You may or may not recognize Serbian Neven Subotic by name. If you do, it's likely because he's currently sought-after by most of the top clubs in Europe: Chelsea, Manchester United, AC Milan, Arsenal and Barcelona, to name a few. You might also recognize him if you're a follower of the Bundesliga, where the 6'4" footballer stars at center back for Borussia Dortmund, with a remarkable 7 goals in 43 games and tremendous aerial ability. What you probably don't know him for are his stints playing for the University of Southern Florida, and the U.S. Mens U-17 and U-20 teams. Which begs the question: Why does he play for the Serbian national team now? The unfortunate answer to that question sheds light on some of the larger problems plaguing U.S. soccer.
The U.S. Mens' National Team could certainly use a center back like Subotic. We have no one near his quality in the back today--either on the current team or among our rising defensive stars. But he slipped through the USMNT's fingers. Subotic played for the U-17 team and trained with the U.S. U-20s, but was not selected for the U-20 side for the 2007 U-20 World Cup. U.S. coach Thomas Rongen received a lot of criticism for the snub, but supported his decision with the claim that Subotic had "not accelerated over there [for FSV Mainz 05 in the Bundesliga] to the point where we feel he belongs on the U.S. team." Subotic naturally didn't take that news too well. His reaction? "Well, Rongen certainly said some discouraging and false things about me. . . . I still don't know what he saw in the other players, and what he didn't see in me." Well, Neven, that makes two of us.
Rongen selected players like Nathan Sturgis, Anthony Wallace, Julian Valentin, and Amaechi Igwe over Subotic. None of those four are pushovers--all but Valentin play for solid MLS teams--but none begins to rise to the level of quality of Subotic's game. Certainly none of them are being sought by Chelsea, Barcelona, and AC Milan. So who's driving the selection process among our cadre of national teams? Perhaps, more importantly, who's scouting the younger talent? Who missed Subotic's quality in deciding to overlook him for four decent MLS-quality guys that likely will never attract the attention of the squads Subotic commands today? There's a lot of talk going on about expectations for the U.S. team following the attention they garnered in the Confederations Cup, but in order to rise to those expectations over the long-term and avoid the "one-time wonder" label, the U.S. is going to have to do a better job not only at spotting, but also at securing long-term talent for its squad.
So we chalk up Neven Subotic as another unfortunate loss and toss him in the same bin of might-have-beens as Giuseppe Rossi (whom we honestly never had much chance of getting in any event). In the meantime, there remain a few rays of hope among potential future USMNT players, players with proven quality like Edgar Castillo (UANL Tigres in the Mexican Primera Division) and Jermaine Jones (FC Schalke in the Bundesliga). Let's hope we can close on those players and see them performing well for the U.S. Mens' National Team in the near future.