Interview by Mike Woitalla
While becoming the main avenue to the national team program, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, launched in 2007, has also sparked controversy by introducing a 10-month season that prohibits its players from participating in high school ball. Development Academy Director of Scouting Tony Lepore, who is also U-15 national team coach, addresses that issue and complaints from some non-Academy clubs that the national team program is steering players to Academy clubs.
SOCCER AMERICA: Did you expect keeping Academy players out of high school play would cause so much controversy and is there concern that this has further divided the soccer community?
TONY LEPORE: When we started the Academy and did a lot of research, one of the things we wanted to make sure was we don’t have the thinking that, “This is the way it’s always been done. It’s what we know. So it’s what we do.”
We came into this knowing that change is always a challenge. We also knew we wanted to empower the clubs and that the everyday environment is the most important foundation of player development, and that’s all-around technique.
We knew there would be some difficult things to change so we knew all along a 10-month season would be a challenge. That’s why we waited until we thought the clubs and the players were ready and the Federation was ready.
We expected this would be controversial and was a change in culture. But this is something soccer people had been talking about long before the Academy.
SA: What’s the fallout been like?
TONY LEPORE: I think it’s going great. It’s a credit to our clubs in the Academy. I think the players were ready. We knew our clubs intimately, so we knew which players were having a hard time with the choice. For some clubs it was full speed ahead and easier, and there’s other pockets and markets where it’s been a little bit harder. There’s a reason why SoCal and Texas and the Northwest were the first. There are certain dynamics around the high school issue.
For the most part we’re not looking back. Once we start the U-14 program this gets easier, because in most cases it’s a social decision and not a soccer decision. The 14s will be on this pathway and [high school ball] is something they won’t get a taste of it, so they won’t get enough of it to know if they’ll miss it.
Clearly, the hardest was for the players who were entrenched and were a part of their high school program.
I really don’t think that this has divided the soccer community. There are plenty of players who need the opportunity and different pathways, but we now have a clearly defined pathway with the Academy and that’s where the top players should be.
SA: I’ve been told by some non-Academy club coaches that when their players go to a youth national team camp, they’re not only highly encouraged to leave their clubs for Academy clubs, but also that they won’t be invited back if they don’t ...
TONY LEPORE: That would never happen. Would we encourage players to go to the top development environment in the country, which is the Development Academy? Absolutely. But we don’t discriminate with the national teams. If they’re good enough, we bring them in.
I think 80-85 percent of youth national team players come from Academy teams, but that’s also because they’re in the key markets. And the top players have migrated to Development Academy clubs.
SA: I’ve been told by some non-Academy club coaches they may not send their kids to a national camp for fear of them being convinced to leave for an Academy club ...
TONY LEPORE: How appalling is that? That someone would want to keep a player away from an opportunity to keep them at their own club longer, which I think would be simply to help them grab more trophies.
That’s not a player development model. These are real opportunities that you wouldn’t want to hold a player out of for any reason.
And you can’t hide good players.
Part of being a good Academy is having good scouting. This is how it is in the rest of the world. And hopefully there are more and more cases when your player gets this opportunity you feel really good about the role you played in helping them go to the next level.
How is this any different than when they got the player? It so often becomes one of these things that lacks any type of empathy. They also got the player from somewhere else. That the player started out with them is rare.
Hopefully, we all have the best interest of the player in mind. That we’re fine with having them go somewhere where they can get more than we’re giving them. And hopefully the Academy clubs represent that.
SA: Is it still possible for players to reach the highest levels of American soccer without being on an Academy team?
TONY LEPORE: I think if you’re a player who wants to reach his full potential and you have access to an Academy – that’s the best choice.
But we also realize that there are a lot of different pathways for players.
And players need to be ready. The Academy is a much bigger commitment. If they want to reach their full potential, if they want to reach the next level, the commitment required is different than the other pathways.
SA: Isn’t there also a geography issue -- that some players don’t live near an Academy club?
TONY LEPORE: Absolutely. There are more and more of those players looking for a residency opportunity.
The pathway to the national team is also Training Centers. We’ll do a few hundred Training Centers this year. They are a good opportunity for us to see players from Academy and non-Academy, affiliated, un-affiliated clubs – the top players who are recommended by the clubs.
You don’t have to be an Academy club to apply the same principles to player development.
The training centers have really helped us evaluate who the clubs are out there outside the Academy that do a great job. A number of them do a great job up until that age group. Some continue to do a great job. So there are situations in which a player might have a hard decision to leave for an Academy club. ...
We still scout ODP. It’s important for us to continue to scout not just the Academy but wherever we think we can identify the top players.
SA: There does seem to be a trend of clubs merging to handle the challenges of Academy play, and non-Academy clubs partnering with Academy clubs. ...
TONY LEPORE: There are a number of non-Academy clubs that have a great relationship with neighboring Academy clubs -- and they’re happy to be a feeder and work with them. Which is the model throughout the rest the world.
But we still have a long way to go in recognizing that we’re all in this together.
Read Part 1 of our interview ("Progress in Triples") with Tony Lepore HERE.