USL showing young Americans a new path to Europe

When San Antonio FC midfielder Jose Gallegos found out there was a global soccer power intrigued by his talent in the spring, he initially thought it was a joke.

“I kind of laughed because when you hear someone say, ‘Bayern Munich is interested in seeing you,’ the first thing you do is say, ‘Nah, you’re crazy,'” Gallegos said.

Except they were serious, and Bayern wanted him to fly over as soon as he could. At 19 years old, Gallegos had never been to Europe before, but was soon on a flight for a two-week trip to Munich.

USL Championship final, Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. Orange County SC: Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET; stream live on ESPN

It took place in April, just weeks before the USL Championship season was set to begin, and he would quarantine for a week before another week of training with Bayern B. Although he was starstruck at first simply by stepping foot on such hallowed grounds, Gallegos found that he acquitted himself well and returned home brimming with confidence.

That a young American player got the opportunity to train with a European power isn’t exactly unique. It’s not even rare for young Texan prospects to train with Bayern, specifically, thanks to the club’s partnership with Major League Soccer‘s FC Dallas. But even as these types of opportunities have become somewhat normalized, Gallegos’ emergence is evidence the United Soccer League is making progress toward a goal it has been working on for a decade: to develop talent and participate in the global transfer market.

Although Gallegos, 20, has yet to seal a move out of USL — he was a second-team All-League selection and guided San Antonio to the USL Championship Western Conference final — his path is shaping up to be what the league hopes can be the blueprint in the future. He started playing for San Antonio’s academy when he was 14 years old, received his first-team debut at 17 and signed a first-team contract in February 2020 at 18.

San Antonio’s run to the Western Conference final was the deepest it has ever advanced in the USL playoffs, but fell to Orange County SC on penalties. After the USL Championship final was canceled last year due to the pandemic, the Tampa Bay Rowdies will host Orange County on Sunday (8:30 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN) to crown the league’s first champion since 2019.

If Gallegos does secure a move this winter, he would join another USL product, Louisville City’s Jonathan Gomez, 18, who is set to join LaLiga side Real Sociedad when the transfer window opens in January. Louisville City announced the transfer for the left-back and former FC Dallas academy player in September.

The hope for USL is that the pair represent only the tip of the iceberg.

“USL as a league has a massive footprint and the amount of talent that will be available in those areas is huge,” USL’s first-ever sporting director Mark Cartwright told ESPN. “It’s about helping clubs unearth that talent and then nurture it domestically and internally.

“But if you think about the amount of talent that is out there — if it can be developed and coached and given the right pathway, then the league and the country has got the potential to be a huge player on the world market. That’s for sure.”

Cartwright, who served as the technical director at English club Stoke City from 2012 to 2019, was hired in June to help usher the league forward with its player development. Following years of expansion, the league has grown to 32 team in its top tier, the USL Championship, and 12 in the second-tier USL League 1. The league is anticipating it will grow to include 60 to 70 professional teams, USL commissioner Jake Edwards told ESPN, with most of that growth expected to come in League 1.

For that aggressive growth strategy to pay off long term, though, USL recognizes it needs to be able develop players and transfer them to bigger clubs for profits. Whether that’s to Europe or closer to home in MLS or Liga MX doesn’t ultimately matter. It’s all on the table.

“I always say the next Lionel Messi may well come out of Oklahoma City,” Edwards said. “We don’t know unless we’ve got the infrastructure in place. You have to get young players into the sport and have the right coaching and the right pathways to keep them in the sport and develop them.”

For all the progress Major League Soccer has made in youth development in the past decade, the league’s geographic footprint comes nowhere close to covering the entire county. It’s a numbers game. Even when the league reaches 30 clubs with academies in the near future, that leaves several promising large markets for player development out of its purview.

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It’s a void USL is starting to show it can fill.

“When you think about the size and scale of the USL now and where it is going to over the next few years, with teams in multiple divisions, men’s and women’s football, and the the academy program behind all of those club and even coupled with the MLS clubs, you’re talking 150 or more professional clubs now that have academy infrastructure in cities across the country,” Edwards said. “And if it’s done properly, the collective goal is that [American soccer] will bear the fruits of the labor. You’ll see players moving into the professional ranks at levels never before seen. The more professional playing opportunities now in America than ever before and that can only bode well for the national team and for the future of the sport.”

Orange County SC sees itself as one of the USL clubs best positioned to pave the way for the league. Southern California has always been one of the country’s soccer hotbeds, and even with both LAFC and the LA Galaxy in the market, there figures to be more than enough talent in the region to supply both MLS academies, plus OCSC and possibility more in the future. The more players involved with professional development systems, the odds of developing professional players increases. It’s not a complicated idea.

Goalkeeper Aaron Cervantes’ transfer to Scottish giant Rangers after the 2020 season is an early proof of concept. After spending some time with the Galaxy academy and Pateadores, a renowned Southern California club team, Cervantes signed a professional contract with OCSC in 2018 at the age of 15.

“I didn’t get any USL minutes the first year,” Cervantes said. “It was a learning experience for me going in and seeing how the dudes rolled and how men worked. Everyone came and treated it as a job.”

After making his debut in 2019, Cervantes appeared in 18 matches for the club and represented the United States at the U17 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. What stood out the most for Cervantes once he started playing regularly for OCSC was how different the game atmosphere was compared to what he was used to.

“It’s not like playing in front of screaming parents anymore,” said Cervantes, who is with Rangers B. “It was big shocker for me, to be honest. One of my first professional games was playing in [Oklahoma City], and those fans gave it to me. They didn’t care I was 16. They were shouting and cussing at me. They didn’t really care and I think it’s good for you. It molds you. It makes you tougher.”

For Cartwright, getting players in those sorts of environments at a young age is significant.

“You want them playing in front of crowds because it is a completely different experience and the bigger the crowd, the bigger the experience,” he said. “Players have to, as part of their development, they have to be able to cope with these environments and these situations. So it’s a huge part of the pathway.”

By transferring an 18-year-old prospect like Cervantes, OCSC was never going to be able to command much in the way of a transfer fee. Where the club hopes to see more lucrative returns in the future is when its players have success after their initial transfer and then move on to a bigger club, entitling OCSC to a sell-on fee. It’s a common practice in the global transfer market, but not something that American clubs have benefitted from much, with some exceptions.

“When a player makes a second move, we still want to be part of it, which will be the more financially beneficial move for us,” OCSC president and general manager Oliver Wyss told ESPN. “The secondary sell-on fee percentage can range anywhere from 10% to 30% or 40%. It depends on how you structure it and typically if you want more up front, the percent on the sell-on fee goes down.”

Against Tampa Bay in the final, OCSC will field a mostly veteran lineup that features former United States international Michael Orozco (29 national team caps), former Rangers center-back Rob Kiernan, Haitian international striker Ronaldo Damus, along with several former MLS players.

There are several promising young players on the roster, too. During the regular season, 18-year-old center-back Kobi Henry played 1,494 minutes across 19 games with 16 starts. A former Inter Miami CF academy player, Henry was called up to the United States U20 team for the Revelations Cup earlier this month. The U.S. U20 roster also featured El Paso Locomotive FC midfielder Diego Luna, and several other MLS players who spent time playing in the USL Championship or USL League 1.

Tampa Bay, who joined the USL Championship in 2017 after a six-year stint in the NASL, led the league in points during the regular season (71) and advanced to the final with wins against Tulsa (6-2), Birmingham (1-0) and Louisville City (3-2). Rowdies goalkeeper Evan Louro, defender Forrest Lasso and forward Sebastian Guenzatti were all named to the USLC All-League first team.

After last year’s final was canceled, Sunday’s match presents a long-awaited opportunity to showcase the league in primetime and with it, a glimpse into the future.

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