In light of poor results at this year's U-17 World Cup, the launch of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, and MLS's move into the youth arena, it's time to reassess U.S. Soccer's 9-year-old Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla.
The preparation process for the USA's first appearance at the U-17 World Cup, in 1985, didn't much resemble the current setup.
After state and regional tryouts, 30 players were told to pack for a trip to China, bring their passports, and convene for a final week of tryouts and games against local competition at the C.W. Post campus in New York.
"Then they put us in a room and told 18 of us we're going to China in two days," says Lyle Yorks, a starter on the team. "A few days later, we're in Beijing playing against Guinea in front of 80,000 people."
The team that Coach John Hackworth took to the 2007 U-17 World Cup in South Korea came out of U.S. Soccer's full-time Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla.
In preparation for the finals last August in South Korea, Hackworth's team played games in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, France, Belgium, Germany, Jamaica, Argentina, Uruguay, Japan, South Korea, Guatemala and Honduras.
The U.S. youth national team program had become steadily more ambitious following the 1985 world championship and the USA is the only nation to have appeared in each of the 12 U-17 World Cups.
Before the 1989 tournament, the U.S. U-17s traveled to Europe and Israel during their preparations. At the finals in Scotland, under Coach Roy Rees, it managed a historic 1-0 win over Brazil with a team captained by current UCLA coach Jorge Salcedo and marshaled by Claudio Reyna.
The 1991 squad was the first to reach the second round, by beating host Italy and Argentina. That the U.S. Soccer Federation was already investing more time and money into its U-17 program than most other nations stemmed from the fact that it could not, like traditional soccer countries, depend on the youth programs of professional clubs to feed players into the youth national teams.
And in 1999 the Federation took its commitment to another level by creating the Bradenton program, where players train year-round at the IMG Academy, attend a local high school, and are attended to by sports psychologists.
Besides preparing players for the U-17 World Cup and higher-level national team duty, Bradenton would also serve to send players into Project-40, the joint venture by U.S. Soccer and MLS to provide players an alternative to college soccer.
Coach John Ellinger headed the program from its inception until 2004, and the first class remains the most successful, based on U-17 World Cup results (fourth place in 1999) and the number of players who moved up the ladder. DaMarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan, Bobby Convey and Oguchi Onyewu have played in the senior World Cup and remain national team regulars.
About 200 players have taken part in the residency program. The Federation says more than 70 moved on to MLS or European pro clubs. Fourteen players have made at least one appearance for the full national team, including Eddie Johnson and Freddy Adu. Johnson, from the Bradenton class of 2001, is the fifth Bradenton alum to appear in the senior World Cup.
Before the launch of Bradenton, five players from a U-17 World Cup squad made a senior World Cup squad: Tim Howard, John O'Brien, Claudio Reyna, Chad Deering and Mike Burns.
The Bradenton Program expanded in 2003 from 20 to 40 players, and the current class has 48. About half of each class is comprised of a younger age group for whom making a U-17 World Cup is less likely. Jozy Altidore is an example of a player from the younger group who made the U-17 World Cup squad, in 2005, while Michael Bradley is a "tweener" who didn't go to a U-17 World Cup but later played in the U-20 World Cup and for the U.S. national team.
TAJIKISTAN? It's unlikely that average Americans know much about Tajikistan, or have even heard of it.
It's one of the poorest of the former Soviet republics - a land-locked nation of 7 million people whose neighbors include China and Afghanistan.
But Americans who follow soccer very closely know of it now because Tajikistan was the first U.S. opponent at the 2007 U-17 World Cup.
"It was a nightmare scenario," says Hackworth. "If we lose, it's 'Hey, the U.S. lost to Tajikistan. How is that possible?' If we win, 5-0, nobody gives give you any credit."
It turned out to be the worst-case scenario. Hackworth's team lost, 4-3, to Tajikistan.
The USA followed with a 3-1 loss to Tunisia, but managed to finish second in its group thanks to a 2-0 win over Belgium before losing, 2-1, to Germany in the round of 16.
Three losses and one victory are hardly satisfactory results, but results aren't the only criteria in judging the Bradenton program, which is run on a budget of more than $2 million annually.
"The only reason why any country plays in this competition is for the development and experience factor," says Hackworth. "Sure, you want to win. And there was no one more disappointed with our losses than I was.
"But because of what those players went through, a couple of them, maybe more, are going to use this experience to springboard to another level, and ultimately that's what our job is."
Hackworth has now guided teams to two U-17 World Cups. His 2005 squad beat North Korea and Italy and tied Ivory Coast before falling in the second round to the Netherlands. Ellinger's 1999 squad remains the only to win a second-round game.
It may be too soon to judge the success of the first Bradenton classes under Hackworth, but the landscape of American youth soccer has changed since Bradenton's launch and its role is up for reevaluation.
"Bradenton was set up in the very early days of MLS when MLS didn't have a very extensive involvement in youth programs," says U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati. "Some of the dynamics have changed. Super Y-League has come up since then. And we started the U.S. Soccer Development Academy program. MLS is now starting to be heavily involved in player development.
"But at this point, there's no short-term adjustment on Bradenton."
The players' experience, however, will change this fall as the program will field teams, playing a year up, in the new U.S. Soccer Development Academy, in which they and 63 elite clubs from around the nation will compete in U-16 and U-18 leagues.
"With the new Academy league, we will have a way to measure ourselves week-in and week-out," Hackworth says. "And our players will be competing against guys who are also aiming to be on the national team."
THE CONSTRAINTS. Scouting players in a nation as large as the USA has always been a challenge. And predicting which 15-year-olds will turn into stars is extremely difficult, because, well, teenagers are unpredictable.
Steve Nichols has coached Baltimore's Casa Mia Bays teams to four USYS National Championship titles in five years and the club is part of the Academy league.
"I think all in all Bradenton is good for the country," says Nichols. "But I do question it. They invest a lot of money in the kids, but are we putting our best players on the field or are we committing to the kids who are in there?"
D.C. United president Kevin Payne, also head of U.S. Soccer's Technical Committee, has had a number of Bradenton alums come to his club, such as Convey, Adu and Santino Quaranta.
"I've always felt if you leave out the extraordinary kid like, Landon or Freddy, DaMarcus or Convey," Payne says, "for the bulk of the kids that are in the U-17 program, I believe there are multiples of other kids in this country who are just as good, and maybe better. For whatever reason, they didn't get identified the same way."
It's a different process in nations that have the luxury of depending on their professional clubs' youth programs or have a smaller geographic range to view talent.
"My only criticism of Bradenton has always been that it almost by definition limits the number of players we look at," says Payne. "The whole educational component makes it a challenge to really churn through kids.
"Argentina, in a U-17 cycle, they'll on average bring 170 kids through their program. We're no- where near that number, but that's because of the constraints that come with that kind of setup."
In a traditional national team program, players come in and out of the pool. But Bradenton attendees have been uprooted from their homes and can't very well be sent back after a month or two, just as they've entered the school semester.
"We scout them from their clubs and bring them into residency," says Hackworth. "We keep them for a semester whether they're good enough or not, and sometimes it would be much better for the player and for us if we didn't invest a semester or a year. If we could tell them, 'You're not a national team player right now. You got some work to do. Go back and prove that you belong."'
Mike Matkovich, the Chicago Magic's Director of Coaching, believes that players undoubtedly benefit from their Bradenton experience, but says that identifying players for a program with so few spots remains the major challenge.
"The guys down there do a good job," says Matkovich. "Obviously you're always going to have success stories, your [Jonathan] Spector [who went from Bradenton to Manchester United], Adu, Beasley and those guys.
"It's the next tier guys who are the real test. Sometimes you get locked in at young ages. I think it's tough to know if you have the right guys. You're investing a lot of money in 40 guys at a very young age. How do you know if those 40 guys are going to pan out down the road? I think it needs to be expanded."
The Academy launch is a first step to expanding the Bradenton concept. Washington state's Crossfire Premier, which has joined the Academy, sent three players to Bradenton who played in the 2007 U-17 World Cup: Daniel Wenzel, Brandon Zimmerman and Ellis McLoughlin.
"I'm sure those guys in Bradenton do a good job," says Crossfire Director of Coaching Bernie James. "But we practice four or five times a week. Practice is practice. I think after all the years of playing professionally, coaching professionally, and coaching at the youth level, I've concluded there aren't many variations of practice.
"Where Bradenton has an edge is with all the international games they play and the competition in practice. In that way, I'm sure it's very helpful."
Chefik Simo played for the North Texas club Solar SC before attending Bradenton in 2000-01 and playing in the 2001 U-17 World Cup.
"I was playing youth soccer in one of the most competitive areas in the country," says Simo, who later saw action with the U.S. U-20s but whose career was shortened by car-accident injuries. "But at Bradenton, besides all the international games, we played against college teams and MLS teams. There was constantly good competition."
MEASURING SUCCESS. So how does one really measure the success of Bradenton's first nine years?
"There's obviously the results of the games," says Gulati, "but in a sense you can't properly evaluate some parts of it until a few years later.
"You look at all of it. You look at the preparation of the players, technically and tactically, and we let the experts do that. And also where the players end up.
"But it's always hard. It's not a question of is Player X a better player coming out of Bradenton than he was when he came in. The question is: Is he a better player than he would have been if he had done something else? And that's a very hard counterfactual to have an experiment for. It's an impossible one."
At least by fielding teams in the Academy league, the Bradenton boys will be consistently compared to the players from the nation's elite clubs. And those clubs will be measured against Bradenton in their ability to provide an environment that creates players for the next level.
"My own opinion is that one of the preferred outcomes of the Academy is that if it really works there's a lot less need for Bradenton," says Payne. "Maybe Bradenton becomes something a little bit different. Maybe it's not a pure residency camp, but something that's used to prepare for competitions like the rest of the world does."
Nichols believes that his Casa Mia Bays club already provides players an environment as beneficial to their development as Bradenton, where his club sent Onyewu, Alex Yi and Kyle Beckerman in 1999. But he feels he's had other players who have been overlooked. That's why Nichols believes the key to improving the performance of the youth national teams is better scouting.
"Hopefully with this Academy league we will touch many more players than we've ever currently touched," Hackworth says. "I firmly believe that. Does that mean residency becomes obsolete? It might. But right now, we're still in the beginning stages of the process and we need to see how it shakes out.
"Can we do on a local level what we do at Bradenton? That's the idea and the concept. There's pros and cons to Bradenton, but the way it is right now, our experience and travel is something you can't get anywhere else. And it's fully funded."
(This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Soccer America magazine.)