this country, we believe in the importance of education and in college soccer, so the debate will continue, and the answers will be varied.
I think growing up in Europe or South America, the dream is to be a soccer player and there are many more opportunities to follow that ambition. But, the competition is fierce, and young players face tremendous obstacles each and every day.
Soccer is King – my personal story.
I was also young when I left home and signed for Bolton Wanderers. I was only 15 years old and it was tough. It was a different time frame, but many of the same obstacles were there; homesickness, competition, and everything being so new. You had to be mentally tough. Sometimes you were a 15 year old going against a 30 year old in training just to toughen you up.
You did not have family to lean on.
Many times I was close to getting back on a ship back home, my good friend George Best did just that. He left Manchester United and went back home to Belfast Nr. Ireland. Best couldn’t handle the environment of being away from home at that time. Twelve months later ,he was back at Manchester United, and after that we all know what happened. “What a player,” everyone said.
I remember that every day was a new challenge. But every day I was on the soccer field learning, and believe me, YOU LEARN quickly, and you grow up quickly. But if you can handle all of the above, it is worth it, if you want it badly enough.
Young Americans going abroad today will face many problems, More than just the cultural differences and the language barriers, American youth players face many more obstacles, including acceptance. In other words, American youth players are outsiders, especially when the players are very young.
‘To be truthful, you have a lot more to prove when you are a young player coming from America,’ is a common sentiment abroad.
America is not yet considered a soccer nation by other countries.
The soccer market is so global now, with the top International soccer clubs scouting worldwide, all looking for that shining star that could become the best pro ever. I sure do hope that kid – the shinning new start – will be an American in the near future. Can you imagine this great country producing the next great soccer super star! The next big soccer star is out there and he will be found, but is he going to end up in another country.
The debate goes on.