After looking at the progression of player classes from U17 to U20 to the senior team, it’s time to invert the analysis and track the experience of those who ultimately made a World Cup squad.
Here are the rosters from the past six World Cups, with each player’s involvement at the youth international level noted. Players are color-coded if they made a U17 or U20 World Cup roster. Any players who did not play in a Youth World Cup are shaded grey.
The number of Youth World Cup vets increased from six players in 1994 to a whopping 16 players in 2006. (Tab Ramos and Hugo Perez are shaded in white, as both played at the 1983 U20 tournament.) The 2006 roster also featured the most participation from a single class, with four players each from the 1999 team (Tim Howard; Steve Cherundolo; Carlos Bocanegra; Chris Albright) and the 2001 team (Landon Donovan; DaMarcus Beasley; Oguchi Onyewu; Bobby Convey).The 2010 and 2014 rosters hint at an equilibrium: half of the team did not play in a Youth World Cup. This is yet another data point that reinforces why it’s so important to foster an environment that develops all players aged 17 to 22. The 20 best 17-year-olds are not automatically the 20 best professionals.
For years, college soccer provided that environment, but its influence on a World Cup roster is less prevalent than before. Here is the same chart, with the years of college soccer added underneath each player. I’ve also included the 1990 roster.
For the kids in Italy in 1990, it was an aberration to play anything less than 4 years of college. In 1994, Frank Klopas set a precedent as the first US World Cup player who turned pro immediately out of high school. Perez, Earnie Stewart, Tom Dooley, and Fernando Clavijo joined Klopas as the former teen pros, but Klopas was the only one to do so from an American high school.
In 2002, John O’Brien, Beasley, and Donovan personified the potential of new (to the US) development paths from high school. O’Brien signed with Ajax, Beasley joined the IMG academy, and Donovan experienced both IMG and time with Bayer Leverkusen.
These three, all outstanding contributors to the national team, heralded a shift in player development. The 2006 roster featured Tim Howard, Bobby Convey, and Eddie Johnson, all former P-40 / Generation Adidas players who replicated Beasley’s path. Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore did the same to reach the 2010 roster, while Jonathan Spector (England), Jose Torres (Mexico) and Herculez Gomez (Mexico) ventured abroad. The 2014 team had 12 players without college experience, though this number is inflated by players who were raised abroad.
What’s clearly in decline is the 4-year college player. The 2014 roster only included Matt Besler, Alejandro Bedoya, Chris Wondolowski, Geoff Cameron, and Gyasi Zardes. College soccer will still matter in the foreseeable future, particularly because there are more than 20,000 players in college soccer, roughly 10 times the number of Development Academy players. However, with more domestic professional opportunities and increased global scouting among international teams, our future World Cup players will likely spend their teen years as a pro.