Players under 20 are hard to rely on for senior national team fixtures. Most players within that age range are still raw, undeveloped talents who have not shown the fortitude necessary to handle the stress of playing against players who are stronger and faster than they are. This is why U-23, U-20, and U-17 teams exist to give players a taste of international competition, without overwhelming them.
Therefore, it is always a great sign if 18 year old players like Rubio Rubin get called onto the USMNT, and an even better sign when they are in the starting roster on their debut like Rubio was. This means the head coach has confidence that they do not to need coddled by the youth teams in order to develop.
To those following Rubin’s career, it is no surprise that this young talent has found his way onto the USMNT roster. After being named U.S. Soccer Young Male Athlete of the Year in 2012, his rising status signaled that the real question was not “if,” but “when” he would find his way onto the USMNT.
Born in Oregon, in 1996, to a Mexican father and Guatemalan mother, Rubio began playing soon after he could walk. Although he has always had the option of joining the Mexican national team because of his father, Rubio maintains that his future lies with the USMNT. In 2011 he joined the IMG Academy, and in 2014 he signed a four-year contract with FC Utrecht, which plays in the Eredivisie (Dutch first division). Since signing that contract he has appeared eight times and managed three assists. And, because of the openness of the Eredivisie and its reputation as a league that emphasizes offense, there is hope that Rubin will score several more goals.
For a player of Rubin’s age and talents, the Eredivisie is one of the best leagues for development. With competition in the league strong enough to challenge him but also dependent enough on rising stars to value his talent, he moat likely will not be relegated to spending a lot of time on the bench, fighting for minutes. His fellow US soccer youth prospects, Joe Gyau and Julian Green, currently face this predicament in the Bundesliga.
Another benefit of the Eredivise is that its teams value the nurturing of young talents. Unlike Manchester City and Real Madrid, who can afford to pay their players more and can generally outbid the Dutch clubs, clubs like FC Utrecht are forced to be “selling clubs.” These selling clubs identify young talent and develop them, planning to later sell their talented players at a big profit. Two notable stars who have emerged from the Eredivisie after being bought for a small sum and developed are Luis Suarez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Many within the FC Utrecht management believe Rubio Rubin will join these stars as a player who will command a large sum when buying clubs come knocking. A savvy selling club like FC Utecht is sure to make a concerted effort to insure that Rubio Rubin gets as much game experience and coaching attention as possible. He is a worthwhile investment.
Of course, Rubin will need to continue to make sure that Eredivisie’s investment pays off. A diminutive forward, Rubio Rubin will have to put on some weight in order to body-up to the elite level talent he hopes to one day share the field with. His slight figure and small stature (He is 5’9) mean that his aerial ability is not one of his strong suits. However, he is blessed with natural speed and, through his strong 1v1 skills, he can create opportunities. At the moment, his passing is still not as crisp as his coaches might like. Since the Dutch playing style puts a unique emphasis on passing and creating space through ball movement, Rubin should get enough training and practice to show great improvement in this area. Rubin has said that his favorite player is Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and there are many similarities in their respective playing styles. Whether he becomes an American version of Chicharito depends on whether he develops into the player that FC Utrecht predicts he will become.
There is always fear that young players will fail to reach their potential because of poor coaching, lack of playing time, club turnover, and even homesickness. Raw talent is the building block on which great players are born, but there are always players who remain undeveloped raw talent. A very fast player with great ball control is useless if he has little game-awareness and consistently fails to complete the right pass. Fortunately, Rubio Rubin seems to have the mental strength to overcome the many pitfalls young American talents have encountered in the past. Over the next four years of his contract, the Eredivisie should be able to mold him into a talented and technically skilled player.
At the moment Rubin is on the right path, but he walks a tight rope. Assuming that FC Utecht gives him lots of playing time and that Rubin absorbs his coaching well, he should be primed for a big move to a club in a better league. If he fails to make that big move he could get stuck in the Eredivisie. If so, his development will regress.
While the Eredivisie is a great league in which to develop, just as Jozy Altidore found, a player needs to test himself against tougher competition in order to expose the flaws in his game. For Rubio Rubin to rise to the level of the player he can become, he will need to parlay his time at FC Utrecht into a lucrative transfer to a club in the Serie A, Bundesliga, La Liga, or English Premier League. He will also need to choose the club that best fits his playing style. Whether he breaks through that glass ceiling will depend on the decisions he makes from this point until the aftermath of the 2018 World Cup.