When Brad Friedel was growing up in suburban Cleveland a generation ago, youth soccer was more an afterthought than an organized activity.
"There was nothing there," he remembers.
So he was a bit surprised when he moved back to the U.S. after spending most of the last 20 years playing in the English Premier League.
"The entire landscape and scope of what soccer is today doesn't compare, doesn't even look remotely similar, to the landscape that I left," he said.
And he's not the only one who has noticed. Between the time Friedel quit UCLA and left for Europe in 1993 and his return to Southern California last year, leagues from around the world flooded the U.S. with scouts and training academies. They set up youth leagues, offered clinics, staged showcases and stole teenage players, all in a place they only recently felt comfortable ignoring.
Foreign teams are drawn to the U.S. by the numbers. About 17 million people over age 6 are now playing soccer in this country, according to a study by the Sports & Fitness Industry Assn. That's more than twice as many as in Germany and England combined.
And the gap is widening. American children are starting the game earlier and staying with it longer. A survey released earlier this year showed more young men (18 to 29) grew up participating in youth soccer than tackle football.
"Once you are able to set up the right structure to educate them, putting them together in elite academies, it's a question of time [before] you have a breakthrough," Christian Seifert, CEO of the German
"And having … million[s] playing — and an increasing number interested in soccer — means that the next generation will also start to play. You have absolutely everything that is needed to become a real soccer nation."
That's why Tottenham of the English Premier League staged an 82-team U.S. tournament this month, one that ended with 30 young players earning a two-week trip to London to audition for the Spurs.
It drew more than a half-dozen teams from Mexico's Liga MX to establish programs of their own in the U.S. (The Xolos of Tijuana, who already have four Americans on their first-team roster, are so bullish on the U.S. market they run academy programs in Chula Vista and Oxnard as well as in Utah, Minnesota, New Jersey and the Carolinas, according to a club spokesman.)
Italian club AS Roma has opened 10 elite soccer academies in the U.S., the newest in Woodland Hills.
"Overall, the U.S. has so much potential to produce more and more top-flight professional players — there is a large and diverse population, a strong infrastructure and a growing soccer tradition," said Italo Zanzi, Roma's New York-born CEO, who called his club's investment in the U.S. "very substantial."
"We have achieved a lot in a short amount of time, but more importantly we have created a platform that will continue to benefit our partner clubs, AS Roma and many players and coaches for years to come. The U.S. academy is committed to identifying and developing elite youth players that can potentially play for AS Roma."
Tony Lepore, the director of scouting for U.S. Soccer, welcomes the interest of Mexican and European clubs and leagues.
"That's healthy," he said. "The world is our benchmark. They've been doing it a long time. They're ahead of us.
"But at the same time our academies are really working hard."
Proof the U.S. talent pool is deepening at the youth level isn't hard to find.
Four years ago Ben Lederman of Calabasas became the first American-born player invited to train at La Masia, the famed Barcelona academy that developed Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Giovani dos Santos. (Lederman, now 15, returned to the U.S. this fall after being caught in a dispute between the team and FIFA over the registration of underage players and is training at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.)
In addition, three recent call-ups to the U-16 U.S. national team are in Mexican team academies and three players on the U-18 team have joined clubs in Sweden or Mexico. Defender Matthew Olosunde, who played for the U.S. in the U-17 World Cup this fall, reportedly is close to signing with Manchester United.
Friedel, a global ambassador for Tottenham who has also coached U.S. youth-team players, says the international attention afforded American players has spurred more than just interest. It has inspired investment in amateur soccer development while pushing U.S. Soccer and the country's domestic leagues to demand more of their coaches and developmental programs — all of which will only make the system better.
"That puts more onus on us, as Americans, to put together very good academies and development centers within
"People in the world take the American player very seriously…. I don't see this trend dying."