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Thank you, Clint Dempsey. Thank you for making me look a fool. Mere hours after I wrote that the U.S. soccer would not win a World...

Thank you, Clint Dempsey.

Thank you for making me look a fool.

Mere hours after I wrote that the U.S. soccer would not win a World Cup until its best players could score with flair and panache, the American forward goes out and pulls off a masterpiece of footwork, leaving multiple Ghanian defenders flailing in his wake as he hit the ball off the far right post and into the history books. The goal, a mere 29 seconds into the U.S.’s 2014 World Cup debut, was the fifth-fastest in the history of the tournament.

It was also very much out of character for our nation, which has traditionally been most adept scoring off set pieces and direct-line sprints to the goal (think Landon Donovan v. Algeria circa 2010). Dempsey’s technical skill with the ball, the way in which he brashly let the ball roll through his feet before juking past two defenders, was the kind of improvisational flair so rarely pulled off by Americans in the World Cup.

Dempsey grew up in a trailer park Nacogdoches, Texas, about an hour
outside of Dallas. He spent his childhood years playing pickup playground soccer against Hispanics, and as a teenager traveled to Dallas to play in more structured league play. This combination of unstructured play and rigorous training – combined with the great coaches and multi-ethnic talent pool of north Texas – proved to be an outstanding incubator of Dempsey’s genius.

Many of Arkansas’ best soccer players have also headed to the Dallas area to develop their talents. One of the most promising young ones is Thomas Roberts, a 13-year-old who like Dempsey honed his talents as a child in daily, unstructured play (in this case, at Little Rock’s Anthony School). As a young teenager, he’s been making frequent 4.5 hour trips to Frisco, Texas, to play with an MLS academy team. That is an advantage players of Dempsey’s generation never had, as I detail in Sporting Life Arkansas:

“Thomas Roberts may already be the most accomplished 13-year-old soccer player in Arkansas history. In four months, the rising eighth-grader will almost certainly be the first to try out for a European club academy that has produced more elite soccer players than any other in the world. He’s been training against teens three years older in the Arkansas Rush program “and could still be considered the best player on both teams,” says Rush technical director Nathan Hunt.

A year and a half ago, Roberts started training in the youngest age level of the FC Dallas youth development system. He has emerged as one of the best players on one of the nation’s best teams in his age group. “He’s a very special player,” says Chris Hayden, Vice President of FC Dallas Youth. “Highly gifted technically and very savvy.” Hayden plans to recommend Roberts to join a pool of players who by late fall will try out for the U-14 U.S. National team.

While Roberts ascends to heights no Arkansans have touched before, the Little Rock native is also playing a part in a major upheaval in the way future American national teams are being trained. His FC Dallas academy began seven years as part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, a project funded by the game’s national governing body that attempts to emulate the multi-team, age-divided structure of the top European clubs. The change has streamlined and accelerated the progress of the country’s brightest young talents. “Before 2007, [US Soccer] was categorized as a free-for-all—we lacked focus, and everybody’s goals and agendas were so varied and different,” Tony Lepore, director of scouting for U.S. Soccer, told si.com last week. “But now everyone’s in line with trying to develop a world-class player.”Thomas Roberts may already be the most accomplished 13-year-old soccer player in Arkansas history. In four months, the rising eighth-grader will almost certainly be the first to try out for a European club academy that has produced more elite soccer players than any other in the world. He’s been training against teens three years older in the Arkansas Rush program “and could still be considered the best player on both teams,” says Rush technical director Nathan Hunt.

A year and a half ago, Roberts started training in the youngest age level of the FC Dallas youth development system. He has emerged as one of the best players on one of the nation’s best teams in his age group. “He’s a very special player,” says Chris Hayden, Vice President of FC Dallas Youth. “Highly gifted technically and very savvy.” Hayden plans to recommend Roberts to join a pool of players who by late fall will try out for the U-14 U.S. National team.

While Roberts ascends to heights no Arkansans have touched before, the Little Rock native is also playing a part in a major upheaval in the way future American national teams are being trained. His FC Dallas academy began seven years as part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, a project funded by the game’s national governing body that attempts to emulate the multi-team, age-divided structure of the top European clubs. The change has streamlined and accelerated the progress of the country’s brightest young talents. “Before 2007, [US Soccer] was categorized as a free-for-all—we lacked focus, and everybody’s goals and agendas were so varied and different,” Tony Lepore, director of scouting for U.S. Soccer, told si.com last week. “But now everyone’s in line with trying to develop a world-class player.”

For the rest of the article, go here.

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