No other sport has experienced a comparable upswing in the USA over the past three decades as football. International successes, such as a total of four World Cup titles for the women’s national team, but also the increased attractiveness of the domestic league contributed significantly to this. More people now follow Major League Soccer (MLS) in the USA than the ice hockey league NHL. This puts US men’s football in fourth place among the most-watched sports leagues in the country, behind the NFL, the NBA and the MLB.
This is also noticeable at schools and colleges. Whereas in the 1970s there were just under 50,000 students playing football at high schools, by 2022 there are more than 800,000. The number of colleges in the USA has also grown considerably. The game is played in five divisions, with the colleges with the biggest budgets and the best infrastructure being found in the first division. From here, talented players can best recommend themselves for a professional career. In the highest division of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), scouts from the MLS are regularly on the lookout for promising young talents.
Once a year, the US professional league also holds its own showcase event, where teams have the opportunity to scout the best 40 to 50 college players in the country. In the so-called SuperDraft, teams can then select players who have graduated from college year after year, similar to other US professional leagues. The system works similarly in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), the US professional league for women’s football.
In order to be able to assess footballers, coaches and scouts no longer rely solely on their trained eye. Data and its detailed evaluation play an increasingly important role in the search for newcomers. Especially when many talents are observed in a short period of time. This is the case, for example, in the context of showcase events, which also take place internationally, where college coaches look at promising youngsters and offer the best of them the prospect of a scholarship.
In Austria, “Students Go West” supports young footballers in making their way to the USA. In December 2022, the agency organised a scouting event in which 25 players aged between 18 and 25 wanted to prove themselves. In the first part of the showcase training, which was held in this form for the first time ever in Austria, the applicants competed against each other in a test match at the Gratkorn stadium and were able to show their talent under match conditions.
The second part of the event was about assessing the technical performance of the participants. For this purpose, they went to the skills.lab Wundschuh, south of Graz, for a 30-minute performance test. The Skills Check in the world’s most modern assessment and training system for footballers provided the coaches with an objective overview in the areas of “speed”, “shooting”, “passing”, “dribbling”, “ballhandling” and “cognition”. The results of the check contributed significantly to a quick and at the same time fair assessment of the players.
“Since the coaches from the USA mostly don’t know the football level of the participants from Austria, the skills check helps a lot in assessing their abilities,” says Fabio Rumpler, CEO of Students Go West. Thanks to the high-precision measurements in the skills.lab, all performances can be objectively compared with each other there. The results of the showcase event are therefore more meaningful year after year.
“If a player we have tested makes the jump to a college and can also convince there, coaches can use his performance in the skills.lab as a guide when evaluating new talents next year. This makes it much easier for coaches to compare performance potential with the prevailing level in college football in the scouting process,” says Rumpler. Even coaches who cannot be present at the showcase event but follow it via livestream can get a good impression of a player based on the performance data from the skills.lab.
Because of these advantages, data-based scouting will be used even more intensively in the USA in the future, Rumpler is convinced. If promising talents can be found abroad, the level of players at home will also rise. In the long run, the MLS should thus catch up with the big European leagues like the Premier League, La Liga or the Bundesliga. An important milestone in this development is already a few years away: the FIFA World Cup 2026, which will be held jointly with Canada and Mexico.
Photos © Students Go West