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Red Bulls Suffering from US Soccer Shortcomings in Youth Retention

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The Red Bulls have lost out on some talented players over the years. Is the system to blame?

NJ Advance Media for NJ.com-USA TODAY Sports

There is a problem with the current youth soccer setup in North America.

In recent years, MLS and U.S. Soccer have made a constituted effort to improve things across the board, and some big strides have been made, such as many teams forming academies and recently expanding their efforts into reserve teams. While these implementations have brought the U.S. Soccer youth system closer towards the world's standard, there are still major issues keeping it from reaching its intended goal.

The New York Red Bulls Academy is a prime example of these backwards policies hindering a program's growth. Time and time again they have been able to identify a talented youth prospect. They've been able to bring in that player to help shape his future career only to see that player leave the club at the first chance he gets for a professional contract and/or a better opportunity, usually in Europe. The club is left with nothing but the memory of having been able to see the player first-hand. No matter what that player goes on to accomplish, the club sees no reward for the guidance they provided.

One of the more notable players that have slipped through the Red Bulls' fingers is U.S. youth international Russell Canouse. The 20-year-old Pennsylvania native was brought into the Red Bulls academy as a youngster only to leave when Bundesliga club Hoffenheim came calling. Canouse has gone on to be named to the USA's U-20 World Cup roster (before being removed due to injury) and has consistently featured for the Hoffenheim reserves.

This isn't just a problem that has manifested recently. We've seen plenty of names come through the Red Bulls system and move on to other opportunities. Another former U.S. youth player Gabriel Ferrari is just one more example of this. The once highly touted American prospect was with the MetroStars academy from 2003-2005 before jumping ship to Serie A outfit Sampdoria. At the time, the lure of the Italian top flight was most likely appealing for the player, but maybe sticking it out with the Metro setup would've been more beneficial to his development.

Once A Metro spoke with former Red Bulls Sporting Director Andy Roxburgh in June and he shed some light on the difficulties the club has had holding onto young talent.

"It's one of the big problems with the academies here, there is no protection," said Roxburgh. "How can you invest in an academy or in your fringe young players if they can just walk away?"

He specifically pointed to one instance of a player movement hurting the Red Bulls because clubs who offer vital training for young players aren't valued.

"We lost a 17-year-old goalkeeper a year ago, he just walked and he went to Reading. His mother wrote a note: ‘Thank you very much,'" Roxburgh said.

That player turned out to be Aleksander Gogic who still plays for Reading's academy.

It's this type of nonchalance that has clubs frustrated with the system that is trying desperately to create a pipeline of talent to first teams around the country. The struggle continues to this day as the Red Bulls have several talented players that have either recently trained with their academy or still do, but have taken opportunities or received interest from other clubs.

  • Arun Basuljevic (trained with Stabaek)
  • Matthew Olosunde (reported interest from Europe, particularly Manchester United)
  • Scott Thomsen (trained in Scotland)
  • Adam Najem (trained in Sweden)
  • Timothy Weah (left for PSG)
  • Kyle Duncan (trained with PSG)
Not only do the Red Bulls have to worry about clubs from all over the world poaching their young talent, they have to fend off advances from their own ownership group who may have different plans in mind. Several players in the Red Bulls system have been the subject of interest from fellow Red Bull affiliates. Academy U-16 center back Mason Deeds is currently on a six-week training stint with Red Bull Salzburg. Last summer, goalkeepers Keith Cardona (Red Bulls U23s) and Santiago Castano (Homegrown signing) went on trial with FC Liefering (the reserve club for Red Bull Salzburg). The club elected to sign Cardona who is now with Indy Eleven after a short stint in Austria. What's troubling, of course, is that New York would have allowed either to leave; a reserve team under the Red Bull umbrella had free reign to poach the players New York strove to develop.

Then there's the case of the talented Homegrown center back Matt Miazga. One of the brightest young talents in all of MLS has been brought in by Red Bull Leipzig several different times to train. If New York was to somehow lose Miazga to a club under the same ownership umbrella while receiving no compensation for his services, it would generate some consternation for MLS, the New York front office, and fans.

Some would argue that it's very much a "dog eat dog" environment when it comes to youth development. Better teams take the best players from inferior teams because sports tend to be a zero sum game. And many local coaches will tell you that the Red Bulls are very good at this practice. They've poached their share of players from other clubs and routinely reload at the start of every Academy season with a squad full of new players.

Perhaps what they're experiencing is the natural give and take of the youth development food chain: the Red Bulls Academy is a predator, but far from an apex predator. They haven't been prevented from signing many talented Academy prospects to MLS and USL contracts, but there's still room to be aggrieved. They're missing out on some of the better players they develop and don't get to claim any compensation for them, no matter where the players move. Unfortunately this is a U.S. Soccer problem that particularly hurts the Red Bulls. All they can do is what they're currently doing: sign players to USL and MLS contracts, hope they can encourage more talents like Miazga (who had offers in Europe at 18) to sign with MLS, and develop players at one of the best Academies in North America from the Regional Development School through the U-23s.