Interview by Mike Woitalla
The New York Red Bulls, which last year had more than 20 players called up to a U.S. youth national team, were rated Soccer America's top 2012 boys youth club -- the first time an MLS club claimed No. 1 since the rankings’ inception 10 years ago. In Part 1 of our interview with the Red Bulls' Director of Youth Programs Bob Montgomery we spoke about the club's quest to produce pro players, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, and the impact of pro teams on the youth soccer landscape.
SOCCER AMERICA: The Red Bulls (nés MetroStars) were one of the first MLS clubs to launch an ambitious youth program. How would you assess its progress?
BOB MONTGOMERY: I think it’s going very well. When I came on board five years ago is when we decided to have a fully funded academy and to model it similar to European model, where the focus is on player development. Now the clubs in the area and people in the area are now recognizing that we are the best place to be for player development.
One of the attractions is that it’s completely cost-free. We have six teams, five in the regular season, and we bring our college players back and play in the NPSL so we can keep track of them and see how they’re progressing.
We’ve had seven players sign with the first team and we’ve had numerous players over the last few years who have been selected to U.S. national teams.
SA: The Red Bulls won the U.S. Development Academy’s U-15/16 title in 2012. How important are results?
BOB MONTGOMERY: Wins and losses -- we do win. Our teams are successful, but the emphasis has to be on individual player development.
It’s important in developing pro players that you want people who want to compete, who want to win. That’s a trait that’s very evident in professional athletes -- the desire to win and to work hard. Our job is to just make sure they do it in what we feel is developmental and with proper soccer. So we’re not looking to just play long and over the top and get athletes to run on to it. Because we all know that down the road there’s always someone just as big and strong as you, and if you don’t have a brain and you don’t have the technical ability, it’s not going to work.
SA: MLS’s investment in youth programs is substantial -- Commissioner Don Garber says it’s about $20 million league-wide annually. How does a club measure that the investment is paying off?
BOB MONTGOMERY: You judge yourself on who truly goes to the first team. But if we look around the world, it’s a pyramid and only the very best actually move on and will play in the first team.
When I came on board, they told me a good number is if you have a player every other a year -- a player who truly makes it.
We have academy players come through the system, or coming back from college, and are around for one, two, three years and are released. I’m talking about guys who come through your club, the homegrown guys, who become contributing players who play for your club for eight, nine, 10 years. That’s what we’re trying to develop.
It’s not necessarily a Lionel Messi or Thierry Henry, a star player, it’s about a guy who is a good club person who comes from within and contributes over 10 years. Those people are very valuable. If Connor Lade can play for Red Bull and have a career for 10 years, then we’ve done our job.
[Editor’s note: Besides 23-year-old Lade, homegrown players on the current Red Bull roster are Amando Moreno (17) and Santiago Castano (17). Red Bull homegrown signees now with other clubs: Juan Agudelo (Chivas USA), Matt Kassel (23, Philadelphia), Sacir Hot (21, Hessen Kassel/Germany)]
SA: What’s your opinion on the impact of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, which the Red Bulls have been part of since its launch in 2007?
BOB MONTGOMERY: The Academy is in its infancy. What I would say for U.S. Soccer and its Academy program and youth development in general – is we started in the middle and now we’re working our way down.
We need to do a better job and get involved in the grassroots. True development of players is going to occur between 8 and 12 years of age. We need to find a way to impact that.
We do it in the training program where coaches go out and work in the community. They do summer camps, but it’s not full-time … we can go and can teach and we can recommend, but it’s up to them to adopt the policies, procedures and the development programs that we think is best.
Quite honestly, across the country, I have heard, you have heard, and everybody else has talked about it for the past 25 years -- that with young players you should play in small numbers. We should be playing 5-side at certain ages, and 7-a-side and up to 8-a-side, then at 12 or 13, move to 11-side competition, because it’s a process that they need to go through.
If you look around the country, we’ve got U-12 national championships, all these tournaments, and we’ve got 7-, 8-, 9- year-olds playing on huge fields, adult fields, and playing 11-side, and it doesn’t make sense.
SA: There seems to be a good amount of strife between Academy clubs and non-Academy clubs, and pro clubs and independent clubs that begrudge MLS clubs having an advantage in that they fully fund the Academy teams …
BOB MONTGOMERY: I think there’s issues with some clubs. They think they should keep the players and they don’t want to allow them to come. … But right now I think it’s working well for us. We have a good relationship with most clubs in our area and the coaching staffs. Many of them understand when their kids want to come. …
Why come to Red Bull? What’s the difference at Red Bull? Our U-16, our U-18 players are getting into training sessions with our first team. They’re playing in reserve games. We’re averaging four players for each reserve game. Those are the advantages of playing with an MLS club.
Some clubs understand it. Some clubs still feel they’re our major competitor. Down the road, I don’t how many years – 3, 4, 5 or 10 -- I think eventually MLS should have their own leagues with people that are doing things the same way, funding their programs, developing their players. That way we have control of how we do things.
But for now it’s not a major problem.
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, is the co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)