Words: Kie Carew


The club’s famous youth academy La Masia has nurtured some of the world’s top talent including Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and four time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi. Victor Valdes, Martin Montoya, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, Xavi, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Pedro, Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas made up the eleven on the field in the Ciutat de Valencia stadium that night. While Messi grew up in Rosario, Argentina, he joined Barca at the age of 11 and is most certainly a product of La Masia’s school of football. Gerard Pique grew up five minutes away from the Nou Camp stadium and came back from Manchester United in 2008 to play for the Blaugrana. Cesc Fabregas’ return from Arsenal in 2011 and Jordi Alba’s rebound from Valencia a year later completed the team of Barcelona’s academy graduates.

La Masia was originally built as an 18th century country estate and is today dwarfed by the Nou Camp stadium it sits beside. The building housed the young players from outside of the city and the stone farm house has become a symbol of Barcelona FC’s famous tiki-taka philosophy. The academy has since moved out of the old structure to the nearby village of Sant Joan Despi. It was former playing great Johan Cruyff’s return to Barcelona as manager and his commitment to possession based football, that revolutionised the Spanish game and overhauled the club’s youth academy. A preference for physically strong players was in place until Cruyff instilled his vision of players who could keep the ball.

Around 300 boys between the ages of 7-18 are enrolled in the Barcelona youth academy and all play the same brand of football as the first team. The philosophy runs throughout the club. In the Champions League final against Manchester United in Rome in 2009 Barcelona had eight starters who came from the La Masia academy. The European and World Cup successes of the Spanish national team are also based on the Barcelona style of play. Spain won the World Cup in 2010 with seven players from La Masia.

In England probably the most famous crop of youngsters was the Manchester United FA Youth Cup winning team of 1992. The side which is now the subject of a documentary called the Class of 92, included David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Ryan Giggs. All went on to have glittering careers at Old Trafford. The club has always had a reputation for nurturing home-grown talent. Crewe Alexandra FC in Cheshire and East London’s West Ham United’s youth academies are also well regarded in England. David Platt, Rob Jones and Danny Murphy all came through the Crewe Alex academy. West Ham’s youth development program became known simply as The Academy because of its pedigree in producing young talent. Paul Ince, Rio Ferdinand, Joe Cole, Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick and Jermaine Defoe all cut their teeth playing at the Hammer’s famous Upton Park ground.

Having competed in the league since its inception in 1996 as one of the original ten MLS charter clubs, the New England Revolution are seeing the rewards of its youth development academy. In 2010, Uruguayan born 16-year-old Diego Fagundez was signed by the club. He was the first youth player to sign for the Revs senior side from their own academy. Fagundez splits his time attending high school and training with the Revolution first team. With his mohawk haircut and boyish good looks, the homegrown favourite has become a teenage heart throb for the local Boston fans and is a star for the MLS club. The diminutive 19-year-old became the youngest player to line out for the side and his impressive stats made him a darling of the crowd at the Gilette Stadium, which the club share with Tom Brady’s New England Patriots of the NFL.

Recognized by US Soccer as the top youth academy in the country, the Revs’ academy includes former US star and New England record goal scorer Taylor Twellman on its coaching roster. The Massachusetts-based outfit offers the unique opportunity for youth team players who go on to college to train with the club on school breaks. The best players in the academy have the chance, like Fagundez, to sign for the club and not go through the MLS Superdraft. The Homegrown Player Rule was introduced in 2008 allowing MLS teams to sign local players from their own academies. Until the rule was created, every player would enter the Superdraft with no guarantee of ending up playing with the team that nurtured them.

In 2003, the Cleveland Cavaliers signed LeBron James with their first round pick in the NBA draft held in Madison Square Garden. He was only the second player selected straight out of high school. As the number 1 pick in the draft, James would earn $18 million over four years and is one of the greatest and most famous basketballers in history. He joined a team that had not been to the playoffs in over five years and had won only 17 games out of 82 the previous year. The Ohio native led his high school, St. Vincent-St Mary to three state championships. ‘King James’ as he would go on to be known brought the Cavs to their first ever finals appearance in 2007 and left as a free agent in 2010. The 6ft 8in forward went on to win two finals and MVP two years-in-a-row with the Miami Heat.

The 2003 NBA draft in New York City was considered one of the most talented player pools to pick from in draft history. Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James all went on to win NBA Championship rings and Olympic medals. The draft is held every year for the teams that missed out on a playoff spot. The lottery process decides the order of the teams that will pick from the most talented players graduating that year. The worst team the previous season has a higher chance of winning first pick with more balls representing the franchise included in the lottery draw. In 1985 the New York Knicks selected Patrick Ewing. Shaquille O’Neal was selected by Orlando Magic in 1992. Allen Iverson in 1996 went to the Philadelphia 76ers and Derrick Rose joined the Chicago Bulls in 2008.

The MLS Superdraft combines the MLS College draft and Supplemental Draft and was first introduced in 2000. The clubs’ playoff and regular season positions determine the order of the pick with the last placed team or expansion franchises getting first draft pick. The draft is designed to ensure a level playing field in the league with the winners of the MLS Cup getting the last pick in the draft. Included in the MLS Superdraft are players from the Project 40 / Generation Adidas program. The first year of the draft featured 71 picks and former Reading and United States winger Bobby Convey was selected by DC United through the program. The project is a joint venture by Adidas and the US Soccer Federation aimed at enhancing the level of talent in youth soccer in the United States. It promotes players without college graduation and gives them the chance to reach the Superdraft entry.

The program was called Project 40 when it was run by Nike until 2005 when Adidas signed a ten year $150 million dollar contract with the league. A new eight-year deal was agreed in 2010 believed to be worth $200 million. The agreement put more emphasis on youth development, academy and reserve team programs for all of the MLS franchises. The Generation Adidas program players can earn a higher salary than the league minimum because when they enter the program they are immediately classed as professional players. Should they fail to make it onto the roster of an MLS team, the players are guaranteed a scholarship to play college soccer. The Project 40 / Generation Adidas program has proven highly successful producing players such as Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Brad Guzan.

With no promotion and relegation in the league because of the large cost expansion franchises have to pay to enter, the MLS Cup playoffs follow the lead of the other Major American sports. While the Superdraft system might seem unfamiliar to European fans, it is part of the American sports landscape. The NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB drafts are entrenched in the history of the four major sports in America. For the fledgling league to take root in the United States when it formed in 1996, ignoring these American sporting traditions would surely have had a negative impact on the then black sheep of the US Major Leagues. Going to college is widely seen as part of American culture and the draft route into professional sports means that soccer in the USA was always going to be seen as anomalous when compared to the rest of the world. Research suggests it takes up to 10,000 hours of football training to develop players of professional calibre. For MLS teams, the academies are the only way to reach the target goal of this amount of training to develop athletes. Signing kids and developing them at a young age in the philosophy of the club is the only way for them to catch up to their European counterparts when it comes to developing world-class talent. The combination of the draft and the youth academies is sure to be the way teams sign players in the future for MLS and its clubs.

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