There’s a French football club in Scotland. Well, kind of. They are registered with the…
There are a few options open to talented young footballers in Scotland. Most aim for a place as a ‘Pro Youth,’ as it’s called, with one of the country’s biggest and best clubs – the likes of Celtic, Hearts, Hibernian, Rangers et al. There’s also the option presented by the Scottish FA’s much lauded Performance Schools. But there is another route that many Scots take, one that isn’t always acknowledged.
If you’ve come through high school in the past 15-20 years, you’ll likely know somebody who emigrated to North America on a scholarship. Indeed, thousands upon thousands of Scottish footballers have entered the Stateside college system, rebuffing the traditional methods of youth development offered by their homeland.
Some of those players are now starting to emerge on the other side. Take Calum Mallace, for instance, the West Lothian-born midfielder who attended Marquette University before being drafted as MLS level for the Montreal Impact. Now, having played in the North American top flight for five years, he is at the Seattle Sounders – the current MLS Cup champions and arguably the biggest club in the States.
Mallace isn’t the perfect example of a Scot who looked across the Atlantic to further his career as a young footballer, given that he moved to Minnesota at the age of just nine, but the 27-year-old has experienced first hand the benefits of the American system. He knows why more and more are exploring an alternative route.
“I feel like less players are going to universities now because of the way MLS have expanded their youth system,” says Mallace, explaining how the landscape is shifting slightly in the States, “but I still think the Division 1 college level is a good level to learn at. It’s a good place for players to go to get a good education and if you’re good enough you’ll go on to the professional game. If not, you have your degree to fall back on. That’s the big difference. The club academies are just looking for players to come up to play for the first team, whereas at university you have to maintain a certain academic standard to stay in the team.”
Indeed, that is the distinction between the ethos on which the Scottish youth game runs and that of the North American college system. It’s cultural as much as anything, not just exclusive to football. Education is just as big a focus for the basketball and American football players at Stateside colleges and universities, the belief being that an academic grounding helps in all aspects of their progress, both personal and sporting.
“Football in Scotland and the UK as a whole is so seductive. Not just to players, but also to their parents. It’s very easy to be drawn into it. Kids as young as eight or nine being tagged ‘Pro Youth.’ You’re setting a tone right there” – Andrew Kean, First Point USA.
“Being the best footballer is not enough to get you into the best teams in America,” explains Andrew Kean, founder of Scottish-based First Point USA, an agency that has helped over 7,000 athletes find scholarships in the States since 2001. “You need to have the full package, which is the academics and the sporting credentials. It’s a much more complicated landscape than many realise.”
Along these lines, Kean pushes back against the suggestion that the American college system presents Scottish players with an alternative route into the professional game. That, of course, turns out to be the case for some, like Mallace or Englishman Jack Harrison, who now finds himself at New York City FC, but a player who enters the system purely for sporting reasons is likely to be knocked back.
“We need to get an understanding of what they their academic and football aspirations are at the outset,” says Kean, who himself joined the University of Cincinnati on a scholarship as a youngster. The process of taking on students is rather rigorous, with trials running monthly. Then, some home truths are told. “We provide them with a brutal overview of what the opportunity actually is,” elaborates Kean. “That will put a number of them off before the trial even starts.” Even after the trial, there is an interview stage involving the athlete’s parents. Players who go to the States really want to go to the States.
But for many, this is a reflex reaction to the many failings of the Scottish system. It’s a system that is currently undergoing something of a restructuring, with Project Brave hitting headlines this week, but there’s a lot of work to be done if a new mantra is to be imposed. Some players can’t wait for that to happen. They are looking elsewhere to find it here and now.
“Football in Scotland and the UK as a whole is so seductive. Not just to players, but also to their parents. It’s very easy to be drawn into it. Kids as young as eight or nine being tagged ‘Pro Youth.’ You’re setting a tone right there, but only 0.012% of footballers will make it through the academy system to play full time professional football. Naturally, there’s thousands and thousands being displaced.
“I’d definitely recommend coming over here as an option for young players. It’s not easy, but there are many players who have done it and I thought it was a good route for me. I have a degree which I have to fall back on when I’ve finished playing” – Callum Mallace, Seattle Sounders.
The ‘Pro Youth’ classification will be culled with Project Brave’s implementation, but Kean’s point still stands. Everything at the youth level of Scottish football is geared towards giving players elite status as quickly as possible. If anything, Project Brave will only accentuate this with its intention to pit the best against the best.
Of course, the North American college system doesn’t quite possess the sway to lure the likes who typically end up at Lennoxtown or Murray Park. By Kean’s own admission, First Point USA will look to sign up players who have become disillusioned by the domestic game, players who perhaps can’t even find another contract at another club.
“Even when I was in university, which is a while ago now, there were quite a few British players in the system,” says Mallace, recalling his own route into the professional game. “They promote having a good education as well, because even if you go pro, you’re not going to play forever, so it’s a good place for British people to look over as an option. I think more are understanding that.”
Mallace and Harrison are the current poster boys for Brits in America, but there might be a ground swell of others about to surface. Take Jordan Wilson, for instance, the Auchterarder-born defender who was selected for the MLS draft last year. Or his brother Adam Wilson, who left Rangers to make the move to the University of Louisville, where he is rated as one of the best midfielders in the college game. There will likely be more, not just from Scotland, but from all over the United Kingdom.
“I think more are seeing this route as a way into professional sport,” adds Keane. “Maybe in England, the rise in the cost of tuition fees might have been a factor in the growth of young players heading in that direction.” Whatever the reason, the American sporting scene is no longer viewed with the derision and scorn it once was by Scottish footballing types. Whether as a sporting or educational destination, their college system is proven as a credible route for young players.
That guy from your high school might never have turned his football scholarship into a professional career at the top level, but chances are he found something else to excel at. A more rounded approach is producing more rounded results. It produced Mallace and will likely produce another like him soon enough.