Last season, Liverpool's u18 side was a revelation, the club's revitalised academy forcing its way back into the limelight after a decade in the wilderness. Much of that was down to a new generation of young stars, the likes of Suso, Raheem Sterling, Conor Coady, and Jack Robinson, all of whom remain eligible for u18 play this season but all of whom are expected to make the leap full time to the reserves—not to mention the NextGen Series and the occasional first team match—along with coach Rodolfo Borrell.
That Liverpool's potential golden generation has been deemed ready to skip a grade as they continue their development once again speaks to their promise. But it means a very young, inexperienced, and in places thin side will compete at the u18 level under newly promoted Mike Marsh. He'll have u17 World Cup participants Adam Morgan and Brad Smith, but with the club's recent talk of seeking to poach the best young talent globally—and as early in their development as possible— to supplement local prospects, all of a sudden there's room to bring in a new batch of kids for people to get unreasonably excited about.
And over the past few weeks, Liverpool's certainly been doing its best to binge on global youth talent, with a particular focus on bringing in stars of the recent u17 World Cup in Mexico.
The most discussed name of late has been that of Marco Bueno, a forward capable of playing off the main striker or wide, who impressed for Mexico at the just passed u17 World Cup. It's widely reported that an agreement is in place with Pachuca, the club for which he's already made a number of appearances in the chippy Mexican league, and a five-year deal has been discussed with the player contingent on him settling in over his trial period in August.
It is now also being reported that he has officially signed a pre-contract, all but sealing a future with the club:
"A pre-contract with the parents and Bueno was signed to be sent to Liverpool," the Pachuca vice-president, Andrés Fassi, told El Universal. "So we are accepting the 10-day trial and the conditions, if the English decide to keep him."
Moving north of the Rio Grande, the American-based, German-born midfielder Marc Pelosi just came back from captaining the United States at the u17 World Cup. He had been ranked the top American soccer prospect coming out of high school and had verbally committed to attend UCLA before Liverpool expressed their interest, and he is now believed to be in Liverpool with his family while his agent works out the details of a contract.
Marco Bueno may be able to get around the tricky issue of getting a work permit to play in England because, at 17 and having already appeared regularly in the first team of one of Mexico's top sides, the club can reasonably claim that he is a special talent, but Pelosi's move will have almost no questions attached to it because of his easy access to a German passport.
There will likely always be skepticism when it comes to American players—at least until one eventually makes it as an internationally recognised superstar—but with a huge population base that plays more soccer than any other sport at the youth level the biggest question isn't whether there's some raw potential to be unearthed if one digs deep enough. The question is what happens to any raw potential when the player begins to grow up, more often than not stagnating as other sports take up the bulk of the institutional time and money. If, at a fairly young age still from a developmental standpoint and ranked as the best young prospect in the country, Liverpool sees some promise then there's a much better chance of him developing into a quality player in England than if he stays in America.
And that's something the player himself recognised when referencing a quote often attributed to Pep Guardiola: "The Liverpool Academy is the only one who can compete with La Masia." Whether it's an accurate quote or not, or whether it was largely a nod to Liverpool having poached two of La Masia's main men in Rodolfo Borrell and Pep Segura, it's hard to argue that it doesn't sound a great selling point for Liverpool's resurgent youth set-up.
While some of the details are still being worked out on the Bueno and Pelosi deals—even if in both cases it's considered little more than formality at this point—Spanish youngster Nacho has reportedly been purchased from Albacete for an initial fee of £150,000, plus £350,000 in potential add-ons and with a 15% sell-on fee. Having recently completed a successful trial with the u18s where he was hugely impressive, he chose to head to the Liverpool academy despite interest from Spanish clubs Malaga, Atletico and Real Madrid, and especially Villareal, who were reportedly closing on him before Liverpool made their push.
Liverpool's Spanish contingent in the first team may not be what it once was, but it's hardly a stretch to think that the presence of the men who brought through the likes of Messi, Iniesta, Busquets, and Pedro during their time at Barcelona would be a draw for one of the most promising Spanish youth players who isn't currently at the La Masia academy.
Bijev completed his trial alongside Nacho and also greatly impressed the Liverpool coaches, scoring a hattrick in one half and settling quickly as he scored five goals in total and set up two in a pair of games. He has been reported by a number of sources as having signed a three to five year deal with the club, though as with the others in Liverpool's recent youth binge there's been no official confirmation from the club itself as yet. In his case, though, in addition to a number of quotes from the player and sources around the player, there are also pictures floating around that purport to be of him signing his new contract.
Like Pelosi, he's American-based but able to claim a European passport by birth—Bulgarian in this case. Though as Bulgaria is one of the newest members of the European Union from the former Soviet Bloc nations, it may take until 2012 until work agreements are such that it allows him an easy route to playing for an English club. When his deal does become official, it is expected that he will be loaned immediately to Belgian side Genk, a club that Liverpool in the past has often sent developing players to, for at least the first half of the 2011-12 season until bureaucratic hand-waving magically lands him a UK work permit in January.
Both he and Nacho can be seen performing with the rest of the u18s during their recent trial period, as against Stevenage when Bijev got the number nine and Nacho wore the ten shirt.
Like Sterling and Suso, players who made their mark with the u18s last season, it seems a fair bet that by the end of this year at least a couple of Nacho, Bijev, Pelosi, and Bueno will become much discussed names alongside the likes of Morgan and Smith with an almost entirely brand new group of u18 starlets. What it all will mean for the club long term is, as always, anybody's guess. But it's another series of moves that signal just how seriously youth development is being taken at Liverpool these days, and even if most prospects are unlikely to become superstars over the next decade, the club is doing everything it can to develop a number of club-trained players who might be able to grow into just that.