It would be quite superfluous for me to add my congratulations to USSF for the success of its Development Academy program. They themselves, during some 16 hours of television exposure over the weekend, spent quite a lot of time patting themselves on the back, bringing up numerous positives, finding no negatives.
Yes, I agree with everything they're saying - the achievements in less than a year have been remarkable at the organizational level, and the two sets of eight-team finals (for u-18 and u-16 boys) were staged professionally, among a welter of related "development activities" - such as training sessions and lectures from the likes of Bob Bradley.
I am not about to argue with any of that. The basic principle behind the development academy is indisputable: to allow elite players to play the game in the way that their counterparts do around the world. Those are the words of DA director John Hackworth. By elite players, he means players with the potential to play for the U.S. national team. He adds that the players have to "train more and play less, but the games that they play must be more meaningful."
That is a philosophy that goes a long way to answering the growing complaints that youth players in this country are simply overwhelmed with constant - and frequently not very good - tournament play.
So far so good. But good intentions are never the whole story. There is a specter haunting the DA - the very same specter that has already undermined two previous efforts to foster elite players, Project-40 and Bradenton. The specter of college soccer.
Very quickly, and very strongly, that specter made itself felt on the DA telecasts. The first three games in the U-18 age group came over as typical college games. Athletic, unsubtle, full of hustle, short on real soccer and very, very disappointing. Maybe one shouldn't be surprised, but one always hopes that we have moved on, that the national team candidates of today should look a bit different from those of 20 years ago. These did not.
The final was more hopeful - featuring LAFC, a team full of Latino players, who played a rather different style of soccer, and gave us a much more interesting and dramatic game.
But ... how many of the LAFC players have any realistic chance of becoming national team players? Indeed, despite the professed - and totally commendable - aims of the DA, will it be the national team that is the true beneficiary of all this effort? One might doubt it.
The gaff was blown, ingenuously and delightfully, by the Columbus Crew's Travis Wall. Having scored a great goal to help the Crew beat the Colorado Rush, he was asked what his 9-month stint with his DA team meant for his future, and replied without hesitation that "it's prepared me for college a lot better."
Throughout the telecasts the commentators went on and on about the college commitments of the players. Except, significantly, for LAFC - for whom, it seems, no information was available.
Now, it is utterly inconceivable that intelligent, knowledgeable, soccer-involved people like Sunil Gulati, John Hackworth, Dave Sarachan and Thomas Rongen do not know that there is a problem here. All of them had quite a lot to say - but not one of them talked about college soccer. Neither to praise it nor to criticize it.
Both Hackworth and Rongen heaped praise - as they are quite right to do - and the DA's insistence on "no re-entry" as far as subs are concerned. For Rongen that was a vital point, as the young players were learning to play under FIFA rules - and that, said Hackworth, "is the way the game is supposed to be played." Yet neither would face up to the reality that in college, the evident destination for most of these boys, they will not play according to FIFA rules. They will in effect, take a step backwards.
If only that were all. But we know now, beyond any reasonable doubt, that college soccer is a step back in virtually every soccer aspect. It does not develop players. If anything, it restrains their development. The skills and the knowledge necessary for the elite players who will stock future national teams will not, can not, be learned in college - which, truth be told, is merely an extension of the age-group soccer of white, middle-class suburbia.
The training that these young boys need - that will, in Hackworth's words, allow them "to play the game the way their counterparts do around the world" - will come only by association with the youth divisions of pro clubs. Either MLS clubs or foreign clubs.
The DA is clearly a step in the right direction, but it is a compromised step. I'm not at all sure that it has to be that way, but the evidence - the playing, on the field, evidence - of most the 16 teams and the players seen this past weekend, strongly suggests that the specter of college soccer - I'll give it a more appropriate name - the blight of college soccer maintains its unhealthy influence and has yet to be effectively scotched.
Until it is, development programs like the DA will always contain the self-negating element of feeding college soccer, and thus bolstering the very distortions they are designed to correct.