Interview by Mike Woitalla
The Richmond Kickers have announced they will be covering the costs of players on their U.S. Soccer Development Academy teams. We spoke with Leigh Cowlishaw, the Central Virginia club's Director of Soccer, about the impact he expects from the move – and the Academy’s new 10-month season, which keeps its players out of high school ball.
SOCCER AMERICA: Other than the Major League Soccer programs in the 78-club U.S. Development Academy, only a handful of clubs don’t charge their players. How are the Richmond Kickers able to pull it off?
LEIGH COWLISHAW: It’s a mix of sponsorships and motivated donors who wanted to see this happen.
SA: So it’s not a case of the club’s other players’ fees subsidizing the Academy teams?
LEIGH COWLISHAW: It is not. This is very much a self-sufficient program, so no funds from any of our other programs are directed toward this initiative. That was very important to our club. We did not want to see that. That would be against what we believe in.
SA: What impact do you expect from making your Academy teams cost-free?
LEIGH COWLISHAW: One would hope there’s an incentive now for players to join the club. It’s certainly a driving force and a reward of a significant dollar value for players who are able to be part of the Academy team.
Four-year play in the Academy -- you’re probably looking at a $20,000 scholarship.
SA: How important is solving the pay-to-play state of American soccer to the nation producing more great players? One can argue that although the USA is producing more “good” players than ever, its rate of producing truly exceptional players hasn’t increased substantially over the decades …
LEIGH COWLISHAW: We continue to average down because of all the programs, because of all the leagues, because of all the organizations, because of all the clubs that continue to promote that they offer a high level of soccer development. So the player pool is so spread out. The market is totally scattered and fragmented.
I would much prefer to get to the stage where the best players in a region are all together. And that’s one of the reasons we wanted to this [cost-free].
We know that if we pool the players of Academy-level together from a 50-, 60-mile radius, you’ve got a totally different training environment, a totally different playing environment, and you’ve got players competing week-in and week-out just to get in the starting lineup.
We’ve had this explosion of club development and player development, but the actual environment of a player having to fight to be on a certain level team just doesn’t exist.
SA: The big news in youth soccer is that the U.S. Academy league is moving to a 10-month season. What’s a specific benefit for your club’s players?
LEIGH COWLISHAW: The 10-month season will allow our players to develop even more because now we’ll have the ability to train those players with the professional team -- as clubs around the world can. It will be common moving forward for a 16-year-old kid, who has the ability and temperament, to train with our pro team now and then.
[Editor’s Note: The Richmond Kickers, who have 8,000 youth players under their umbrella, also field a USL PRO team of which Cowlishaw serves as head coach.]
SA: What’s been the reaction of your club’s Academy players on the prospect of opting out of high school ball?
LEIGH COWLISHAW: We polled our players and 70 percent were all-in to do Academy play right now. And that’s the existing player pool.
To say every kid wants to play high school soccer would be wrong.
But we also recognize there are some fantastic coaches and great teams in high school soccer and high school soccer is not going to go anywhere. High school soccer will continue forever. …
We also recognize this is going to be a generational thing. Not everyone is going to buy into it. Juniors and seniors who have grown up with high school may see it as the No. 1 priority. We believe, as U.S. Soccer believes, that over the years the best players are going to see a different path and gravitate to the Academy program.
SA: What about the argument that Academy players will miss out on the joy of representing their school community, and playing in front of crowds?
LEIGH COWLISHAW: I like that point because you want to replicate that environment where there’s a lot of noise and atmosphere. That helps player development. I totally agree that’s one of the big benefits of high school ball. It’s certainly harder to replicate that at the Academy level, but that may change over the years as the culture changes.
The one thing that I will say: In our area, our high school soccer fields are the size of football fields and it’s very difficult to play the type of soccer U.S. Soccer is demanding. It’s not conducive to attractive, possession-style soccer.