The United States didn’t get knocked out of the Olympic soccer tournament, which finished up with Mexico’s gold-medal victory over Brazil this morning in London. Rather, the Americans failed to qualify for the event – an Under-23 tournament with three “overage” players allowed per squad — in the first place. Olympic soccer is not taken incredibly seriously by national teams, but regardless, the U.S. does not have a powerhouse youth program. United States soccer national teams of all ages are generally the domain of enthusiastic, explosive players whose athleticism only sometimes makes up for their (relative) inability to dribble and pass. On a practical level this means our offense is predicated on kicking the ball way down the field and hoping to outrun and outmuscle the chasing defenders. It was thus quite a surprise that the viral soccer video of the summer — a highlight reel of snazzy passing and dribbling by a team of precocious children — originated not in Brazil or Spain but in southern California:
That’s La Canada, California’s Barcelona USA club at work. Founded in 1999 as a penya (supporters’ club) for the famed Spanish powerhouse, Barcelona USA launched a formal “development academy” last year. They don’t have any financial relationship — or really any relationship — with the Spanish club, but they are big fans, and they teach the quick passing, “tiki-taka” style perfected by Lionel Messi and the rest of the men from La Masia, FC Barcelona’s own famed academy in Spain, which has produced the most successful club team of the past decade and much of the talent for what’s perhaps the most accomplished national side ever.
Here are some of the reactions to the video: “Watch Barcelona-USA U-11 side demonstrate why England are light years behind the best”; “Barcelona-USA: Possibly the greatest under-11 team anywhere on earth”; and, simply, “Barcelona’s U-11s Are Terrifying.”
The declarations of greatness are hyperbolic but not misplaced. Barca USA’s video shows a well-coached squad that’s disciplined but still very creative. Take the goal they score that starts at the 3:28 mark. Barca USA’s goalie gets the ball and instead of punting it up the field, rolls it to one of his central defenders. The team works the ball to the right, finds no space there, goes back left, then up the left side. A midfielder makes a beautiful turn after receiving a pass from a teammate, then outpaces two defenders while dribbling. He passes to a forward who has come back to the ball rather than waiting for a long pass. That player in turn chips toward his strike partner, who beats his man and turns goal-ward. He cuts between two collapsing defenders, and then touches the ball back to the teammate who passed it to him a few seconds earlier. Goal. At least eight players are involved, and they make 11 passes in 40 seconds. Arsenal chases the game the entire time, rarely even having a chance to regain possession. Barca’s players are relaxed, knowing they always have multiple outlets. It would be an impressive tally for a team on any level.
The team is not invincible, recently losing a game to Weston FC in the Danone Nations Cup. They’re not even, necessarily, the best American youth team. (These things are incredibly subjective, but the Dallas Texans, Clint Dempsey’s old team, are among the clubs who might have a good claim.) Nonetheless. “It’s still an impressive feat,” says Travis Clark, who covers youth soccer for TopDrawerSoccer.com and noticed the clip when it was first posted in March. “No matter how you want to get to consider it, it’s hard to get players that age to play that way.”
Getting players to play that way is, currently, United States Soccer’s ambitious goal for a giant network of “development academies” they have at most informal control over. Basically, if you’re a youth club that follows certain guidelines, like “in the 6-12 age group, focus on ball skills, enjoyment and experimentation,” you get to call yourself a Development Academy, even if you don’t have a cool, X-Men-style campus. But U.S. Soccer doesn’t fund the academy teams, and the long-term interests of the national squad don’t always jibe with the short-term interests of star players, star players’ parents, or coaches who want to win games. If you’re an 11-year-old prodigy on a typical team, passing to inferior players usually doesn’t help you look good or help you win.
Barca USA’s players, though, have both talent and preschool-teacher-endorsed sharing skills. If you watch the video, you see kids who look to pass, or at least evaluate their options, even when they could shake-and-bake and/or run over the nearest defender. And their success both on the field and online makes a point: given enough time, selfless teams can eventually win and make their players stars. (It’s not like LeBron and Magic Johnson were/are yawn-inducing losers.)
Can Barca USA’s achievement be replicated? Maybe! European and Latin American clubs have long been able to afford (relatively) big expenses (Walker says Barca USA spends $30,000 per team per year) on very young players who aren’t going to yield immediate financial rewards, while young players and their stage parents are more likely to heed the words of established clubs’ coaches and systems, which have already produced world-famous stars. And here’s the thing: the United States is, it seems, finally on its way to having a soccer economy that at least parallels, if not yet rivals, those abroad. The perpetual question of “will soccer take off in America?” has been answered in the affirmative. We have more youth soccer players than any other country. Major League Soccer has established itself as a viable business with rising attendance — look at those sellouts in heartland cities like Houston and Kansas City. The English Premier League has become an ESPN weekend staple. (Speaking of England: you may have noticed that those excited headlines above about Barca USA were from British sources, which is quite a validation.)
TV revenues and ticket sales are what pays for turning an eight-year-old into Lionel Messi. Meanwhile, your author has coached youth teams recently and can report that kids today are much more excited by the idea of becoming a professional soccer player — and knowledgeable about pros here and abroad — than he was as a kid, when he did not really know that professional soccer players existed. They chatter about MLS teams and big-time European games. There’s a nation of soccer-playing kids out there with stars in their eyes. And for our hopes of someday being a big-time soccer country, that might be the most important viral sensation of all.