By joining the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, 62 of the nation's top youth boys clubs removed their players from the traditional youth soccer scene that included state cups, frequent tournaments, local and regional league play and ODP tryouts.
With the Academy, launched in the summer 2007, the U.S. Soccer Federation integrated the youth clubs into the national team program, promising that players would be scouted while they played in the Academy's U-15/16 and U-17/18 leagues.
The Academy format aimed to increase the number of quality games while reducing the overall amount of games and emphasizing player development over trophy-collecting.
"We need to shift the focus of our young elite players from an 'overburdened, game emphasis' model to a 'meaningful training and competition' model," said U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati. "This will ultimately lead to more success and will allow players to develop to their full potential."
Soccer America surveyed directors of coaching and club officials for their views on the Academy, which entered its second season in September with 74 teams (all 62 teams returning and 12 new teams).
The main question was whether the Academy provided a significantly more beneficial environment for players than their previous experience.
Brad Butwin, the vice president of New York's Albertson SC, said that his players benefited from having fewer distractions without all the competing activities, like ODP, Super Y-League, regional premier leagues, state cups and tournaments.
"The Academy format provides the teams with quality matches throughout the year," Butwin said. "Almost all of the matches
were tightly contested."
Said Real Colorado's Jared Spires, "Instead of being awarded a championship for playing well over a week, it takes a consistent year-round effort to play for the championships. This alone has taken pressure off our young players and allowed them to play with more creativity and flair."
David Dengerink of the Virginia Rush said the Academy addressed the problem of basing levels of competition on results in state cups and major tournaments. Playing four games in 48 hours to determine another trophy, he said, led to an emphasis on strength and fitness over technical and tactical development.
"Every game we play is against quality opposition," says Ryan Austin of Atlanta Fire United. "The practice-to-game ratio makes much more sense. There is a minimized threat of burnout and less chance of injury. We are no longer playing five games in two or three days against usually mediocre competition. When you do that you spend half of the following week just recovering and regenerating instead of working toward your next game."
Steve Trittschuh of the Colorado Rush said his team usually only played two or three very competitive games in a season: "Now every game is challenging."
Gary MacMath of Florida's Clearwater SC said that in the past, 75 percent of his team's games weren't competitive.
"In the Academy, 100 percent of the games are high-paced, competitive matches," he said.
Los Angeles FC finished second to the Baltimore Bays in the U-17/18 age group.
"Normally we would play up to 60 games a year, and maybe five were competitive," said LAFC director of coaching Teddy Chronopoulos. "Now we play 30 competitive games, and all of them challenge our players mentally and physically."
Derek Armstrong of Southern California's Nomads FC said, "The competition level is consistent and much better than our previous
competition to develop players. ... I do believe that decisions made within the academy are based on the 'good of the game' as a starting point."
One change from regular youth ball is limited substitution - seven subs, no reentry.
"Players are now placed in an environment where they have to manage the game," said Leigh Cowlishaw of the Richmond Kickers. "Coaches have less influence on the outcome as they are unable to continually substitute players in and out to create an artificially fast pace."
Said Spires, "Players had to play through some of their struggles, solve problems while in the match, and at times play through fatigue, bumps and bruises. ... Likewise, coaches had to allow their players to solve problems in the game, fight through their struggles and encourage them to play through adversity."
Craig Conger of North Carolina's North Meck SC appreciates that the emphasis in Academy play is more on player development than on results.
"The subbing format affected the games and the management of them," he said. "Since the emphasis was not on winning - although we all want to win - we would allow a player who is struggling on the field to fight through it and experience difficulties rather than subbing quickly under the previous rules. Sometimes this was to the detriment of the team and a possible win, but it helps the players in the long run."
Lonny Unger, the president of New York's FC Westchester, said that just one season in the Academy has made a difference:
"I can say without question that our players, after the first year's experience, have improved dramatically - from our No. 1 player to the No. 20 player. This is because our players are training more and because each week they are playing against great competition."
One of the key components of the Academy is that national team scouts would observe players competing with their own teams, rather than relying on tryouts a la ODP to identify talent.
Josef Schluz, of the Schulz Academy in Boca Raton, Fla., never believed that weekend tryout camps in which players scrimmage all day long was a good way to identify talent. He is convinced playing Academy league games that are scouted by national team coaches is a far better method.
"One of great things about the Academy is the motivation it creates among the players," Schulz says. "They train knowing that they'll be watched by national team coaches when they play on the weekend for their club."
Coaches were pleased that their players were being watched by national team coaches and USSF staff coaches.
"Another big component that I am not sure we expected was the immediate feedback we were getting from the national staff - like from scouting director Tony Lepore and others on the national staff, up to and including [U.S. national team coach] Bob Bradley, who watched our entire U-18 game at the finals in L.A. in July," said Unger of FC Westchester. "That feedback has been hugely beneficial to our club, our players and our staff."
Said Real Colorado's Spires, "Some of our kids, who had struggled getting the right exposure through other avenues, were seen and invited into U.S. national team camps."
LAFC's Chronopoulos said, "The exposure our players have had over the past year is second to none."
Other aspects of the Academy that drew praise was the quality of the refereeing and playing fields, and the overall experience the players had at the Academy's four showcase events and the finals, which complemented league play.
While the USSF covers referee fees, travel to the finals, and charges only a $1 player registration fee, the main challenge faced by clubs is the cost of travel.
Most of the MLS teams that field Academy teams are cost-free to the players, and some clubs have sponsorships that defray costs. But the majority of players face a similar financial burden as they did under the previous system.
"Being who we are we struggle financially and will need serious help in this area to continue to provide the quality we are used to," said Milton A. Espinoza of New York City club Blau Weiss Gottschee. "We have to subsidize a lot of kids."
Espinoza does say that for players who participated in ODP, the cost is similar to what they paid pre-Academy.
Travel costs were particularly high for teams in conferences such as the West where air travel was required for most league games.
"The No. 1 thing that needs to be addressed is the cost," says Spires. "For kids in Colorado, the travel is extensive and the costs associated with travel aren't going down."
Cowlishaw of the Richmond Kickers says, "Although the cost per player has only increased slightly over our conventional travel program this is still concern for our families. ... Ultimately, we know this will have to be at no cost to our players."
Austin of Atlanta Fire United also says that the Academy's cost isn't much different when compared to what his players paid for travel tournaments and their registration fees, but that doesn't solve the pay-to-play problem.
"The only thing that needs to be improved upon is the communication to and from the USSF and the clubs in helping us find ways to help scholarship players," says Austin. "These players will fall through the cracks if something is not done soon."
Gulati says the Federation is still considering ways in which to address the financial burden on young players. Otherwise, the Academy after its first year seems to meeting expectations.
"I really think the Academy league is probably the second best thing that's happened in American soccer in the last 15 years," said Schluz. "The first was MLS's arrival and the second big step to improve American soccer is the Academy."
(This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue ofSoccer Americamagazine.)