Where Will They Go?
Now that you know who the best American YNT prospects born in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 & 2005 are what should you do with that information, what does it mean, what happens next? What gets YNT prospects from where they are now to the big leagues? I’d advise everyone to engage in some probabilistic thinking. Done by thinking about the key factors that make any player successful.
Thinking in terms of probabilities means incorporating both uncertainty and the accumulated effects of the relevant variables on a player’s developmental path. Roughly it means projecting a player’s path forward based on a band of reasonable outcomes with an upper and lower bound. Beyond young players just tending to be more inconsistent in their performances from game to game (a YNT prospect bucking that trend is a good sign) the closer they are to puberty the more variance there is in where they could be in their athletic development.
I can see how strong and fast a 13 year old is. However, I don’t know if they have already filled out. Also their relative athletic advantages are temporary or likely to improve further. This type of problem must be worked on. However, not with the type of information gained from watching match footage.
An advantage players get in this period the relative age effect. It shows up in the disproportionate selection of early birth year players. They are, on average, more developed than the players born after them and, because of that, are seen as more effective. This advantage can compound as these players get more chances to play. Also more coaching focus, but it starts to dissipate as more players physically mature in the late teens. This is another reason why it makes sense to look at the best and worst reasonable case outcomes for a youth player when projecting them into the future. Maybe a player is being pushed by a manager because they are slightly older and more physically mature, that guy could end up staying among the top YNT prospects. They may fall back into the pack, and that’s challenging to figure out from YouTube.
What has seemed to me to be the most useful rubric for determining what a player needs to succeed is the Dutch TIPS frame, TIPS being an acronym for Technique, Insight, Personality, and Speed (they, you, and I can cheat some to include other relevant physical attributes under this category).
So if you’re figuring out what a player’s abilities are by watching game tape you can pretty easily see technique and speed, you may need to know things about the opposition to get a better sense of where a player’s athleticism stacks up, but speed has some objective benchmarks. If you’re a skilled observer you’ll be able to gauge insight, the issue being that if you have little of it yourself you can’t fully evaluate if a player has it and must judge mostly based on outcomes (which like athleticism must be adjusted based on opponent). Seeing a youth player with real insight is a good sign for their prospects going forward because its relative advantage tends to translate up.
Personality is the real black box for third party observers. You get glimpses of it from reactions to things on the field (conflicts, going down a goal, moves falling apart, a teammate screwing up, etc) but that doesn’t tell you everything about how a player’s psychological makeup will fit the needs of a high level professional athlete. I’ve found that this is the endogenous factor that most frequently causes players to fall short of where their youth performances suggest they should end up.
Outside of the TIPS framework I would include environment, and obviously circumstances. In 2014 economists Casey Ichniowski and Anne Preston published a paper. It shows that when a senior team player transfers to and plays at a top team, their national team’s ELO ranking improves. This is a phenomenon labor economists call peer effects. The theory is that when someone is regularly exposed to high level peers they will become more productive. For youth and developing players I would go beyond looking at what the quality of the senior team’s results are. It’s important to understand the club’s overall developmental environment and how those effects will interact with a prospect.
A top youth player should get chances to train with a senior team. Their development will be influenced by the other parts of the club and the club’s developmental culture. Not all big clubs are the same and some smaller clubs may be better for a player. The process of going from youth to senior team varies. Luis Saurez didn’t go from being a teen in Uruguay straight to Liverpool. He didn’t even go straight to Ajax. He took a path that allowed him an efficient way to progress into being a world class striker.
Players at different points in their careers can benefit from different things (high level individual instruction, tactics focused on development, chances to get their first minutes, competitive tactics that fit their abilities, and an elite first team squad and competitive environment that forces a player to improve). Few clubs have figured out or are capable of being able to expose new players to all those things. I’d advise people to judge the environment of a club based on where that player is in their career. What that club has shown they can do for the similarly situated is meaningful.
The are a lot of negative examples of YNT prospects and the factors that go into creating a high level pro but I’ll focus on one of the positives, Tyler Adams.
Adams was born in February of 1999. He was one of the youngest players who was part of the 1998 birth year U17 YNT. Despite his small stature he could hold his own physically. He flew into challenges. Many outside observers discounted him for his lack of technical refinement and things I thought were related to his relative inexperience
The Red Bull organization has their own collective experience. It has focused on bringing through their own players that fit their style rather than making splashy signings. As part of that ethos RBNY became one of the first in MLS to field a professional second team. It provided Adams the opportunity to play hundreds of professional minutes in his mid-to-late teens. As an organization they play an aggressive defensive style that fits Adams’ profile. For an American player of his type it’s hard to think of a better environment. It was ideal to allow him to grow prior to being eligible to move overseas.
The thing that really pointed to Adams being a success, beyond the on-field performances, were stories like the one Aaron Long [told Herc]. Long was a late bloomer himself who also benefited from RBNY II, tells above. I started hearing more about his mentality and training habits from insiders. The amount of uncertainty I had to factor into my evaluation of his prospects diminished. With credible stories about a growth mindset and a high level of competitiveness then the on-field performances can hold more sway.
He has looked like a CL player in the roles that his attributes fit. The type and quality of information about Adams that was applied to my probabilistic model resulted in a clearer picture of what the future would hold, as it would any player.
What the Future Holds for YNT Prospects
The US is producing more quality YNT prospects. As systems professionalize and improve the results will become more regular and of a higher quality. The upper bound of what that higher quality could be will be set by the innate capabilities of the inputs, the players, and shaped by the environments we provide them. As outside observers we can see how kids stack up at a single point in time.
We can apply a trend line to that but we can’t exactly know where that growth will take them. Hopefully now we know why we can’t exactly know and what the most reasonable set of outcomes should be. We must let that band of uncertainty and the information that narrows or shapes it guide our thinking. It should be the basis for our projections of the players on YNT prospect lists going forward