FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- Yurem Linares arrived with his father moments before soccer practice. He walked up a steep dirt path to the field, past an overflowing trash can and the bottles and cans that had come to rest around it. It was a warm evening in June, almost the end of the season. Linares had been waiting for this day. After practice, he'd learn if he was one of five players picked to spend a week in the youth program at the LaLiga club Villarreal, on Spain's east coast.
Yurem and a few hundred other players, some as young as 6 years old, were enrolled in Villarreal's Virginia academy, except it wasn't an academy at all. There was no administration building, no locker room, no dedicated field. Instead, sessions were held several times weekly at public facilities and high school fields like this one, Mason District Park. The annual fee for players was $2,000. "We're trying to get it down to $500," Bo Amato, the owner and executive director of the club, said.
Nearly 14, Yurem looked slender and insubstantial. He stood just 5-foot-3, but as soon as he began to kick a ball, his talent became evident. Nick Flores, who coaches Linares' academy team at Villarreal Virginia, watched with approval. "He's little, but he comes on like a monster," Flores said.
Villarreal is hardly a famous club. Since its formation in 1923, in a city of 50,000 inhabitants near Valencia, it has never won a championship in Spain's top division, although it did defeat Manchester United in last season's Europa League final. In the United States, its following is negligible. Nevertheless, since 2018 when Villarreal Virginia opened, it has established ties with youth teams across North America -- 10 in all. Many other clubs -- including some of the world's most popular, like Barcelona, Juventus and Liverpool -- had already done the same.
Like them, Villarreal projects that academies will give it a greater presence in the burgeoning American market, especially considering the club is renowned in Spain for its youth development. "That is our brand," says Juan Anton, Villarreal's director of international business.
But branding isn't the only reason Anton is committed to a network of North American affiliations. Each Villarreal academy serves to connect the club to another group of talented young players. And one or more of those just might become good enough to play in Spain someday.
"That," says Gary Linares, Yurem's father, "is why we are here."
In the abstract, it seems desirable to have the world's most advanced clubs nurturing young American hopefuls. More well-coached talent in the ecosystem will provide better competition for the existing youth teams. And if these academies provide the best players with a direct route to European leagues, it can only help the U.S. men's national team in the short term, and ultimately American soccer as a whole. "The more you see American players shining on television, the more American kids will be eager to start playing," said Dan Hunt, the president of FC Dallas.
Yet the emerging players at those academies probably don't aspire to play in MLS. "It's delicate," Hunt said. "We'll definitely lose kids over time. It will take some talent out of the talent pool."
Villarreal Virginia consists of a contract between Amato, a former Tottenham Hotspur youth player, and the Spanish club. Like the other local operators, Amato pays a fee to use Villarreal's name and logo to attract players. He is permitted to outfit his team in replica versions of Villarreal's jerseys -- but not the expensive game jerseys, Amato notes with approval. "They don't want parents wasting their money on that," he said.
To Amato, it proves Villarreal has a genuine interest in these American kids. So does the club's willingness to send experienced coaches from its player development system to Virginia for months at a time. Beyond that, Villarreal has agreed to bring in Amato's most promising young players for workshops and training. The families of those players are responsible for the airfare, but once they arrive overseas, the Spanish club typically covers everything else.
If a player is impressive enough, and especially if he has a European passport that would make him eligible to play with a youth club in Spain before he turned 18, he might be asked to stay longer than a week. Several Americans have spent entire seasons at the club's academy in Spain. For the most ambitious players, just the knowledge of that possibility gives each practice session additional urgency.
On this night, Yurem Linares and the other players began their training with rondos, fast-moving games of soccer keep-away. Then they split up into five-on-five games. What they didn't do was line up and start dribbling around cones. The approach seemed markedly different from the typical American practice session, in which specific skills are taught through repetition outside the context of a game situation. As he watched, Gary Linares nodded. "European soccer is better," he pronounced. "The MLS is good, but Europe is much, much better. The way they teach you is better."
These days, Gary reports, Yurem spends much of his time kicking the ball around their house as he imagines that kids his age do in Europe. "When you want something," Gary said, "you've got to want it."
Linares can envision the path that leads from this park in suburban Virginia to his son playing on television in LaLiga. It will be a difficult path, they both understand, but at least a path is there. "That wasn't the case before," he said.
Soccer is booming in America. That hasn't happened from the grassroots upward, as everyone assumed it would once entire communities of kids started climbing out of station wagons and onto soccer fields. If those millions who enrolled in youth programs at the back end of the 20th century ever became fans, their passion never registered across the American consciousness.
Instead, we fell for the sport because of technology. Not too long ago, our access to world football was limited to tape-delayed telecasts on weekend nights or information gleaned from chat rooms and newsgroups. Then cable television and the Internet brought the best teams in the world to our screens. From Brooklyn to Berkeley, young professionals suddenly adopted favorites -- in the Premier League, mostly, but eventually in the Bundesliga, LaLiga, Serie A and beyond.
Now all those favorite teams are expanding their reach in North America, where the loyalties of 330 million people are essentially up for grabs. Liverpool alone has 10 official youth affiliations in the United States, including operations in both Washington D.C. and Baltimore; in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Scituate, Rhode Island; and on the far side of the continent in Irvine, California.
Nearly two dozen clubs with European or Latin American ties saturate the New York area; South Florida has almost as many. One of those is a Paris Saint-Germain Academy in Ft. Lauderdale that is an academy indeed: Its five pristine fields would compare favorably with the first-team training grounds of many Premier League clubs. "A professional environment designed like professional European teams," is how PSG's website describes it. The annual fee for a residential player is rumored to be $60,000.
The most successful Americans are already playing in Europe at Champions League teams like Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Dortmund and Juventus. It's quite likely that others, who might have had the ability of a Christian Pulisic or Gio Reyna in their mid-teens, but not the European passport, never fulfilled their potential. Opinions differ as to why, and what the remedies should be. Where nearly everyone is in agreement is that the United States has as many talented preteens as anywhere else, yet only a few of those players come out the back end of the youth soccer system as international standouts.
"Clearly if more clubs are in the business of development, that's only a good thing," says J. Todd Durbin, who manages the day-to-day operations of Major League Soccer's player development. That's where European clubs believe they can help. "It's a very interesting market," says Lars Ricken, Borussia Dortmund's youth coordinator.
Dortmund is where Pulisic, now at Chelsea, arrived from Pennsylvania as a 16-year-old in 2015 and eventually played 81 games over three seasons. Reyna started there in the summer of 2019 and quickly became a first-team fixture. Neither Pulisic nor Reyna attended a Dortmund academy, but both help make the case that the finest American players can compete on the highest level. "It twice worked very well for us," Ricken says with a laugh. "We look forward to the next Christian or Gio."
The question is: How to find him? And even if they did find him, what could they do with him if that player didn't have a European passport?
Strategies vary. City Football Group, which owns Manchester City, also has a grab bag of other teams worldwide, including MLS' New York City FC. Similarly, the controlling owners of RB Leipzig own the New York Red Bulls. Those groups can nurture Americans at home until they become eligible to play overseas. Then they'll move the best of them to Europe, as Red Bull did with Leipzig's Tyler Adams.
Others, notably Bayern Munich, have established working agreements with MLS teams to effectively do the same. Bayern's relationship with FC Dallas ostensibly exists to improve soccer in the United States, in part by importing its developmental philosophies. "Our head coach, our technical director and our academy director have all been there," Hunt told me when we spoke just before the pandemic. But running camps in conjunction with FC Dallas is also an efficient way for Bayern to spot talent for itself, or prospects to nurture and eventually transfer to an Austrian club or perhaps a club in 2. Bundesliga, the German second division.
The odds of finding future first-teamers at any of these academies aren't high. Even at La Masia, the Barcelona academy that has produced Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and an impressive number of other stars since the end of the 1970s, fewer than 1% of the youth players will ever wear the Blaugrana shirt in LaLiga.
On the other hand, the next Messi is out there somewhere. If a club could find him, or even the next Pulisic or Reyna, it would recoup its entire U.S. investment. "If we have the opportunity to teach what we believe is the correct way to play football, we're certain that we're going to get players," says Villarreal's Anton.
"And all it takes is one."
At 18, Amato arrived at American University in Washington to play soccer. In typical fashion, he didn't quite see things as his coach did. "I've always been a bit rebellious," says Amato, who is now 54. "I recognize it's not a good thing most of the time."
Amato returned to England but later ended up in Virginia working for a club in Annandale. It had a partnership with MLS' D.C. United. "Basically an Adidas shirt deal," Amato says. He was looking for more. He recalled his time at Tottenham, where the spirited training sessions were the highlight of his day. Surely someone could recreate that passion here. "All I wanted to do for the kids is what I did 40 years ago," he says.
Through several intermediaries, word reached Villarreal, who had been looking to affiliate with an American club. It wouldn't be just for branding; Villarreal was too obscure for that. Amato said he'd be interested if Villarreal actually sent its coaches to Virginia. As it happened, that's just what Anton had in mind.
In 2018, the first year, 800 kids turned up. "We didn't have the staff to take them all, so we took 600," says Carlos Aranda, the former Paraguay international who serves as the academy's technical director. The second year, the tryout attracted 1,300. "We had kids coming from Richmond, from New York, from Florida," Amato says. Simultaneously, Villarreal opened more academies, including in cities like Fayetteville, North Carolina, and Lincoln, Nebraska, because that's where the operators they wanted to partner with happened to be. Eventually, Anton said, he aspires to build a residential facility where the best players would be given scholarships.
Then the Annandale club challenged Amato's agreement with Villarreal, saying the contract legally belonged to them. The relationship between Amato and Villarreal endured, but the dispute brought bad publicity on soccer websites. "I lost a load of players," Amato says. The pandemic followed. Both Amato and his academy struggled. To make ends meet, Amato took a construction job. Villarreal promised to continue its support, but travel restrictions kept its coaches in Spain.
"If not for the Annandale dispute and COVID, we'd be sitting on a thousand players," Amato says. "And our teams would be the best in the state."
Like Anton, Amato yearns for a success story. If he could establish a tangible connection between Villarreal Virginia and LaLiga, it would secure the future of his club. For a while, it seemed like Ricky Vanderhyde might be the one. Vanderhyde was born in December 2004 to an American father and, crucially, a Swedish mother. At 8, he started to get serious about soccer. That started his family on a quest to find proper coaching for their only child.
Ricky was big and fast, so it was easy for coaches to put him on the wing and send him down the field to score. That helped their business model -- goals lead to winning teams, which attract players. But it wasn't much help to Ricky, who ended each season as a larger, faster version of what he'd been when it started.
"They weren't interested in developing talent," Rick Vanderhyde, Ricky's father, told me. "The American coaches were solely interested in winning games. They did not care about the kids. They only cared about the score."
The Vanderhydes often visited family in Europe, where Ricky enrolled in week-long soccer camps. That led him to decide that he wanted to play overseas as soon as possible. The coaching was better, he felt. The game came at him faster, which forced him to improve. In the fall of 2018, the family came to a Villarreal Virginia training session. "We'd been through it all," his mother, Christine, says. "We wanted to see if this was different."
It didn't take long for Amato to appreciate that Ricky was an unusual talent. If he kept him with the 2004s, his age group, that team would win a lot of games. But Amato also knew Ricky would soon get frustrated with the level of skill around him. So Amato moved him to the 2003s. That impressed the family. So did the practices, which were run by Spaniards. Week by week, Ricky felt his game awareness improving.
Getting to Spain was always part of the equation. "With the other clubs we'd been at, there was no pathway to get anywhere but MLS or the other U.S. leagues," Rick Vanderhyde says. "And if your goal is to be a pro, it probably isn't to play for the Tampa Bay Rowdies."
In March of 2019, Vanderhyde was picked to travel to Villarreal. The trip was geared toward teenagers who'd never been to Europe, but Vanderhyde had already attended games at Ajax and Real Madrid. He wanted to play, not take tours. He returned home disappointed.
Still, his parents, who'd come along, were able to get a sense of Villarreal. They were impressed that a small community, only slightly larger than Annandale, could have such impressive facilities. They liked the club's youth program. They asked if Vanderhyde could spend a season there, getting the European game experience he craved. In late 2019, Villarreal invited him for the following fall.
COVID came in March 2020 and shut everything down. That August, Vanderhyde decided to go anyway. Only 16, he began training and playing with 19-year-olds. A personal coach assigned to him analyzed Vanderhyde's performance after every game. "I definitely improved," he says, but because of the pandemic, he couldn't do anything but play. He couldn't attend the first team's games because nobody could. He couldn't eat in restaurants, or hang out with friends he'd made. Much of his time was spent alone.
For the most part, the Vanderhydes say, Villarreal fulfilled its promises. But for reasons that the family can't fathom, the U19 coach played Vanderhyde as a winger, not the right-back he'd developed into. Ricky asked why, but never heard a clear answer. Even his personal coach was perplexed. In April, with a month remaining, Vanderhyde left the program. He'd learned a lot, he told his parents, but felt he wasn't getting an opportunity to show his skills. He traveled to Sweden, where the season had started, and tried out for a team, but there wasn't room at his level.
The family isn't bitter toward Villarreal Virginia. The club said it would give Vanderhyde the opportunity to get to Spain, and it did. But Spain hadn't worked out, so what was the point of returning? Ricky spent this fall in a local MLS Next program while attending high school. He hopes to be in Europe after Christmas.
Would it have turned out differently if the pandemic hadn't hit? Or for a different family? Or with a different coach? Perhaps. But in any case, Ricky Vanderhyde won't be the success story Anton can use to justify Villarreal's investment, nor the one Amato has been waiting for to help market his club in the Greater D.C. soccer community.
Perhaps Yurem Linares will be. After that June practice, he was announced as one of the Villarreal players invited to Spain in August. He immediately began making plans to go, but because of the summer's COVID surge, the trip was postponed indefinitely. Amato is hoping that Villarreal will let the players come in January.
The battleground between MLS and the top European clubs isn't on the field, where the American teams can't yet compete. It isn't in the shops either, since soccer's market penetration here remains at a nascent stage. Most MLS executives would rather see a kid wearing, say, a Chelsea shirt than no soccer shirt at all. "If it keeps them in the sport longer and at a longer age rather than quitting soccer and playing baseball, that's a good thing," Durbin said. "The more excited people are about soccer, and the more young players who aspire to become professionals, the better."
But the league gets territorial, even proprietary, about American teenage talent, especially since anyone who comes through an MLS academy is exempt from the annual SuperDraft. "Players can become flight risks if they have dual citizenship, or when they turn 18," said Dave Sanford, who ran D.C. United's academy until he departed in July. "That's exactly what MLS is trying to avoid."
To mitigate that, Sanford made sure that players who come up through his club do more than play soccer there. "Part of our process is for them to develop an affinity for D.C. United," he said. That means going to games, occasionally serving as a ball kid and interacting with first-team players in person or on Zoom. "So when we do get to the point where we're sitting down with mom and dad and the player and they have a decision, they have a passion for the club."
As he spoke on a June afternoon, Sanford was sitting inside Audi Field on Washington's Buzzard Point, 20 minutes from where Villarreal would practice that evening. How many other clubs with ties to Europe were as close or closer? "Barcelona has an academy a few miles from here," Sanford said. "Benfica, Panathinaikos, Liverpool." These are global brands with big budgets.
"They can come over with minimal risk to test the market," Sanford said. "See what sticks and see what doesn't. They're in affluent communities where they can turn a small profit. Then if it transpires that they get a player, even better."
MLS understands that American talent is coveted. At every important tournament, scouts representing overseas teams are swarming. So are agents. "To find the next Christian Pulisic," Sanford said with a smirk.
One of the players they scouted extensively was Rokas Pukstas, a U.S. youth national team member with a Lithuanian father who is playing at Croatia's Hadjuk Split. Pukstas was impressing everyone at Sporting Kansas City's academy when he abruptly left to enroll in Barcelona's residential program in Casa Grande, Arizona, in 2019. There was nothing wrong with Kansas City, he told me, but he didn't like that MLS wanted to control his destiny. "Basically, my thought process was, if I go to Barcelona, I can get to Europe," he said.
Because of his potential, Pukstas was given a full scholarship by Barcelona. But some of his teammates were spending as much as $70,000 a year. "Which is terrible," he said. "MLS academies pay for everything -- host families, food, whatever you need. But then you have to go to MLS."
In Sanford's opinion, a player is better served spending a few years in MLS and then, if he's good enough, engineering a move to Europe on his terms. "We can get you there just as easily," he said. "We've done it with Chris Durkin. We signed him, he played his time here, he wanted to move along, we moved him along."
Durkin debuted for D.C. United in 2016 as a 16-year-old. He played 36 MLS games over three seasons, competing on the highest level in America while growing into his talent. Last year, D.C. United transferred him to Sint-Truidense, the Belgium club where he'd been playing on loan, for more than $1 million -- $1 million more than if he'd left the club while still a junior.
Until now, MLS didn't want its clubs to lose its rising stars to Europe, as though it were a feeder league. That felt out of sync with the eight- and nine-figure entry fees for expansion franchises, especially considering many of the European clubs signing these players weren't worth anywhere near that much. But the league has come to see the value in players with MLS experience succeeding around the world. In 2019, Newcastle United spent more than $26 million to sign Atlanta United forward Miguel Almiron, breaking its club record and giving MLS' reputation a boost. "In order for us to be operating in a way that the economics make sense, we have to be both a buyer and a seller," says MLS' Durbin.
This year, MLS players have been transferred to AS Roma, FC Salzburg and Borussia Monchengladbach, among others. "It's a watershed moment for American talent getting respect," says Jason Levien, D.C. United's majority owner, who also co-owns Welsh club Swansea City. "I think it's going to change the integration of America into world football."
Levien perceives the growing proliferation of American academies with European ties as both a threat to the existing order and an opportunity. "It's a sign that the United States is going to be producing more and more global talent," he says. "That means we've got to step up our game in terms of our training."
As part of that, he and his partners are constructing a 30-acre complex in exurban Leesburg, Virginia. The four-field complex will be used by D.C. United's first team, but the entire youth academy will also train there. As of now, though, that academy still consists of only three teams: U15, U16 and U17. That "sub-15 level" is far too late to start developing players, insists Earnie Stewart, the sporting director of the U.S. Soccer Federation.
"If we think here in the United States that you can just start at 14, when all these kids on the other side of the ocean are starting at 6 years old with professional coaches and good structure, we're wrong," he says. "We're never going to make up those eight years. It's impossible."
One Monday afternoon in September, Stewart left the U.S. Soccer office in downtown Chicago. He'd been hearing about these branded academies for years, but he hadn't seen one. It wasn't for a lack of options. Within a short drive, he could have visited clubs affiliated with Liverpool, Olympiakos, Red Star Belgrade, Borussia Dortmund, Dinamo Zagreb and Mexico's Chivas, among others. Instead, he headed to a high school on the edge of the city, where Barcelona's academy would be holding an evening session.
Before the pandemic, Barcelona operated academies in 54 cities around the world. The enrollments averaged around 500. That meant 20,000 soccer-playing kids wearing Barcelona shirts to practice -- and 20,000 getting indoctrinated in the tiki-taka tactical approach that the club has utilized for a generation. "We love to say that if you dress the kids in black and white, you will know that they are Barca," Xavi Mondelo, who runs Barcelona's North American academies, explained when Stewart met him that evening. "Why? Because they are playing a different style. The most important thing in our style is to control the ball."
No club has been more aggressive in establishing U.S. academies than Barcelona. It has at least one in 11 U.S. cities, with more planned. Several of them, including that residential academy in Arizona that is the closest to a facsimile of La Masia as exists anywhere in the world, are owned or co-owned by the club.
As the young players started to arrive, Stewart spotted Nico Estevez, the former Valencia head coach who is an assistant with Gregg Berhalter's U.S. men's national team; it turned out that Estevez has a 9-year-old playing at the Barca academy.
Estevez said that a coach trained in Barcelona's system actually lives in Chicago and works full-time at the academy teaching the methodology. Mondelo, who was there for a site visit, nodded. "When they see that it's not only a brand, that we try to show them philosophy, values, culture, the parents feel like, 'Wow, this is different than what we're used to,'" he said. "'This is real.'"
"Which is worth way more than winning a game on Saturday," Stewart said.
The problem is, they still need to win those games. When the Chicago academy opened in 2019, the staff decided that its teams wouldn't play weekend tournaments. They didn't like the idea that a single loss would remove them from the competition. "It put too much emphasis on winning," explained Alejandro Esteban, the Barcelona-trained coach who runs the Chicago club. "But these days in the U.S., if you say no to these tournaments, you are not competing at all. So you need to adapt.
"If you do everything exactly the same as we do in Barcelona, it won't work."
The American parents wonder why the kids don't train every day but only a few times a week, even though that's the same as the La Masia schedule. Isn't more often even better? And why don't their kids warm up with a regimen of push-ups and sprints like the other local clubs? That question was so persistent that Esteban and his staff finally decided to let their teams do a few minutes of traditional warm-ups -- not because it prepared the players, but because it mollified the parents. "They think we are doing conditioning, but it's just 10 minutes," Esteban said.
Even those 10 minutes were a source of unease to Barcelona's methodology team, which questioned why they were necessary. Mondelo explained that many American parents were new to soccer. They couldn't easily track their kids' improvement, so they needed to see them working hard to justify the money the family was spending.
At the end of practice, Stewart said he was sure that the kids enjoyed the session. "How could they not? They played the whole time," he said. And that, he believes, is the crucial factor for nurturing talent. Predicting who will develop into an elite player is nearly impossible, so why try? Teach them all how the game works. Match them up against players of similar ability so they can experience both success and failure. And keep the fire burning by making sure they have fun. Their personal trajectories will become evident soon enough.
That sounded a lot like what Barcelona and Villarreal were trying to do. There was only one problem, Stewart said. Unlike MLS clubs, they have no inherent commitment to American soccer. Last he heard, Barcelona was a billion dollars in debt, an economic situation so dire that it couldn't work out a way to keep Lionel Messi. If that was also the future of American soccer, it didn't bode well. Instead, academies such as Barcelona's and Villarreal's should provide templates for their MLS equivalents.
"In five years," Stewart said, "if they are successful in sending kids to college and professional teams, other clubs will be saying 'Oooh, what are they doing?' That will trigger them to start doing the same. Because what will happen when Barcelona decides they can't afford to do this anymore and says, 'we're out.' What then?"
Stewart headed toward the parking lot. As he reached his car, a group of kids wearing red Barcelona shirts raced past with a shout. They were holding soccer balls under their arms like running backs, laughing into the night.