With the good news that the MLS season will indeed start this week, I’d like to offer my esoteric version of a season preview: where exactly does the current crop of elite American players come from? Who are the boys (Luis Gil at 16 is—as far as I know—the youngest player in the league) and men (Pat Onstad at 42 is—as far as I can tell—the oldest) we’ll watch this season?
My questions are mostly born out of an amateur interest in cultural geography and a general curiosity about youth development; knowing where players comes from provides an important indicator of how the game works in different places. Ironically, the globalization and commercialization of the modern professional game often obscures the importance of place—while pro teams symbolically represent cities and regions, very few of their players actually come from those locales. It seems to me, for example, that knowing Real Salt Lake won last year’s MLS Cup tells me much less about soccer in Utah than the fact that the state, with a population of 2.5 million, has produced only one current MLS player (Justin Braun of Chivas USA grew up in Salt Lake City).
I was also provoked by an interview published here on Pitch Invasion a few months ago between Peter Wilt and ‘St. Louis based soccer executive Jeff Cooper.’ Wilt asked “Is the ‘St. Louis as a soccer hotbed’ notion a myth associated with the history of the sport’s support there or is St. Louis truly still ahead of the rest of the Midwest, and nation, in soccer interest and development?” and Cooper replied: “Per capita, St. Louis still produces more elite level players than any market.” That, as we say in the social science business, is an empirical question.
Of course, if you try to parse Cooper’s statement it gets tricky: what exactly qualifies as an “elite level player” and how do you define a “market” (and, I might add, has hyper-capitalism advanced to the point that we now live in “markets” rather than “cities”)? But I gave it a stab—and by my calculations Cooper is not quite right. Though, in fairness, he’s also not far off.
So in the spirit of Soccernomics (which tried to statistically analyze soccer success internationally through cross-national comparisons), The Best Eleven (which has had some excellent maps of where MLS players come from), Kenn Tomasch (who has done some interesting comparisons of things such as the percentage of American born players in MLS vs the old NASL), and others I’m probably not aware of, I present and interpret a poor-man’s geographic analysis of the current MLS (and US Men’s National Team—USMNT) players based on where they spent their formative years.