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On “making it”

How difficult is it to actually reach the level of being a top professional? It’s unfathomable.

MLS: Atlanta United-Workouts Handout Photo via Imagn Content Services, LLC

As professional soccer has slowly returned after the initial coronavirus lockdown, something I previously thought about for a long time has forced its way back into my thinking: how hard it is to make it as a professional footballer. This may come across as annoyingly obvious, but does anyone who has never experienced the journey and grind firsthand actually understand? Like, actually understand?

Nick Hornby, an English author and Arsenal fan, addresses this in his book Fever Pitch. Hornby uses the now retired Gus Caeser as a prime example of this phenomenon. The passage, which you can read in full here, essentially maps out Caesar’s rise through the youth ranks and his career eventually sputtering out.

“Did Gus commit himself to the life he had picked? Of course he did. You don’t get anywhere near the first team of a major First Division football club without commitment. And did he know he was good? He must have done, and justifiably so. Think about it. At school he must have been much, much better than his peers, so he gets picked for the school team, and then some representative side, South London Boys or what have you; and he’s still better than anyone else in the team, by miles, so the scouts come to watch, and he’s offered an apprenticeship not with Fulham or Brentford or even West Ham but with the mighty Arsenal.”

The importance of this excerpt lies in understanding just how exceptionally talented and phenomenal Caesar must have been at every level when he was a youth prospect. He was so good that he made it into a youth academy that kids from all over the world want to be in.

Since he was among the best in that prestigious academy, he escaped release from the club, a fate that so many of his former teammates endured. But that was just the beginning of Caesar’s journey! He then broke into the reserve team, and from there, he broke into the Arsenal first team. Soon after that, Caesar is called into England’s U-21, another exceptional accomplishment. To be judged as one of the best 23 players in your country’s age group is no small feat.

And you’d never even heard of this guy.

From there it all went down hill. Caesar eventually began moving around in the lower leagues of English soccer, and he never made it close to the top ever again.

At every stop that Caesar made, dozens, hundreds, and thousands of player’s dreams were being played out by someone else. And the crazy part is, he never even truly made it.

I’d say that puts it all into perspective, but does it?

Consider how many leagues — and in turn, clubs and teams — there are in England. Within the majority of those professional clubs, there’s a first team, a reserve team, and academy teams that range from the U-8 to U-21 levels. On each of those teams, 11 players start a match, seven players will be on the bench, and an entire team’s squad can consist of around 25-30 players.

Then apply that to every professional club in across every country that has a professional league setup. If you want, throw in all of the undiscovered players who aren’t with a professional club but are trying to get there. The sheer numbers of players that are clawing and fighting their way as far up as they can alone are enough to make me wonder if I have any sort of semblance of true understanding.

Take Píty Martinez, who has been vastly underwhelming so far in MLS. We, as fans and media, have been quite critical of him. His performances haven’t lived up to what many expected of him, and yet… he’s actually insanely good and absurdly talented. Otherwise, he wouldn’t even be here. He would destroy anyone reading this article without even trying. From my personal experience, the proof lies in that the best players I played with in high school, some of whom played in the highest level club leagues and teams in the state, are literally nowhere near that level. At all.

Think about it like this. When you were a kid, was there a player that was just better than everyone else? That no one else could even touch? How far did they go?

Off the top of my head, I can think of four different players that I played with that fall into this category. Two of them didn’t pursue collegiate soccer, and the other two are starting their collegiate careers. They’re all quite talented, but it’s hard to imagine any of them eventually being good enough to make it to an MLS club. It’s quite the rude awakening.

“I had played against the first team as an academy player a few times, and that’s kind of where you first realize how much you have to work to get there because it’s a completely different level,” George Campbell told me in an interview for another article. “USL from academy is another level and then it’s another huge step to the first team.”

And what about the jump from the Atlanta United first team to a team in, say, the Premier League? We have seen that happen one time in the form of Miguel Almirón, and it wasn’t the smoothest of transitions.

Atlanta fans have also seen a shortcoming of Atlanta United academy products. As Campbell said, the jump to the professional level in both quality and intensity is quite considerable. Unfortunately, the majority of academy players that have signed homegrown deals just haven’t been able to make that leap smoothly. But consider how much better they were than their youth academy teammates to have been in that position in the first place.

The international side of soccer may be even more daunting, and no wonder it’s such an honor to represent your national team. To be among the best in your country, no matter how exceptional or atrocious your national team is, it’s still difficult to grasp. Only 11 people from the entirety of any given country are on the field. Eleven!

At every single level of the game, all the way from the youngest age groups in youth academies to the stage of the Ballon d’Or award ceremony, players are being weeded out. So when you take into consideration all the various layers and levels there to making it to the highest levels of the game, it’s actually quite mind boggling how good those top level athletes really are.

It’s unfathomable.