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Landon Donovan urges MLS and USMNT to change youth development policy

Landon Donovan has told ESPN FC that changing the incentive in the U.S. youth soccer landscape from winning to developing players would result in better players being produced.

Speaking prior to Leon's 1-0 friendly win over the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday -- a match in which Donovan scored -- the all-time MLS leading scorer spoke on a number of topics, but returned often to the state of youth development in the U.S.

For Donovan, the aforementioned change in emphasis starts with coaching.

"All I see is at Leon, and their teams start at under-15, but they have seasoned coaches who dedicate their lives to coaching kids," he said. "I think part of the issue in the U.S. still is that you have people coaching the under-14s who really want to be the coach for the full team. So their focus is on winning, results, performances versus developing players."

Donovan recalled how, when he was just starting his professional career with Bayer Leverkusen, there were "50-year-old men" whose life was dedicated to developing young players.

"They had no desire to be the first team coach," he said. "They just liked developing and helping the academy kids or whatever. They made a living at it. But that's where their desire was.

"I don't blame [U.S. youth coaches] for having ambition and wanting to be a first-team coach. But you really need people who are focused just on the development and not focused on the winning."

Landon Donovan played six games for Leon, in Liga MX, this past season.
Landon Donovan joined Mexican club Leon in January 2018.

MLS has continued to increase its investment in youth academies but ESPN FC's Noah Davis recently highlighted how U-22 domestic players, including Canadians, accounted for just two percent of available minutes in 2017, less than half the rate in Serie A (4.2 percent) and the EPL (4.5 percent).

"I think there needs to be a healthy mix [between foreign and domestic], but I think the pendulum has swung a little bit too much," said Donovan. "There's no doubt it's made the league better, but what do we want the league to be? And that's a fundamental question that MLS needs to ask itself.

"Do you want the league to be full of players that get brought in from outside [North America] and that's what the teams look like, or do you want to develop players within MLS academies and develop young American players who can help the national team?

"I see the big picture. MLS is a business, so they're trying what they can to make their business better. For me, I want to see us win a World Cup one day, so the big picture of that means we need to develop players at home and develop better American players."

Donovan's eagerness to see young Americans succeed extends to the coaching ranks. Donovan is on record as saying he'd like to see the next U.S. men's national team manager be an American.

Part of that is out of a desire to see American coaches doing well, but he added hiring an American would ensure that the manager understand the American player.

Landon Donovan has scored 57 goals in 157 caps with the U.S. national team.

That begs the question of what is there specifically about the American player that needs to be understood. Donovan provided an example.

"In Mexico -- and this has been part of a perspective that I've gained -- and in Latin America in general, players are sort of told more what to do situation by situation tactically on the field; how to do things, where to move, what to do," he said.

"In America we're taught in our society to question things. 'Why are we doing that? You want me to go there, but why? Why not go here?' I think that's part of the American psyche. It's not just America; it's not unique to Americans. There are other countries that are like that too, but that's one small example of how the American psyche is."

Donovan added that managers familiar with the American system, like FC Dallas' Oscar Pareja and New York City FC's Patrick Vieira have been in the U.S. long enough to know what makes the American player tick.

"I promise you if you talk to [Pareja or Vieira], they'll say there is a big difference between the American player and the Latin player or the English player or the French player," he said. "They will tell you the same.

"I think that's beneficial and helpful so because of those two things, I think that would be my preference. And I think there are a number of American coaches who deserve to get that chance.

"Rather than pay a foreign coach five or six or $10 million a year, I think that money could be invested in a better way, and I think we have coaches here who could do a great job."

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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