January 20, 2010
The path to fame and fortune is ...

An expanding MLS and increased interest in American players from foreign clubs have created more paths to pro stardom than ever for the nation's elite youth players, for whom college ball can also serve as a springboard.

By Mike Woitalla (from the January 2010 issue of Soccer America)

The percentage of American youth players who end up earning a living in the sport is, of course, very small, but there are more opportunities than ever.

Major League Soccer fielded 10 clubs in 2004. It will kick off its 2010 season with 16 teams. The steady expansion is combined with an exodus of experienced American players from MLS to foreign leagues, creating an increasing demand for young homegrown talent.

American players’ improving track record in European leagues, and that American youth players can be acquired without transfer fees, has clubs from the other side of the Atlantic scouring the USA for talent.

Meanwhile, Mexican clubs have been building a pipeline, tapping into the USA’s huge soccer-playing Mexican-American community.
The young American pro prospect is thus faced with making a choice on which avenue to take. For many, the first decision is whether to attend college.

CAMPUS FIRST? The American college sports system is unique to the rest of the world, to say the least. That academic performance can be a requisite to pursuing a professional sports career is hardly comprehensible abroad. Imagine Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo worrying that their report cards could have an impact on their soccer careers. But in the USA, a young man with the potential to be the world’s best running back would never be heard of again if he didn’t get into college.
On the soccer front, skipping college and going straight to the pros has become a viable option. Notable U.S. stars who spent no time on campus include Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.

Yet college soccer remains a popular choice for players with pro aspirations. MLS’s 2009 Rookie of the Year Omar Gonzalez played three years at the University of Maryland before signing a $142,000 contract with the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Of the 14 players who saw action for the U.S. national team when it upset Spain at the 2009 Confederations Cup, nine played college soccer, although only two -- Jonathan Bornstein and Jay DeMerit – played out their four seasons of eligibility.

Leaving college early has become common for aspiring pros. Players who stay four years find themselves competing with and against younger players and peers instead of being challenged by older, experienced players.

From a non-soccer point of view, would one ever advise a young man to give up a college education – especially one that’s paid for by scholarship? But for the pro hopeful, staying four years can be risky. A 22-year-old who hasn’t been in a pro environment doesn’t look so attractive to a foreign club. And if the player is courted by MLS, leaving early can land a “Generation adidas” deal, which comes with an educational stipend and guarantees he’ll be a high draft pick.

Generation adidas players, of which there are about 10 annually, can land a salary of $60,000 more than others who also get picked high in the draft.

Making GA players particularly attractive is that their pay doesn’t count against a team’s salary cap, which means teams are likely to invest more time in their development. For the player offered a GA deal, “It’s more money and less pressure,” says agent Patrick McCabe.

STRAIGHT TO THE PROS. For some players, college ball isn’t an option if they don’t meet the academic requirements. Or they may reasonably assume they will develop better in a pro environment. So then the choice becomes one of aiming for MLS or going abroad.

In fact, one purpose of Generation adidas is to keep talented young players in MLS, whether they’re teenagers or are leaving college early.

Playing in Europe has become the Holy Grail for many young players. An offer from Europe tends to get players, their coaches and their parents excited regardless of what history the club has of bringing players they sign young into the first team.

“Lots of players want to start in Europe because of the glamour associated with it,” says agent Lyle Yorks, who has represents players who have taken all the different paths to the pros. “But watching Fox Sports World in the comfort of your living room doesn’t reveal the challenges.”

Players going abroad must cope with a different culture, perhaps weather they’re not used to, and in some cases learn a different language. A European offer may be flattering, but the clubs bring in large groups of new players constantly and expect very few to see first-team action.

In fact, Americans products who head to Europe before playing some college soccer or getting MLS experience rarely realize true success there. The exceptions include West Ham’s Jonathan Spector, who signed with Manchester United at age 17 and at age 23 has played in more than 90 English Premier League games. Also, there’s Italian-American Giuseppe Rossi, who left New Jersey at 13 and now plays for Italy. (FIFA prohibits the transfer of players under age 18, but both were able to sign with European clubs because they had European Union passports, Spector having acquired his thanks to German heritage.)

Otherwise, since the inception of MLS in 1996, the American products who have done well in Europe, or at least have seen their national team careers progress after the move, played either college ball, MLS, or both. For example, Steve Cherundolo, Charlie Davies and Oguchi Onyewu played some college ball. Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra and Maurice Edu played MLS and some college. Tim Howard, Beasley and Michael Bradley skipped college but played MLS before going abroad.

Both Yorks and McCabe say their advice to a player on what avenue to embark on depends on the individual, but both agree that it’s very often the case that spending some time in college or MLS helps young players gain the maturity that will smooth the transition to life on their own abroad.

GOING SOUTH. Mexican clubs have begun scouting heavily in the USA, attracted to the Mexican-American players who aren’t courted by NCAA Division I coaches and who are eligible for Mexican citizenship.

The success in the Mexican league by Edgar Castillo, Jose Francisco Torres and Michael Orozco -- who saw no future for themselves in their native USA but earned U.S. national team call-ups thanks to making it in Mexico -- has helped drive the Mexican clubs’ extensive scouting efforts.

“The Mexican coaches are tripping over themselves for these kids,” says Brad Rothenberg, the president of Alianza de Futbol, whose nationwide competitions for Hispanic teams have taken the form of tryouts for Mexican clubs. “We’d love to have MLS teams pay more attention to these players.”

Mexican clubs have reserve teams in the second division, so they can bring in large numbers of players and ensure them competitive playing time.

MLS, on the other hand, has a roster limit of 24 players and those who can’t yet crack the first team lack for game time.

MLS has, however, since 2007, mandated that its teams have youth programs. So far, a handful of players have graduated to the first-team rosters, but it’s too early to judge whether the MLS youth programs become the feeder system they’re designed to be.

If they do, they’ll create yet another path for young players to the pro ranks.

(This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

January 14, 2010
Tom Mulroy: soccer promoter extraordinaire

Only once has 53-year-old Tommy Mulroy had a job that wasn’t about soccer. His stint at a New York delicatessen, when he was a sophomore in high school, lasted six weeks. The owner wanted Mulroy to cover an absent stock boy's shift. But Mulroy was on the way to his soccer game 40 miles away at Farcher's Grove in Union, N.J.

By Mike Woitalla (from the January 2010 issue of Soccer America)

Only once has 53-year-old Tommy Mulroy had a job that wasn’t about soccer. His stint at a New York delicatessen, when he was a sophomore in high school, lasted six weeks. The owner wanted Mulroy to cover an absent stock boy's shift. But Mulroy was on the way to his soccer game 40 miles away at Farcher’s Grove in Union, N.J.

“There was a sleet and hail storm and the boss didn’t believe we had a soccer game,” says Mulroy. “He said I was lying and fired me. But we played in the sleet!”

Mulroy became an NJCAA all-American at Ulster County Community College in 1974-75 before embarking on a pro career that spanned 13 years and 13 clubs in five different leagues, outdoor and indoor. Despite the nomadic existence, Mulroy relished life as a pro player.

“In preseason, guys would complain about double sessions and all the running,” Mulroy says. “I was saying to myself, I could be carrying a bundle of shingles up to a hot roof. But instead I’m kicking this thing with the spots on it. Let’s go for a run!”

At each new club, Mulroy took on a community relations job, which doubled his player salary (about $25,000 for a player of his caliber in that era). He ran camps, gave clinics, sealed sponsorship deals. After retiring in 1988 he founded Soccer Marketing & Promotions.
“What was I going to do?” he said. “I didn’t finish community college. I didn’t have a degree. But I realized I could do all the things I did -- clinics, camps -- without a team.”

Mulroy, who set a juggling world record on the Empire Stadium platform in 1987, surely owns the world record for giving soccer clinics. Among his current clients is Alianza de Futbol, which last year put on clinics in 18 cities emceed by Mulroy with stars such as Carlos Valderrama and Luis Hernandez at his side.

“Tom's a perfect mix of showman and soccer expert,” says Alianza de Futbol president Brad Rothenberg. “Sponsors love him because he appeals to beginning players because he's entertaining and the serious players because he's a former pro and passionate about the game. I've yet to meet somebody who conducts a clinic better than Tom does."

Mulroy’s showmanship skills emerged when he joined his first pro club, the Miami Toros, in 1976. While older players avoided the community outreach, the 20-year-old Mulroy embraced it.

“Here's this New York kid who can juggle the ball like a flippin’ clown,” Mulroy says, “They’re sending me to schools, synagogues … all over the place. I was like, wow, ‘these people want my autograph.’ That’s how I got started in the promotional stuff.”

Mulroy aqcuired his juggling skills because he was the only kid in his Rockland County community who played soccer, so he fooled around with the ball endlessly on his own.

While with the MISL’s New York Arrows, he was mentored by GM Tod Leiweke, who now runs MLS’s Seattle Sounders. With the Uniondale-based Arrows, Mulroy says, “I personally saw over 400,000 kids on Long Island. If you told me a town on Long Island, I’d tell you what color their uniforms were.”

While Official Spokesperson for World Cup USA ’94, Mulroy estimates he did 120 appearances. He served on the executive committee for the 1996 Olympic Soccer Games and appeared on Nickelodeon and ESPN children’s TV shows. His company, which branched out into the Hispanic community with Se Habla Futbol, launched the Copa Latina tournament in 1993, and promotes international games in Miami.

“My entire life is soccer,” Mulroy says. “I love it. I love the kids. I love the sport.”

(This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

January 02, 2010
Adults and their funny instructions

By Mike Woitalla (from Soccer America Magazine's Youth Insider)

By Mike Woitalla

In last week's Youth Soccer Insider ("Lost in Translation"), Susan Boyd shared some priceless examples of adult sideline instructions that were misinterpreted - to say the least -- by the young children they were aimed at and yielded some humorous responses. The piece prompted our readers to share some of their own, and jogged my memory of some of the most entertaining "advice" I've heard from adults at youth soccer fields.

Daniel and Nancy Cohen said their son was playing ball with his grandfather, who told him "keep your eye on the ball." The boy walked over to his grandfather and put his eye right next to the ball.

"I explained to my team," Jim Froslid recounted, "that when the ball goes over the touchline, I want us to take our throw-ins as soon as possible in order to 'catch the other team sleeping.' After the game I asked if everyone had fun and the girl in the back raised her hand and said, 'Coach I did not see any players on the other team with their eyes closed when we took our throw-ins.'"

Monica McMillan reported that at her 7-year-old daughter's first soccer practice, the coach shouted "dribble, dribble." Because she had only ever seen her cousins playing basketball, she picked up the ball and started bouncing it with her hands.

I once heard a coach yell at 6-year-olds, "Give him a target on the flank!" What are the odds, I thought, that the youngsters had any idea what that meant? Never mind they could barely kick the ball 10 yards.

Eavesdropping on a coach addressing his 9-year-old troops at halftime, I heard him commanding that, "We need to neutralize No. 10!" The No. 10 managed to stay happily un-neutralized in the second half

One of my all-time favorites: A U-10 coach screamed, "Over here! Over here!" at the top of his lungs while a little goalkeeper had the ball in his hands. The coach apparently wanted the keeper to send the ball to the right wing. And so the keeper punted the ball - more precisely than I imagined he had the skill for - and it rolled out of bounds, right to the coach's feet. Well done!