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Why the United States is the best destination for promising African footballers

The issue of youth development in football was historically presented as something that only a select few countries had mastered and that prominent footballing nations in South America and Europe were the only ones capable of producing top level players. However, the diversity of international talent shows that spectacular talent can come from any nation if players can find a developmental pathway that drives them to success through their first years when competing as professionals. The model developed by Germany following the pain of early elimination at Euro 2000 and its subsequent success showed that while infrastructure and money is always helpful in a youth development system, Germany’s return to footballing prominence proved the theory that producing quality young players is something that can be achieved through studying and applying methods rather than talented young players coming exclusively from select nations. 

A Germany team with an average age of over thirty years old was defeated 3-0 by Portugal to end their Euro 2000 at the group stage with only one point from three games. The result inspired German football authorities to emphasize and change their approach to youth development.

It was a Wednesday night at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey when two sides met for a club friendly on July 22, 2015. London powerhouse and 2014-15 English Premier League champions Chelsea FC were about to play their first match of the preseason while home side New York Red Bulls were in the middle of their season at the height of fixture congestion. After having to play a US Open Cup quarterfinal the night before, Red Bulls manager Jesse Marsch decided to use a lineup composed almost entirely of players from reserve side New York Red Bulls 2 along with youth players that included 16-year-old Tyler Adams. Adams was among the scorers as the Red Bulls stunned viewers by coming back from a 1-0 halftime deficit to win 4-2 over a Chelsea side that included many of its stars including Cesc Fabregas, John Terry, Eden Hazard, Oscar and Diego Costa. 

Highlights from when a reserve-heavy New York Red Bulls team defeated English Premier League champions Chelsea in 2015

While many dismissed the result as a team far out of competitive shape losing to a fit and eager side in a meaningless match, the performances of players such as Adams indicated that the United States was on the path to finding a proper system to develop its young talent. Seven years later the New York Red Bulls 2 continue to function as an excellent place for the club’s young talents to earn their first professional playing experience before transitioning to Major League Soccer or other higher levels. Adams is now playing under Jesse Marsch at Leeds United in England after previously moving on to Red Bull Leipzig. Former Philadelphia Union star Brenden Aaronson is playing at Leeds with Adams after getting his first professional experience with Union reserve side Bethlehem Steel. In 2022 every Major League Soccer team now has a reserve team in the model of New York Red Bulls 2 with the launch of the MLS Next Pro league, introduced by Major League Soccer to act as that essential level for young professionals to play their first minutes at a level that will challenge them physically and mentally for not only young American players but also international talents brought in.  

Another young player currently at New York Red Bulls who is making that transition from the reserve to the first team is 20-year-old midfielder Steven Sserwadda. The Uganda national team player earned a move to the United States in September 2021 thanks to his performances at the 2021 Africa U-20 Cup of Nations and is on a similar path to Adams, earning his first appearances for the senior team in 2022 including a friendly match against FC Barcelona on July 30. Sserwadda’s Uganda teammates from the AFCON U-20 side, Musa Ramathan and Aziz Kayondo, joined the reserve teams of FC Cincinnati and Real Salt Lake respectively and are making regular appearances in the inaugural season of MLS Next Pro. 

Steven Sserwadda and Aziz Kayondo starred for a Uganda team that finished runners-up at the 2021 Africa U-20 Cup of Nations before transferring to clubs in the United States

Musa Ramathan in action for FC Cincinnati 2 in MLS Next Pro

Time will be needed to judge if MLS Next Pro can become an excellent development pathway for young African players like the Ugandans mentioned but the high potential is there. African players, especially in countries like Uganda with national teams who lack a proven track record and appearances at the FIFA World Cup, are rarely given opportunities to move directly from African football to top European leagues. Even if they thrive in countries like Norway, Latvia, Estonia or Armenia there is little guarantee they will be rewarded with a move to the more reputable and better paying leagues they desire. With seven international players allowed on each of MLS Next Pro’s twenty-one teams there are plenty of opportunities for young standout African players to earn a roster spot. 

As interest from both investors, owners and fans in the United States continues to grow then the quality of play and facilities will grow as well. MLS side New England Revolution are a great example of a club who for many years did not expand their operations and investment despite success on the pitch as well as substantial fan interest. However, the club’s ownership has increased their investment in the club to keep up with the increasing standards of MLS by building new training facilities for the senior club as well as MLS Next Pro side New England Revolution 2. Below is a brief video showing the facilities that meets and even exceeds some of the standards seen in a top-4 European league:

Another positive in favor of joining the Major League Soccer development system over other potential pathways is the ease with which an international player can obtain permanent residency in the United States. As soon as an international player arrives at an MLS club the process begins for the acquisition of a Green Card, a document which when obtained means that the player will count as a domestic player like an American-born player. MLS teams have helped their players obtain Green Cards as early as a season or two after the player arrives in the United States. If African players make the move to MLS Next Pro they may already count as a domestic player by the time they are promoted to the senior team or soon after. 

The United States will line up at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar with a maximum of one or maybe two players in the starting lineup aged thirty or above. The American system has determined that emphasizing younger players is the right direction to move in and is producing players who are moving to the top levels of European football. With international players welcome in a rising development system, the United States is the best destination for young African talents to transition from African football to the highest levels that the continent’s players dream of. 

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