Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur side has endured a wildly successful campaign this season. Spurs are set for a top four finish and are within two points of league leaders Leicester City, their most successful season thus far in years. I’ve personally been a supporter of Tottenham since 2006, when a 16th birthday present of a subscription to Fox Soccer Channel was gifted from my wonderful parents, and I cannot remember a Tottenham side with a better energy, work ethic, and ability to grind out results then this season’s edition. The big name superstars of Spurs past, the likes of Bale, Modric, Berbatov, Van Der Vaart have been replaced with the youngest squad in the Premier League. With an average age of 24.7 years, Tottenham has trusted a squad of youngsters to take them to their best ever Premier League finish and possibly the league title. A squad with a couple of world class veterans, a proven system and manager who believes in his tactics, and a large helping of hungry young talent may take Spurs to success unknown to many supporters of the club.
So why has Pochettino seen so much success as a manager thus far? Southampton sacked Nigel Adkins in favor of the Argentinian after winning two straight promotions, and Tottenham seemed dead set on the former Espanyol manager even after some success under Tim Sherwood following AVB’s dismissal. What has put the Argentine in such large demand are his successful tactics, which requires a squad willing to pressure teams all around the pitch like a pack of lions on a hunt. This system pressures the opposition into turning the ball over in favorable areas for Pochettino’s side, where they then attack with pace and precision. This system requires extremely high levels of fitness in order to work successfully, which Pochettino demands from his squad members and has successfully introduced at Tottenham this season. The side seems fitter and everyone on the pitch seems committed to running as much as possible in order to make the system work. Harry Kane has been praised for his work ethic off the ball and defensively, a true example of a young player with world class talent who has bought into the manager’s tactics and system.
So with Pochettino’s system of high pressure, there is little room for the veteran world class talents of Tottenham’s past. I could never image the likes of Van Der Vaart, Edgar Davids, or Dimitar Berbatov ever fitting Pochettino’s system which requires extreme levels of fitness and effort defensively. Thus why the club went after young seemingly unknown players until this season, players who are willing to do anything the manager asks in order to get a chance on the field. The hunger for personal success and opportunity that is prevalent in young professional players is what allows systems like Pochettino’s to work so well. The club exchanged players in their late twenties with large reputations and egos such as Paulinho, Roberto Soldado, and Younes Kaboul with young players eager for a chance to make an impact at a large club. Eric Dier, Dele Alli, and Kieran Trippier were brought in and mixed with academy products Ryan Mason, Nabil Bentaleb, Harry Kane, and Tom Carroll to make the core of the squad. It is hard to ignore the world class performances from Dembele, Lloris, Alderweireld, Rose, Walker, and Eriksen this season for Spurs, but it seems as if Pochettino has found a superb mixture of young hungry talent and world class veterans of elite club football willing to buy into his system.
So what can US Soccer takeaway from Tottenham’s success with young players? For me, MLS should be a stage full of young American players hungry to make an impact similar to the young Spurs products. MLS to this day is still bringing in past-prime big names in an attempt to draw fans, improve the overall product, and more importantly in the leagues eyes expand the global reach and brand of the league. Although not everyone has pursued this strategy, FC Dallas saw success using young players last season finishing 1st in the western conference, and currently have 15 players currently under the age of 25 on their squad. Nine of those players were domestically grown. So why is LA Galaxy still bringing in players like Ashley Cole? Why are Gerrard and Lampard looked as key players in this league? MLS needs to lose the idea that these names are going to sell tickets to an uneducated soccer culture in the US. It shows little respect to the fan base in this country that they still believe the average fan will only buy tickets if global superstars are on the field like the old days of NASL.
With a large number of former players and soccer fans now well into adulthood, why not start to develop clubs with a connection to the communities that support them. Every time Harry Kane finishes off a goal for Spurs, a roar of “He’s One of Our Own” is heard from the Tottenham supporters, with a feeling of pride for the local product who now sees success for his boyhood club. Hailing from the Philadelphia area, I am sure nothing more would excite the Sons of Ben more then a local boy from Northeast Philly who consistently puts in performances for the Union. The debate about US player development and what needs to be done in order for the US to become a global soccer power and for MLS to become a respected league globally can rage on for hours and hours, but the more US players are given opportunities in MLS at a young age to train and play in games, the more attractive MLS will be to soccer fans in the US
As I am sure readers are ready to point out a number of failed young players who have been given opportunities in MLS, but were later let go from the club, traded away, or sent to a lower league. But with that also comes the hundreds of young English players that see the same fate every year. Shaq Coulthirst a 21 year old striker at Tottenham was just sold to Peterborough in January, a League One side. Shaq never really got a chance at Spurs and was obviously not favored by the Pochettino so he was let go. We may see Shaq later on down the road if he does well with Peterborough and works his way back to the Premier League, but like many other academy players at top clubs in England, he was sent down to a lower league side. So not every player works out even at some of the best academies in England, but academy products are not looked down upon because of these failures. In the US the product on the field in MLS is constantly criticized as not good enough, likewise with our US national team. If enough youngsters are given opportunities at the highest levels to see if they make the grade, and if US fans and team owners can demonstrate patience with these players, hopefully we will see more managers using young players to apply strategies similar to Pochettino’s.
I referred to Clint Dempsey as the US’s only true number ten in a previous article, and Dempsey’s route to the elite levels was typical of US players at that time, elite youth club soccer, to college soccer, to MLS. Dempsey first played in MLS from 2004-2006 when the league had only ten teams. Dempsey had an excellent few seasons in New England leading him to being the bright spot for the US in their miserable 2006 World Cup in Germany. The US Soccer system was able to produce players like Dempsey, Donovan, and various other names who went on to successful careers internationally all because MLS was a viable place for young players to gain game experience and train. With the expansion and growth of the league, the success of David Beckham and various other designated players in growing the popularity of the sport in major markets, MLS has seemingly choose to use imported players as means of filling stadiums. This model eliminates the young American player from the league, in favor of a more technically skilled international product of a foreign academy or team. As much as I enjoy the quality of players like Sebastien Le Toux and Bradley Wright Phillips, I personally would sacrifice the quality they may bring for to the league in the hopes that the next Clint Dempsey or Donovan are given the opportunity in MLS and do not get passed to the purgatory of lower league soccer in America, where very few return to MLS from.
It would be great to see the end of the migration of past prime foreign players to MLS in search of large pay checks and sunny weather, in exchange for more young US players given a chance to make the grade at the highest level in US Soccer. The egos involved with these designated players prohibit any manager from applying their personal style of play or tactics to the squad. As they feel the pressure from the ownership and league to play these players at every instance in order to “satisfy” the fans and justify their large salaries. Pochettino's style would be very hard for teams like LA or NYCFC to use since a majority of their key players would not be willing to work hard enough defensively or physically cannot run the yards necessary to use such tactics. Designated players also increase the skill and pace of the match to a point much past our organic development in the US, making it difficult for young players to compete against a player of much higher quality. The gap between Robbie Keane and Jordan Morris for example is substantial enough that if the two were teammates, Morris would most likely see very little time in games in a one striker system. We need to allow for the level of our young players to continue to develop organically as the coaching and training techniques continue to develop in this country at the younger ages. This requires an end product of players having chances to pursue careers in MLS without the threat of being replaced in the future by a overpriced past prime seat filler from an overseas league.
From Tottenham’s success this season we should take away the fact that young players are willing to do whatever it takes to make an impact and break into a squad’s 1st team. If this hunger and willingness is capitalized upon, the fearlessness of a youngster paired with veteran leadership can be a successful formula for any team. MLS should encourage managers to enable young domestic players to break through to their first teams and give them a chance to make the grade at the top level. The league may have already surpassed the domestic youth development in America due to the quality of the international players in the league, but fans are now educated enough to support their local teams without the need for designated players to be involved in the league structure.