Omar Cummings and the American Way


Can we learn from Omar Cummings and the American way?

Colorado Rapids talisman Omar Cummings isn’t exactly a household name within the realms of world or even domestic football. But his performances during a recent trial spell at Aston Villa could have altered the former, with Gerard Houillier pronouncing that Cummings was ‘getting better with every training session’. However, tragedy struck for Cummings, who was to be let down by a slip in the international rankings of his native Jamaica, rendering his work permit application an impossibility.

Cummings’ rise to relative, albeit short-term European fame highlights an intriguing contrast of youth player development between the US College system and the British YTS route. For us British football enthusiasts it would be unheard of to think that a recent graduate of even the English football powerhouse universities such as Harper Adams College or the University of Bath could eventually rise through the ranks to within touching distance of the Premier League in such a short space of time.

Cummings is one of many, you could point to the US starting eleven in their match against England at the 2010 World Cup; 7 of their starting 11 players had played at some point within the upper echelons of US collegiate soccer. Even amongst the second, third and fourth tiers of English football we have great examples of former American College students that have made a successful transition into the European professional ranks in Anton Peterlin (Plymouth), Conor Doyle (Derby), Mike Grella (Leeds) and Seb Harris (Northampton Town).

Whereas an English player can sign a Youth Training Scheme contract aged 16 and then move on upwards, the College route still remains the most common point of entry into the world of professional football for the aspiring American. Although not all players graduate, they generally enter the elite set up later, but with greater drive to succeed and a higher level of suitability for the complete rigor of the modern game. The American player gets a longer period to develop physically and mentally whilst honing his athletic and technical capabilities.

Could we learn from this alternative development model that places a continued emphasis upon a more rounded academic, personal and technical development before releasing players, ready for the professional ranks? This is not to say that every English player should have an academic book thrown at him for three hours before training, or to have to read for a degree in aeronautical engineering before being allowed to sign a lucrative contract, but we should do more to ensure that our players are prepared for the career that they are about to embark upon.

This idea has some credibility to it, Harry Redknapp had previously stated that ‘A lot of the English kids, they’ve got agents telling them how brilliant they are. The agents haven’t got a clue about football’. Redknapp does not stand alone either, everybody is aware of the careful attention that Alex Ferguson provides his young starlets with and the infamous ‘hairdryer’ consequences they face if deemed to have stepped out of line.

The underlying commonality here is that our players simply are not ready for the mental and social intrusive nature of the modern game and it comes back to haunt us time and time again. The easiest component to borrow from the Americans would be the inclusion of a greater level of education, with the opportunity to perform attached to effort. We could encourage our younger players to learn about the administrative, less glamorous aspects of the game thus equipping them to cope with their potential successes. An added bonus would be the removal of the need for an agent which would be much to the delight of managers up and down the country.

One of Harry Redknapp’s main jibes is at the humility of young English player and this is definitely something which requires rectification. Our players are blown up with hot air, and if they reach the professional side of the game the only way is down. If we channeled our younger players through a system where they had to earn the right to step onto the pitch as they do in the States then the training and the playing would be seen as a privilege and an opportunity as opposed to a formality or a God-given right. Through education, you may delay the starting age of the average professional’s career by a couple of years, but this could prove vital in ensuring that they remain grounded and committed to achieving the highest results throughout their career as opposed to making a few cheeky million and heading for Qatar.

One could take the recent meteoric rise of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, is he really equipped to deal with the pressures of a £10 million move aged 17? We all know that when he eventually makes the step up, he will most probably follow in a similar fashion to most youngsters perhaps initially spending the majority of his time on the fringes of the first team; we often talk of the value of going out on loan, or remaining with the original team but what about the possibility of eliminating the need for this debate entirely and ensuring that they want it enough to work and wait for it, training and educating themselves so that they are ready.

The American system allows the individual in question to develop in an environment of normality, ‘growing up’ as opposed to being thrust into the public eye and then shot down. How important to you were those memories of spending times with your mates or girlfriends or the experience of doing something wrong and learning through error? Our footballers simply aren’t afforded the same luxuries as we were, leading to a chain of issues that could lead to their complete meltdown as it nearly did with Tony Adams or Glen Johnson’s favourite, Paul Merson.

What about the absurd behavior that seems to accompany our wonderkids; how often is it you see a Prima Dona American footballer, even in the Premier League? The American collegiate graduates are embedded with a work ethic and humble nature that points to the blindingly obvious, professional football is a privilege that is only open to the few. Perhaps somebody could also point that out to Mario Balotelli.

The age-old debate about excessive player wages should be consigned to the scrap heap; players are paid highly because of their relative economic value which also dictates how you, your colleagues and even your friends and family are financially rewarded.

However, the issue of youth player development is one that is completely neglected. By introducing a greater level of integration and normalization at the key stage of player development, we could reduce the chances of another Francis Jeffers and ensure that our young players arrive grounded and hungry to succeed at the highest level possible. Their pre-professional experience could also help them in their career aftermath, ensuring that they aren’t relying solely upon their Central or Southern Masters paycheck once they’re retired as Gary Neville should have been five years ago.

by Nic Patmore

have a read of a similar article: A league of their own?

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upper90magazine brings you an interesting, exciting, alternative, sometimes, controversial view on the footballing world. We will review everything football, from cold gloomy Non-League games to the thrills and spill of the Champions League.

7 Responses to Omar Cummings and the American Way

  1. Dan Macken says:

    A refreshing view on the current status of English Football Nic. It seems only too common that we are seeing these rising stars crumble early in their career as a result of misguidance or being ill-prepared for the stresses that top flight football can subject them to. I would love to see the majority of young players strive for success and really want to play without just wanting their huge pay cheque.
    I look forward to your next article.

    Oh, and leave Balotelli out of this – he’s a top bloke, just a little misguided!

  2. Nicky Kassam says:

    I agree with Dan. Kudos, Nic – for really pointing out the flaws in our development system (or lack thereof). Seems we should be taking multiple leaves out of America’s book – maybe our friends across the pond are able to take a more balanced view on the harvesting of younger athletes, given the modest status of ‘soccer’ in the States. Your point about English players being brought to the forefront of televised football (and, hence, the media) proverbially hits the nail on the head. How can a 16-year-old really make balanced decisions about his future with no further regard to education? Would love something to be done about this, my only fear is that, as a football-loving nation, we’re probably in too deep.

  3. Riley says:

    Dear Nic,

    As an American soccer fan who knows “the American Way” all too well, I have to say that I disagree with you greatly in regards to the merits of a collegiate path to professional soccer.

    In regard to talent, I believe that our youth and collegiate system of developing athletes are holding back the US from fielding world class players. In fact, Major League Soccer in the US has just in the last couple years begun implementing youth academies that allow the teams to monitor and sign “homegrown” players, much like the system used in europe. The college system will still be useful because 19 MLS teams obviously can’t cover the entire US talent pool, but I believe that it will be this academy system that will finally start to produce the world class caliber players that we’ve been waiting for.

    A perfect example is Landon Donovan. At 16, Donovan joined the first class of players at the US national team’s IMG soccer academy (the closest thing we’ve had to your youth training contracts until now, but with only one for the entire nation) and the year after signed with Leverkusen. He only spent 2 years at Leverkusen because he got homesick and returned to the states to play in MLS, which is too bad, because if he had continued playing in euope all these years I think he could have been a world class player. Damarcus Beasley, Bobby Convey, and Ogouchi Onyewu, all who have seen relative success in europe, were also among the graduates of this 1999 class.

    The truth is that colleges lack the resources that professional teams have for devolping quality players. I attend the University of California Santa Barbara, which is consistently ranked top 10 in the nation for soccer, and the level of play is far below even that of MLS. The style of play is end to end soccer with little midfield or possession play. This style may suit athletically gifted players such as Omar Cummings, but it neglects the technically gifted player, which is what the US desperatly needs. The collegiate system as it is today in the US could never produce a cesc fabregas or an andres inesta; the most technically gifted US player, Stu Holden for Bolton, is not a collegiate product either.

    As for humility, I don’t think that forcing players to play collegiate ball would make them any less egotistical. Do you really believe that Mario Balotelli would be any less self obsessed if he’d gone to college, taken joke classes and been the king of the school’s social scene, like college american football players are in the US? The reason why there aren’t American Prima Donas in soccer is not because they attend college, but because soccer is still not followed widely within the US, and our players are relatively unknown at a national level (except for Freddy Adu, and look how he turned out). On the other hand, the media circus that follows the stars of collegiate American football players is just as crazy as the soccer media in Europe with the Oxlade-Chamberlains. The top american football players are under immense pressure to perform, and many of them do in fact crack once they get to the pro’s. I suggest you wiki “Ryan Leaf,” the number two selection in the 1998 NFL draft, who is widely regarded in the US as having the most disappointing pro career in sports history; Francis Jeffers was a far more successful professional athlete by any measure.

    FInally, I don’t see how you can so easily consign the age-old debate about player wages to the scrap heap. In the NFL, NBA, and MLS, teams are forced to submit to a salary-cap to control wages and encourage parity among teams. If implemented in Europe, this not only could help alleviate some of the debt that many clubs are burried under and provide a glimmer of hope for those hapless Fulham or West Ham fans, but it could also help with the devolpment of youth players. In the US, teams can’t “buy” players from other clubs like they do in europe for jaw-dropping transfer fee’s that add unnecessary pressure on a young athlete’s career.

    Overall, I believe that MLS is getting the best of both worlds by placing more emphasis on professional youth academies while retaining the financial orginasation of the typical american sports league. If Europe conformed to a collegiate system you might wake up ten years down the road to a world where the best footballing nation in the world could be found on the other side of the atlantic ;)

  4. Pingback: A league of their own? « upper90magazine

  5. Nic Patmore says:

    Riley,

    Thanks very much for taking the time to comment upon this, it is certainly fair to say that we do disagree on some monumental points regarding the two systems. Although, I certainly appreciate the perspective you have provided us with.

    I have to first point out that I do NOT advocate the setting up of a parallel system of drafting through college in England, I merely believe that young players should have to undergo a greater level of education, which is currently entirely neglected by many of the clubs who are simply looking out for their own short term interests and I feel that the success of such an approach is best typified by the College system. The academy’s in the US as you rightly pointed out exists parallel to the colleges but I am unaware of any academy graduates that have undone their college counterparts.
    We also have an academy system, and I am sure there are more but one academy springs to mind and that is Watford FC’s ‘Harefield Academy’. It was set up to ensure that their players do receive the required footballing and proportionate academic education. Here is a great link to explore this a little further….

    As for your example in Landon Donovan, he is most definitely an elite (perhaps not world class) player but surely your use of this is flawed…he returned home from Europe after being homesick at Leverkusen and this undoubtedly resonates with my point about ‘not being ready’ for the complete rigor of the modern game?

    I think your point about college resources is interesting; if we were to take basketball or college football (American), then I don’t think ‘a lack of resources’ could be used as an argument against the collegiate system. The fact is that American Colleges do not rate soccer in the same bracket as the more conventional sports, and thus do not place as much emphasis upon their player’s development (reflected in their resource allocation). However, this could certainly be rectified surely by the setting up on external organization to offer funding for college soccer. Or if this contravenes the NCAA rules (as I suspect) then it will eventually come organically if US soccer continues in its steady journey towards becoming a more prominent domestic sport.

    Your point about ‘technically gifted players’ is also interesting, I would like to first point out that Stuart Holden was Scottish born, moving to the USA at the age of 10 and thus is perhaps a ‘unique’ case in that sense, he played for the academy team at Aberdeen FC. Contrary to your assertion he did also participate in 2 years of college soccer at Clemson, although as with others that have made the trip across the pond, he did not graduate.

    The US team and US athletes in general (I apologize for the stereotype) are renowned for being athletically excellent, but I feel that your emphasis upon the need for technical players is reflective of what your team is currently lacking rather than a more strategic view of US youth player development; Iniesta’s and Fabregas’s don’t spring up out of thin air, but they do have to be placed in an environment that fosters and develops their technical abilities, this COULD happen in the college system but would require a shift in the mindset of the coaches which could arise out of closer collaboration with the US Soccer Federation and what they want to see from college participants.

    I feel that your generalization of American football players is perhaps slightly demeaning; it is true that there are instances where this does occur. However, these players still must be accepted into college and thus satisfy the initial entry academic criteria, it is then up to the administration at the college itself to decide whether he/she has to continue in that fashion.

    The implementation of a salary cap would contribute to making the league more competitive, I agree, but I also agree with Nicky that we have perhaps gone ‘too far’; a salary cap would appear overly restrictive for the teams and would only work if applied Europe-wide; what would happen in the Champions League if some of the teams were reined in by the inability to pay ‘top dollar?

    I couldn’t imagine the use of a financial organizational structure in England; economics are too intertwined with our game to think about an overhaul as such. Perhaps with Platini, Blatter and their apparent despising of the English game we could see a series of restrictions to curb the power of the Premier League. However, I do believe that the recent ‘transactions’ in the American game including the transfer of Angel to LA Galaxy, the drafting of John Rooney (formerly of that footballing juggernaut Macclesfield Town) and the signing of Luke Rogers (Notts Country) by the New York Red Bull’s suggests that MLS and perhaps US soccer in general has some way to go my friend!

  6. bwilliams22 says:

    Perhaps the perfect middle-ground here is to be found in Barcelona’s famous, and extraordinarily successful ‘La Masia’ youth training set up. Here, players get holistic training and education from an early age to prepare them for both a life in professional football and a life outside it. I think its record speaks for itself really!

  7. Andreww92 says:

    Hey Nic, very interesting blog and something which I have thought about a lot recently as I have just moved from the UK to the States for a gap year to study at a Division 1 college. As a student and being very interested in football (soccer) I have become a big fan of my college’s soccer team. I have watched every game of their (very short) season this year and I also attend class with a couple of the players on the team who I have become friendly with. The general feeling I get from these guys is that they do not see soccer as something which they want to do in the future more as something which gives them a scholarship at university and free tuition. They do not take their sport lightly in the US as i’m sure you know and some of these players have been playing football every day of their lives since they were about 14 years old. The american system trains them so hard they hate soccer by the time they need to start loving the game. They have lost all motivation and love for the game just because of the sheer intensity and frequency of their training. The benefits of this though are that these guys are incredible athletes who could run from now until next year but really does this mean anything if they don’t care about the sport they play?
    The other thing about football in the US is that the knowledge of football is incredibly poor. No one really has any idea what anything really is about, for example I was speaking about who is the best player in the world and one person was arguing adamantly for Diego Forlan, who is a good player but nowhere near the best, and the lack of basic knowledge from a simple passing game is just not there and even the coaches don’t have a clue. However this should get better in time as football grows in the States then more and more people will begin to understand but right now there just isn’t the adequate knowledge in coaches or players for them to really start developing ‘world class’ players.
    I do agree that a mix of something with the physical and educational side of the American college system and the technical side of the European way would be perfect and certainly the game and the players in football would benefit hugely from a little more education.

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