Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Do you remember Freddy Adu? He’s the phenomenal youth player who, at age 14, became the youngest player to earn an MLS contract in 2003. For the next five years things went well for him. He played a significant role with D.C. United and Real Salt Lake before being picked up by Benefica in Portugal. But at the ripe old age of 19, he began to see his soccer career unravel. He was loaned out to four lower tier European teams with minimal success, then returned to the MLS in 2011, playing two seasons with the Philadelphia Union. Bahia in Brazil picked him up, but he made just two appearances. His time on the U.S. Men’s National Team extended from 2006 to 2011, with only 17 appearances. He was off the squad all of 2010, which was a World Cup year. Presently, he is training with Blackpool F.C., which is a second-tier English team, but the side decided against offering him a contract. He’s had overtures from the NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks but is hoping for a European team to pick him up.
His story is one of the cautionary tales that come from youth sports. Parents hear about someone like Adu, and we may immediately begin comparing our own child against the big news. These unusual players create the belief that the brass ring of playing professionally sits just outside our child’s reach. With the right break, continued on-field success and the proper exposure, our kid could be the next Sporting News headline. The question is: Do we really want this to all come so soon? Adu had and undoubtedly still has exceptional talent. But once he signed a contract, his life switched from developing those talents to exercising them solely for the profit of team owners. When he ceased providing that profit, either through assisting a winning season or drawing fans with publicity, he ceased being relevant in the sport he loves. Two of my grandsons will be 14 this year and I can’t imagine either one of them capable of handling the pressures of being on a pro team. They would be out of their element as it relates to family, peers and age-appropriate social life. There are some rare kids who can step into that arena, but when we look at them years later we can see the toll it took on their lives. Just consider all the child actors who have imploded.
Too often parents have the mistaken impression that the window of opportunity to make the top echelons of soccer is small and comes really early in a player’s growth. This perception gets fed by YouTube videos, media reports and rumors. We can watch young players juggle a ball 200 times with lots of trick moves or 10-year-olds dodging adult players on the way to scoring a goal. We wonder if perhaps we should be promoting our own children showcasing their skills for the world to see on the off-chance they will catch a scout’s eye. Certainly, even if we aren’t pushing our pre-teens into a pro career, we do end up needing to publicize them when it comes to college recruiting. Therefore, navigating the waters of soccer exposure becomes justified. We know we have to do it, so why not do it earlier? We might just hit the jackpot.
According to research done by Georgia State University and NCAA statistics, the chances of a high school soccer player eventually becoming a professional player is .08 percent, which is eight players out of 100,000 or one in 12,500. To put that into perspective, a team of 22 players will have someone go pro every 568 seasons. Even spreading this out among all the high schools in your city, you’re still looking at one every 30 to 40 seasons at best in the entire community. Our children would not only have to be the best out of 12,500 players at their age level, but also be lucky enough to be scouted and selected. Signing as a pro doesn’t insure someone will play as a pro. Lots of players get the call but only few hang on to the contract. A friend’s nephew, B.J. Tucker, was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys out of Wisconsin in 2003. He went in the sixth round (178th overall) because in addition to his football skills, he ran track. His speed earned him a nod, but only a nod. He bumped around the NFL, joining the rosters of four different teams between August and September in 2003 alone. His only playing time came through the Seahawks when he was loaned to an NFL Europe team. Otherwise, he was either on practice squads or simply released. In 2008, he was signed by the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League with limited special teams play. He’s “retired” now without much savings. He had promise but couldn’t turn that into a contract. His story is the one most young athletes face even when drafted by a pro team.
Then there is Freddy Adu, who achieved the dream only to see it disappear all too quickly. We can speculate on what happened. Perhaps he was too young, perhaps he didn’t get big enough to sustain his power on the field, perhaps he was excellent for a 14-year-old but not so special for a 20-year-old, or perhaps he burned out — unable to handle the pressure to succeed. Whatever happened, it happens to many a young player. Unfortunately for Freddy, his world-wide fame made his struggles very public, another burden for him to shoulder. His celebrity also contributes to his inability to make the best choices for his future. Having played at the top levels for years, including going to the 2008 Olympics, it’s demoralizing for him to find himself starting over at a lesser level of pro soccer. His career won’t be helped by riding the bench on a top European team although it will soothe his ego. He needs playing time and further development to find his professional footing. I’ve always said that kids should play on the best team where they will be a starter. That’s a difficult choice for parents and their children who favor status over development. However, I can offer scores of examples of youth players who didn’t play on the top team in their community then went on to play at a junior college transferring to a Division I school and earning an invite to the MLS combine. Everyone develops on a different schedule. What matters is being the fittest, most developed player when the scouts are watching. Youth players can grow into that position, most likely not at 14 and possibly not even at 20, but if they have passion they can fight to move into the professional ranks.
I can use my oldest son as an example. He played on a lackluster youth team, but as a goalkeeper, weak defense afforded him opportunities to showcase his talents, which he did at the Dallas Cup just four months before his first year of college. He had despaired of being able to play college soccer since only one school had shown interest, but he did not feel comfortable when he visited. However, from his performance at the Dallas Cup (actually from one game there) he was recruited at truly the last minute to play in San Francisco. Then he struggled during his college career, eventually transferring to UW-Milwaukee. Once his eligibility ran out, he bounced around playing for adult teams in the Milwaukee area, until, using all the networking he could muster, he got himself a chance to practice with the pro indoor team. At the end of this season, he was signed for the last month and a half. It’s a start for him. Whether it will result in bigger options, who knows. He didn’t make the splash of a Freddy Adu, but he’s in a position to advance. Achieving a professional career has as much to do with passion for the sport as it does with athleticism and skill. To make himself stand out, he has to work on his fitness constantly, not just during team practices, do daily training in drills and practice kicks, and he keeps up with what is going on in the world of soccer, always looking for openings.
When we think of soccer superstars, we are looking at the top 20 players in the world. Their level of success involved some luck and lots of hard work, not to mention innate athletic abilities. Some of the stars began blazing at a young age, some later. Parents need to understand how unusual and difficult it is to make it to the top. As parents, we can’t isolate some accomplishment from our child’s soccer history as proof that they have what it takes to go pro. In Robbie’s first high school game, he fired a bullet shot from 35 yards out over the head of the keeper into the back of the net. He never again duplicated that shot, but he played in college with a teammate who did it regularly. Robbie’s hallmark skill became dribbling down to the corner and making really dangerous crossing shots or passes that goalkeepers had difficulty handling. However, that skill wasn’t fully developed until early in his college years. Despite his speed and agility, which might get him a pro tryout, he’s opted to fill out his med school applications and move onto the next phase of his life. He’d been down that “you can be a star” road already. When he was 14, he was invited to try out for the Youth National Team. He broke his foot the week before the tryout but went anyway. About three days into the event, the coach came to him and said, “Boyd, I thought you were fast.” Robbie explained about his foot, but no one cared. He had to perform at his top level right then and he couldn’t. I wonder what we would have done had he been invited to join the National Pool. How would we have balanced the excellent education he was getting at the Catholic high school in Milwaukee against the possibility of making a National Team roster? Two years after his tryout, one of his high school teammates made the pool and left school to train in Bradenton. Within a year he was released, but he couldn’t transfer back to the high school, so he finished out his education in Florida and then went to play for George Washington University.
Robbie’s story, his teammate’s story, Bryce’s story and Freddy Adu’s story are all similar. Freddy went the furthest, but he doesn’t have a college degree and, not yet 25-years-old, doesn’t have a team. Robbie will go to medical school, his teammate has a job in finance, Bryce has about one more year to try and make it as a pro before he has to switch to a more traditional career, and Freddy is hoping (without a basis in reality) to get back in the U.S. National Team picture. Dreams are important, fame is fabulous, and success feels wonderful, but in the world of sports, all of that can be fleeting. We do best by our children not to overcommit them to a life of striving for athletic honors. Yes, our sports figures are idolized unlike someone who cures polio or negotiates peace settlements, but the latter have a far more significant impact on the world despite being achieved without the rabid groupies and lucrative endorsements. The names of team power players may hang from the upper decks and rafters of arenas, but the real fame is found in those who make an indelible difference in the quality of our lives.