Copa America: Why can't U.S. Soccer have its own LeBron James?

    Story highlights

    • U.S. pros get too late a start, insiders say
    • MLS invests in youth academies
    • However, top U.S. talents still going overseas
    • USMNT faces Messi's Argentina on Tuesday

    (CNN)American sports fans were spoilt for choice last Thursday, when two deciding games in major events were staged at the exact same time.

    In Cleveland, Game 6 of the NBA Finals featured dueling homegrown icons LeBron James and Stephen Curry -- two of the most recognizable athletes in the world -- while out west in Seattle, the U.S. men's national soccer team defeated Ecuador in the Copa America quarterfinals.
      Although the games were separated by less than 2,400 miles, they may as well have been a galaxy apart in terms of star power.
      The USMNT is led by 33-year-old Seattle Sounders striker Clint Dempsey -- one of the most accomplished players the country has ever produced, who recorded his third goal and third assist of the tournament on Thursday -- along with goalkeeper Brad Guzan, whose club Aston Villa was relegated from the English Premier League this year.
      Dependable as they are, Dempsey and Guzan are no LeBron and Steph when it comes to the world's stage. In fact, they're not even close.
      So when will the U.S. finally be able to hail one of its own as a bona fide soccer phenom, a stratosphere currently reserved for Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and perhaps his Barcelona teammates Luis Suarez and Neymar?
      Maybe quicker than you think.
      In the dramatically shifting landscape of American soccer, where nearly all top European matches are broadcast live and Snoop Dogg is hooked on playing FIFA Soccer, kids are getting their cleats on earlier and much more often.
      The last point, especially, is creating a major impact on a fresh crop of talent to emerge stateside.
      Teen prodigy Christian Pulisic has been a bench player for the U.S. at this month's Copa America -- a role he will likely keep for Tuesday's semifinal against Messi's top-ranked Argentina team in Houston.
      The 17-year-old grew up in Hershey, Pennsylvania, a city known more for its eponymous chocolate factory than any soccer factory.
      Yet Hershey produced Pulisic, a midfielder so talented that he's already broken into the first team at Borussia Dortmund, runner-up in the German Bundesliga last season. Or, to be more accurate, Hershey took Pulisic as far as he could go before he sought stronger competition overseas and a dedicated life to footie at 15.
      Pulisic's experience in Germany -- eating, sleeping and drinking soccer at the highest level -- is one that really cannot be replicated at home just yet.
      "I do think we're holding back some of the talents," his father Mark Pulisic, who was a prolific goalscorer for U.S. indoor league team Harrisburg Heat, tells CNN. "Our thought process is to be a little bit overcautious with young players, and there are very limited opportunities for 16, 17, 18-year-olds to be given first-team minutes.
      "Whereas in Europe, if they are seen to have the ability mentally and physically to cope with the first-team matches, then they will be given opportunities to play," he adds. "You just don't see it here, and it's a shame."
      Mark Pulisic, who now coaches Borussia's 10-to-15-year-olds, stresses that the decision to go to Germany was Christian's but calls the move "a no-brainer."
      He says this despite having played in the college system, a route his son has bypassed. "As far as developing as a player, there is no doubt going pro at an early age is the way to go."

      'A big roadblock'

      America's tradition of easing kids into the pros through youth leagues, high school competition, and eventually college -- which has produced such luminary athletes as Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Tom Brady and John McEnroe -- is "a big roadblock" when it comes to developing soccer talent, says Kerry Zavagnin, assistant coach at MLS team Sporting Kansas City.
      "I probably don't even need to state the obvious, why we are not producing superstar talent like LeBron James: The players are coming at an age too late into their development to really even have a chance to reach the highest level of the game," he says.
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      Zavagnin would know. The Michigan native spent four years playing college soccer at North Carolina before getting his first professional matches with the New York MetroStars (now the Red Bulls) at age 22. He would later earn 21 caps with the U.S. team, most of them in his late 20s -- an advanced footballing age to the rest of the world.
      That's because unlike other sports, truly gifted footballers can be spotted as early as age nine, then drilled with many hours of practice under pro guidance. That's how old Wayne Rooney was when he signed for Everton's youth team, before debuting at 16 and scoring for England at 17. By the time Rooney was 18, Everton cashed out to Manchester United for a reported £25.6 million ($38.5 million).
      Ronaldo was 12 when he was sold to Sporting Lisbon for £1,500 ($2,250), a fee that would mushroom to a then-world record £80 million ($120 million) when he left Manchester United for Real Madrid at 24.
      "At 12 you can detect if technically a player can make it or not," expert talent-spotter Arsene Wenger said of his scouting process in an interview with FourFourTwo.
      "At 14 to 16 you can detect if physically he will be able to cope with the demands of professional sport, and from 16 to 18 you can start to see if a player understands how to connect with other players. At 20 the mental side of things kick in."
      In 2003, the Arsenal manager debuted Spaniard Cesc Fabregas at 16, still a team record, and started him in the 2006 UEFA Champions League final match against Barcelona at 19. That kind of experience for a teenager is unheard of on American soil.
      "If I look back not only personally, but you see it with so many players, we just get too late of a start," Zavagnin says. "There is no way to keep up with players from around the world.
      "To be honest with you, by the time you are 16 or 17 and you're getting ready to go to college, you should be preparing for your first professional game," he adds, lauding Sporting KC's own Graham Zusi for bucking the trend "against all the odds."
      Zusi, a skilful attacking midfielder who scored against Costa Rica in the first round, has 38 caps, mostly coming off the bench for the Stars and Stripes. But at 29 he's peaked physically just as his experience is shaping up, a shame for one of the country's most promising talents.
      Zusi played 89 college matches against middling competition in four years at Maryland, which is not enough if you want to compete with youth academies overseas, says Zavagnin.
      "By the time he was 25, I don't know if he played in 10 professional games. It's outrageous."
      To counteract his team's lack of young experience, national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann mixes in Americans who ply their trades in Europe, along with foreign accented dual-citizens raised abroad, like Fabian Johnson and John Brooks of Germany's Bundesliga. Johnson, incidentally, turned pro at 16; Brooks at 18.
      The issue has caused friction between the MLS and Klinsmann, who prefers players who challenge themselves in tougher leagues internationally.
      "Everyone wants to have the game growing as fast as possible," Klinsmann says, in the book "Soccer Without Boarders" by Erik Kirschbaum. "You're not going to improve your game dropping down a level or two."

      'Just fiddling around'

      But the decision to leave home won't be so obvious going forward. In 2013 the MLS began to mimic European pro clubs, with mandated youth academies on each franchise forming under-14, under-16, and under-18 teams.
      Some have splashed out more than others. The LA Galaxy spent $4.5 million on its development program, while Sporting Kansas City has invested "$2.5 million and growing," not including a $5 million training facility, says Zavagnin.
      Sporting KC also started a "Center of Excellence" to teach skills to eight and nine-year-olds, and has funded players from as far away as Nigeria to play in its youth system, bucking the trend of the highly criticized "pay to play" youth soccer culture of American suburbia which generally excludes lower-income families.
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      "There are certain MLS clubs that you can go to right now and you would be better off than going to Europe, for a number of reasons," says Zavagnin, who points to 18-year-old defender Erik Palmer-Brown, a Kansas City native who rose through the team's academy and is now on loan to Portugal's FC Porto following a reported $1 million offer from Italian champion Juventus. "It's really a life choice."
      But the league's effort is just a drop in the bucket compared to the spending at European academies, says Stefan Szymanski, professor of sports management at the University of Michigan.
      "The problem with U.S. (soccer), and certainly the problem with Major League Soccer, is the refusal to accept that they are competing in a global market and they have to match what people do in other countries," he says.
      "They think they can run this kind of cottage industry, small-scale player development schemes and be competitive, and they can't.
      "They are putting pitiful amounts of resources into this," he adds. "A youth academy means investing very large sums of money. I'll bet you Manchester City invests five times more than MLS clubs combined invest in their academies, and that's the difference."
      Szymanski, it turns out, is correct virtually down to the exact dollar amount.
      Two years ago Manchester City completed a training facility for a cost of up to £200 million (about $300 million), two-thirds of which is dedicated to its youth academy, according to the Daily Mail. Meanwhile, MLS teams have collectively spent just $40 million, according to The Wall Street Journal.
      "You just think, 'What, are you kidding me?' That's not an investment. That's just fiddling around," adds Szymanski, who authored the book, "Money and Football: A Soccernomics Guide."
      Manchester City formed the New York FC franchise in a joint venture with the Yankees, but doesn't expect to sign a homegrown player from its academy team -- made up of kids aged 13-14 -- for another two years.
      "If we started with under-18 age group, we would have only had them for a year," NYCFC sporting director Claudio Reyna told the MLS website in February. "We feel it wouldn't have been an impact to develop them the way we want them to play."
      But how, then, have the U.S. women -- whose history is littered with soccer stars, from Mia Hamm to Carli Lloyd -- come away with three World Cups and four Olympic titles, while the men have struggled?
      "That's probably because the rest of the world is not competing as intensively, and is not as developed in the women's game," Szymanski says.

      Future gifted athletes

      Although America's fascination with the world's most popular game has grown tremendously in the past decade, the country is spoiled for choice when it comes to watching -- and making a career of -- other sports.
      The lack of other options in the rest of the world is partially why smaller countries like Uruguay and Wales have produced world-class players like Suarez and Gareth Bale when the U.S. hasn't.
      But the emergence of Ronaldo and Messi as No. 1 and 2 on the Forbes list of the world's highest-paid athletes could encourage American kids to think differently about their sporting career choices.
      Their respective incomes of $88 million and $81.4 million for the past year eclipsed No. 3 LeBron James' $77.2 million, and that, says Szymanski, is enough of an eye-opener to steer future gifted athletes onto the soccer pitch instead of the basketball court, football field or baseball diamond. (Sixty-five of the top 100 earners in sports are Americans, according to Forbes. None of them play soccer.)
      There's one more factor which could deliver that exceptional talent to the U.S. -- a player who lies not just one or two standard deviations apart from all other professionals, but six or seven.
      "You're looking for the person the furthest to the right-hand side of the distribution of the bell curve where there is almost nobody," says Szymanski, who notes that it has been a while -- if ever -- since England, the country that invented the rules of soccer nearly 150 years ago, produced its own Pele, Maradona or Zidane.
      "For that to happen, frankly you're going to have to have some luck. It's that simple."
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