By Mike Woitalla
The trend of European pro teams partnering with elite American youth clubs raises the question: What do the foreign clubs have to offer and what are they expecting?
The Michigan Wolves-Hawks formed a "strategic partnership" with Derby County late in 2008, a few months after the English club infamously claimed the title of worst Premier League team in history. Derby has since languished in the lower half of England's second-tier league.
Certainly the Wolves-Hawks, already one of the nation's top youth clubs, weren't in need of coaching help from a club that plays so poorly, although its announcement promised, "the collaboration of the coaches on technical training techniques ... will benefit all players within the Wolves-Hawks organization."
The partnership would also "provide talented players with a direct route to the UK game." The idea, apparently, is that top Wolves players will train at Derby and perhaps be offered a pro contract.
The one part of the alliance that seems to make the most sense is that Derby provides financial support to the Wolves teams playing in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy league (whose U-15/16 championship Wolves won in 2009). That part mirrors Chelsea's entry into the youth game, beginning with a CASL partnership and followed by three more with U.S. Academy clubs: Baltimore Bays, LAFC and Match Fit. In the Chelsea case, the Premier League power is obviously interested in marketing its brand in the USA, to increase replica jersey sales, and attract the kind of international following that a club like rival Manchester United has.
In such partnerships, if the American club is getting cash to defray its players' expenses, then that's tangible benefit. Aside from the MLS teams that cover the costs of its youth teams in the Academy league, other members struggle with the expenses that have long plagued American youth soccer and have shut out lower-income children.
Tim Schulz is the president of giant youth club Rush Soccer, which fields teams in more than 20 states. Its clubs in Colorado, South Texas and Virginia, which compete in the U.S. Soccer Academy league, have partnered with French club Auxerre.
Schulz says the partnership - with a club that actually does have a good record of player development, from a country hailed for its youth programs -- is a "very good cash sponsorship."
"They're offsetting a huge, huge percentage of the cost for our Academy players," says Schulz.
Auxerre, says Schulz, entered the partnership mainly to discover American talent. What the French club pays for the two-year sponsorship is like an upfront, unofficial transfer fee.
"We can't sell the players because we'd be acting as an agency, and the NCAA frowns upon that," Schulz says. "So basically they just gave us upfront money as a sponsorship or relationship."
In return, Auxerre gets a first look at Rush's talent. Rush doesn't own its players. They could train with Auxerre, impress enough to get a contract offer - once they're 18 - but decide on another club. Nevertheless, Schulz thinks that if Auxerre courts Rush players, there's a high likelihood they would follow that path.
"Auxerre doesn't want anything from us," Schulz says. "They don't want patches on our shirts. They don't want a camp to be sold. They clearly want a player or two.
"There's a small proponent on the marketing side of things, but I don't really believe in our particular deal Auxerre is interested in that. They really just want to get into the U.S. [player] market and they want Rush to be the eyes and ears for those top players -- not just in our club but outside our club, too. We're acting as kind of a scout for them."
Coaching education, Schulz says, is more of a secondary component. Rush coaches can visit Auxerre, with the French club housing them for free and covering all the expenses.
Schulz says the partnership trend is also driven by the shoe-apparel manufacturers.
"For Nike, it's good for us to find someone overseas from a branding standpoint because if you're a Nike club," he says, "if we send them up to an MLS club, they're adidas. So Nike's helping in some of this area."
If Auxerre discovers one player through the partnership in the next two years, Schulz says he thinks the deal will be worth it for the French club. In the meanwhile, Rush saves money for its Academy players.
(Mike Woitalla is the executive editor of Soccer America. His youth articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)