Mike Slane: The search for soccer's version of LeBron James needs to be put on hold

American fans constantly seek the next big player who will carry the national team from a young age, but Jurgen Klinsmann says there needs to be a more 'down-to-earth' approach.
U.S. national team fans have been desperately hoping for their version of LeBron James to appear and change the landscape of American soccer. Instead they have seen Freddy Adu, Eddie Johnson and Santino Quaranta go from top prospects on the international scene to barely mentioned at all.

Labeled ‘The Chosen One’ by Sports Illustrated while in high school, James was the NBA’s first-overall pick in the 2003 draft and has lived up to the hype by winning three league MVP awards. He is currently searching for his first NBA title as his Miami Heat take on the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 Finals.

Adu, the youngest athlete to sign a professional contract after being selected in the 2004 MLS SuperDraft at age 14, is now playing for the underachieving Philadelphia Union. Johnson showed potential when he headed to the English Premier League in 2007 but failed to impress and is back in MLS with the Seattle Sounders. Quaranta's MLS career is over at 27.

Of those three players – all of whom are still in their 20s – only Adu has caught the eye of U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann since the German took over for Bob Bradley nearly a year ago.

“I really don’t like the whole thing to shoot up players at the age of 18, 19 or 20,” said Klinsmann, who starred as a player for Germany. “That’s far too early without having proven consistent qualities yet. Qualities are more than you see on the field. There are qualities of understanding your job and living the right lifestyle – understanding what it means to eat right and to sleep well and be responsible off the field.

“To learn all these elements is going to take years. I think I played my first cap at 24, and I still made over 100 (caps) through my career.”

Today, it’s Juan Agudelo, Brek Shea and Teal Bunbury who are the top young guns on the national team’s radar. The three attacking MLS players fit Klinsmann’s style of play, but the coach is taking a more patient approach in their development. Although they have had their opportunities in friendlies with the senior team under Klinsmann, none of the three were selected for this year’s World Cup qualifying games.

“There should be a far more down-to-earth approach,” Klinsmann said. “Because of one good season they’ve shot up Agudelo, Bunbury and Brek Shea to the new faces of MLS, and I said, ‘What’s that? They’re just learning right now.’ They’re all raw.”

Rather than advising Americans to sign with bigger clubs where they will struggle to find first-team minutes – like former Manchester United signings Jonathan Spector and Kenny Cooper had in the past - Klinsmann wants his players to go somewhere where they’ll gain experience both on and off the pitch.

Klinsmann would likely advise Shea to continue playing in MLS where he was an MVP finalist last season rather than sign with Arsenal. Adu chose to leave Turkey for MLS after speaking to Klinsmann.

"That really helped me make the decision," said Adu after signing with Philadelphia last August. "Your ultimate goal is to always keep playing and be on the national team and represent your country, but first things first you have to sort out your club career and club situation. You have to be playing and helping your team.”

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Terrence Boyd is a perfect example of what Klinsmann is looking for as far as development. He was one of only two players from the U-23 team that did not qualify for the 2012 Olympics and still had a spot on the World Cup qualifying roster. The 21-year-old German-born striker has quietly made a name for himself while playing for Borussia Dortmund’s reserve team and recorded his first international cap against Antiqua & Barbuba earlier this month.

Boyd was approached by Austrian club Rapid Vienna and jumped on the opportunity to feature for a squad in a lower league that has a chance to qualify for the Europa League next season rather than try his luck in the Bundesliga.

“He will get a huge opportunity to prove his point [in Austria], and then hopefully in the next few years there will be another opportunity open up,” Klinsmann said. “But one step at a time.”

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