A recent article in the The New York Times about “an American boy wonder in Barcelona” caught my eye this morning. The wonder boy is Ben Lederman, age 13. The Lederman family packed up everything and left their lives, family, and friends in California to move to Barcelona in 2011 when Ben (who was then 11 years old) was invited to train at La Masia, the famed youth academy run by the global soccer juggernaut FC Barcelona, what many would say is the best football club the world has ever seen.
Ben is the first United States-born player invited to train at La Masia, and that distinction, while significant, means little to his overall quest: to work his way up through the Barcelona youth teams and someday, maybe, become the first American to play for Barcelona’s first team.
After reading the article, I thought back to a 60 Minutes episode that I watched this summer on CBS – The Super Cartel, Sticker Shock, Barça (while the entire episode is very interesting the part pertaining to this post is clearly the last segment on Barça). In this episode, Bob Simon profiles the Catalonian football club and the training system it built that produces such gifted players that nearly 70% of the current team is manned by its graduates. So it makes sense then why the Lederman family decided to make the life-altering decision to move to Barcelona and give Ben the opportunity of a lifetime. Parents want what’s best for their children, and La Masia is the best.
It is safe to say then that youth development is a, if not the, key factor to Barça’s success. Perhaps this is something the United States can learn from as we continue in our struggle to build a truly successful soccer league.
the United States has the highest participation of youth playing soccer in the world, with almost 4 million American children registered with US Youth Soccer.Furthermore, the United States saw the most accelerated growth rate of high school soccer between 1990 and 2010 than it had ever seen before.
So the desire of the youth to play the beautiful game clearly exists in the US, and we obviously have the talent (cough, cough… Ben Lederman). However, most soccer youth academies in the US are simply an extracurricular outlet. Until recent times, the US had nothing like La Masia to nurture our most talented young soccer players, but the MLS has recently launched 19 of its own soccer academies in cities across North America — and they’re modeled on European soccer academies like La Masia. Granted, it takes many years to create the sort of environment, ethos, and reputation that La Masia provides – the program did not just form overnight. La Masia also has the cultural association of being Catalonian – a truly unifying identity, something that, as Barça’s President Sandro Rosell says, is “in their blood.”
Many of you reading this are probably thinking that the only reason kids like Ben Lederman go to La Masia is for the hopes of playing for Barça one day. So even if an “American” La Masia was established , which team would those players hope to play for one day? There is no “American” Barça. La Masia is only great because Barça is great.
It’s the classic “which came first: the chicken or the egg” question. Which needs to come first: the youth development program or the team? I myself am not sure of the answer in general. But I would say that for Barça specifically, it was the youth program. However if you consider other successful teams around the world, that’s not necessarily the case. Many other clubs owe their success primarily to transfers (and yes, I’m aware that Barça does get some incredible players via transfers, but that makes up a minority of their team).
Whether or not the United States is capable of creating teams that rival Barça is not certain, but I do believe that, given the increasing interest and participation of our youth, part of the answer lies within our youth development programs. We are a country that constantly emphasizes the importance of our youth and the fact that they are the hope of our future. In education and the workforce, we strive to give the American youth all the best opportunities. Therefore, the same can be applied to the soccer arena. Perhaps then, families like the Ledermans won’t feel the need to sacrifice a life in the US and move halfway across the world in order to provide “the best” for their children.