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Monday, July 06 2020 @ 02:35 pm ACST

Opinion: Developing a US Pathway

North America

Currently, the AFL is considering development pathways for international talent (see Part Two of Kevin Sheehan Interview). While this should be encouraged, I hope the AFL will consider the cultural differences between countries. In particular, any pathway for U.S. players into the AFL must go through the U.S. college system. A pathway that does not allow U.S. players to go to college will be a road to nowhere.

One thing that strikes you immediately about the United States is that everyone goes to college. I mean everyone. Tiger Woods went to Stanford even though it was obvious he was going to be a great professional golfer. Whoppi Goldberg went to the University of Vermont even though she was already quite established as a movie actress. Natalie Portman went to Harvard after becoming an established movie star. Even the Olson Twins went to NYU after making their names in television some 16 years earlier! The NHL Champion Carolina Hurricanes includes graduates of St Cloud State, Miami of Ohio, Notre Dame, Clarkson, Harvard, Lake Superior, University of Michigan, North Dakota, and Michigan State.

The fact that most Americans go to college has major ramifications for any player development pathway. Consider US Soccer. Okay, they didn’t do too well this year but they had a tough draw and there is no doubt they are a very good side. Despite the fact that the US has the largest youth soccer program of any country in the world, only 11 of its 22 man squad play in the top leagues in Europe. This is in contrast to Australia where almost the whole team plays in Europe. To understand this difference you have to understand the American culture of college attendance. The top talent of the US junior soccer programs go to college not to Europe.

I have neighbours whose 8 year old recently made it on to a competitive “travel team” for soccer. Somewhat reluctantly my neighbours have made the jump into the high pressure world of US junior travel soccer. The pressure on these kids to perform is often immense. However, if you ask their parents what they want for their gifted little soccer champions, you will find they all want a free ride to the University of Virginia. These kids are not looking to play for Liverpool or Real Madrid. Most of their parents have never heard of Real Madrid. To them the ultimate in soccer achievement is making the high school soccer team and getting a scholarship to college. I must admit I find this odd, particularly given that most of these parents are quite wealthy and could easily afford the University of Virginia or many better schools. Nevertheless, that is the way it is.

What does all this mean for an AFL development pathway? If the AFL is looking for Americans to come out to Australia at 16, 17 or 18 years of age then they will be waiting a very very very long time. No such Americans are ever going to come. However, if the AFL is willing to offer college opportunities such as the Macquarie University Scholarship then they will have American kids standing in line for the opportunity. Further, the AFL and its affiliated clubs must be willing to wait for the Americans to graduate college. Yes, these players will be older, at least 20 or 21 years old. But they will also be mature, talented, athletic, educated and less likely to get homesick. Some of them may even turn into pretty decent footy players. Hockey and baseball have traditionally taken players through the minor leagues and junior teams. However, these sports have realized that American colleges can produce significant talent and should not be overlooked. Consider Jason Giambi. After being drafted by Milwaukee out of high school, Giambi turned the Brewers down and went to Long Beach State University to play college ball. Today, Giambi has a .268 batting average and 20 home runs for which the New York Yankees pay him a little under US$20.5 million. Not too bad for a guy who gave up the pros for college.

The AFL needs to be aware that American kids and parents may not be willing to follow the same development pathways as Australian or Irish players and their families. College is the dream of every American parent, no matter how good their kid is at sports.

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