MADRID, Spain (AP) – The latest sign that the locusts are about to descend came recently when Real Madrid, the gilded Spanish soccer club, announced it had signed a 7-year-old boy from Argentina named Leonel Angel Coira.
That he was named Leo and hailed from Argentina was quickly and widely interpreted as a sign that Real had itself snagged a future Leo Messi, the real one currently possessed by arch rival Barcelona.
Naturally, here in the United States, this news was met with disbelief, scorn and assurance that the apocalypse would indeed be here any day. But instead of all the tongue-clucking about the inevitability of a sports prodigy one day being signed while in diapers (or sooner), there should have been another question:
Where was Major League Soccer?
Well, seriously, nobody expects that to happen anytime soon, and that is the problem -- it doesn't matter if the next Lil' Leo is in Argentina or Arkansas, they are unlikely to be discovered by a professional American soccer club.
That is, unless they are "discovered," at which time they will be sponsored by Nike or Adidas, star in a soft drink commercial, be promoted on ESPN (or, given the soft-focus treatment on NBC) and foisted upon a public that will declare them a bust before they're old enough to vote. (See: Adu, Freddy)
That is just the American way.
The greatest burgeoning American talent is Giuseppe Rossi, who grew up in New Jersey and at age 12 was offered a spot in Parma's youth program. So his father, an Italian immigrant, returned to Italy with his son. Rossi, now 24, scored 18 goals last season for Villareal to finish fifth in La Liga in scoring and will be playing for Italy in the next World Cup.
MLS has begun investing in youth programs in recent years, and the better ones -- like Chivas USA -- teach the same principles and philosophies to their youngest players that they do at the pro level. But these programs are still in their infancy, and unless or until MLS begins to place an emphasis on technical skill (a good start would be referees rewarding skillful play and punishing physical play), what are they learning?
These academies are the European or South American model. At their best, the programs provide a structured environment in which the focus is developing talent and not winning trophies, as so much of club soccer in the United States is about. It is not unlike the baseball academies that Major League teams have built in Latin and Asian countries, and the end goal is the same -- developing talent and hoping for a few precious gems.
Barcelona signed Messi when he was 13, by which time he was in the youth program of his second professional club, with the proviso that Barcelona would pay for hormone replacement therapy that his family could not afford. That $900 a month turned out to be a pretty fair investment.
More often, clubs -- Ajax in Holland being one of the more successful -- use their youth programs to develop players who are good enough that they can sell to Europe's elite clubs. Proceeds from million dollar transfer fees are then plowed back into searching for more young talent.
Turning children into commodities is at the heart of the reaction here to Real Madrid's signing little Leonel.
But two points are overlooked. First, the agreement is for one year and he is not being paid. The value for the boy is that he, presumably, gets a first-class soccer education -- consider it private schooling for sports.
Also, remember that turning teenagers into commodities is at the heart of college athletics, which are the foundation of the American sports culture. The professional model, at least, is honest -- if you play well enough, by the time you are 16, you will be paid. Not so in college, of course.
Pursuing and earning a scholarship is good for the mind, but it is not necessarily the best way for an athlete to develop into a professional.
After the United States was bounced out of the Under-17 World Cup earlier this summer, Coach Wilmer Cabrera offered a frank assessment of American players.
"We have a group of players who cannot yet compete at the highest level with the top teams in the world," Cabrera said in an interview with Soccer America. "At this age, our boys in the United States, they're very young, they're immature. At this age in the top countries, they're already men. They're more mature. They're more professional. They have a more professional mentality. That is something you cannot manage in practices. You have to live with that. It's a big advantage the other countries have over us. It's a culture thing. We have to grow, little by little and I'm not blaming anybody -- it's the system, it's cultural. I'm part of this culture."
So, instead of braying about the horrors of an arrested development, maybe it is best to view kids like Lil Leo as if their gift was with a violin or a paint brush instead of kicking a ball -- admire their talent, applaud their ambition and see where it takes them.