Ben Lederman in action for La Masia, FC Barcelona's youth academy… (Danny Lederman )
Ben Lederman's baggy shorts hang below his knees, and even the tiniest sweat shirt U.S. Soccer could find is still a couple of sizes too big for his skinny 12-year-old body.
Put a ball at Lederman's feet, though, and one of the smallest kids on the field clearly towers over his competition.
A midfielder from Calabasas, Lederman is a soccer prodigy. At 11, he became the first U.S.-born player ever accepted in La Masia, FC Barcelona's famed youth academy, where he's already been promoted one level. And in November, six months past his 12th birthday, Lederman was one of the youngest players invited to U.S. Soccer's youth training camp at the Home Depot Center.
For Tony Lepore, director of scouting for U.S. Soccer, that all qualifies as good news.
"Benny's … still a little boy [and] has a long way to go in his pathway for development. But he's in a great environment now," Lepore says. "We think the future is very bright."
Consider that Barcelona star Lionel Messi, arguably one of the best players of all time, wasn't invited to La Masia until he was 13. Or that 16 of Barca's 24 first-team players — as well as the entire coaching staff — came through the same program Lederman is in now.
But he's not the only U.S. player to draw the attention of an elite foreign soccer club before he's old enough to start high school. Last year, 12-year-old Vincent Borden of Ithaca, N.Y., was invited to the prestigious youth academy of Croatian club Dinamo Zagreb. And there are at least 12 other players in U.S. Soccer's U-15 program who have made or are contemplating moves to clubs in Europe, South America and Mexico, including forward Christian Pulisic of Hershey, Pa., who has trained with Barcelona.
Some of the credit should go to U.S. Soccer and its fledgling youth academy system, which is modeled after ones used in much of the soccer world. In its fifth year, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy — which consists of 80 member clubs scattered around the country — has already seen five of its graduates advance to the senior national team.
Now even the youngest U.S. players are beginning to earn attention abroad. And all of them bring back things they learned there, further contributing to the improvement of American soccer.
The development academy program has been so successful that, in August, U.S. Soccer announced it was expanding the program down to the U-13/U-14 level next year, meaning players like Lederman and Borden can train with boys their own age.
And "train" is the operative word here. Traditionally, boys in that age group in the U.S. have joined local club teams, where the emphasis has been not on skill development but on playing as many games — and winning as many trophies — as possible.
In the U.S. development academy, however, the emphasis is on year-round training — as much as eight hours a week, 40 weeks a year, with four practices for every game. It's still far short of what kids in Spain or Brazil do, but it's a major step up for U.S.-based players.
"The development academy has drastically changed the landscape for better in our country," Lepore says. "There's high accountability. And high standards."
Some may question whether it's appropriate to require high accountability and high standards from grade-school kids. But if the U.S. ever hopes to compete evenly with the likes of Spain and Brazil on the soccer field it will have to train like them as well.
Mckay Eves of Las Vegas was one of 36 players called up to November's U-14 training sessions. "After he came back from the last camp, his intensity was a lot higher," says Jason Eves, Mckay's father. "He learned what was expected. It's a good structure."
And that certainly beats what Eves sees as the alternative.
"I'd rather him doing this than playing Xbox any day," Jason Eves says. "He loves it. We don't ever have to tell him to practice or work on things because that's what he's always doing."
Just what the payoff will be for the likes of Eves, Lederman, Borden and the rest of the players in their age group could take years to sort out. But as U.S. Soccer's development academy continues to expand, Lepore says soccer in the U.S. will keep getting better.
"We feel like every year there's a significant improvement," Lepore says. "We are improving as a soccer culture."