Interview by Mike Woitalla
Soccer America checks in with Director of Scouting Tony Lepore on the state of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, which launched in 2007 and now includes nearly 100 clubs, having added a U-14 division in 2013 to complement its U-16 and U-18 national leagues -- and for insight into how U.S. Soccer has expanded its scouting system to identify talent for the youth national teams.
SOCCER AMERICA: If in 2007 you imagined where the Development Academy would be in 2014, how close is it to meeting those expectations?
TONY LEPORE: After six and a half years, we feel good about the progress that we’re making. I think we’ve totally changed the landscape to improve the environment to develop talent and we’re headed in the right direction. There’s really strong belief, commitment and momentum from the Federation and our clubs.
SA: Do you have any figures that reflect its success?
TONY LEPORE: On players who have gone pro -- this is just domestically, players currently on MLS  rosters -- we have 70 who came from Academy clubs. In 2013, we had the highest numbers. We look at the lineups week-to-week and we averaged about 20 players starting MLS matches. Thirty played regularly.
SA: Are there more talented players coming into the national teams because of the Academy?
TONY LEPORE: Without a doubt. We see it on the field. Our clubs are really improving. We also know who that talent is. The nine Technical Advisors are at the matches and the training, and our scouting network is up to about 100 right now. The Academy has been really valuable at not only improving the talent but monitoring the talent. Identifying that talent and evaluating that talent. Because the top players who have access are with Academy clubs.
I also think the '98s are a really good example … [Coach Richie Williams’ U-17 national team] that beat Brazil and England in December and had a really successful Nike International Friendlies. The core of that group has been together as part of the 14s and 15s.
When we look at that group, the clubs deserve the most credit. They’ve been part of the step-by-step process. All these players are products of the Development Academy system. They all played for Academy Development clubs. And it’s really important to know that they all played up with their U-15/16 Academy clubs last year.
Eight of the 11 were moved up exclusively to train and play with their U-16 age player pool in their club. This really accelerated their development.
We can look at the '97s now who have been part of the Academy system. We can look at Hugo Perez’s '99s and 2000s who are part of the U14s. There’s a really strong connection between the Academy clubs and the youth national team teams.
I’ve heard people mention cyclical recently a couple times. There’s merit to that. The age groups have different qualities and different makeup. But I think this is more than cyclical. They’ve come through the system.
SA: How often are U.S. national team program scouts at Academy games?
TONY LEPORE: Last year we averaged anywhere from 15 to 25 matches for all of our clubs. We also attend their training sessions about five times per club. And then we have the Training Centers for the players we evaluate through that process. We know who the talent is. We know our clubs intimately.
SA: How many Training Centers are there?
TONY LEPORE: Last year we finished at around 300 Training Centers. Hugo and I started the Training Centers as a pilot back in 2008 and we did two that year. I did one in New Jersey and Hugo did one in San Francisco. Right away, the value was so clear. It’s a pathway to the youth national teams.
We also want to do more of the combines. We worked with our partners at Nike and in the major markets we did combines, mini-camps. Right now the Training Centers are one day, the players drive in and go home. We wanted to add to that. So we had players come in on a Friday evening, when we have the first session, then two on a Saturday, when we provide their lunch, do some video and off-field work between the sessions and provide a good place to relax as well. We have sessions in the morning and evening on a Sunday.
SA: And the Training Centers and Combines are for any players, whether they’re with Academy teams or not?
TONY LEPORE: That’s correct. And it was the same for the National Combine.
SA: So that’s one reason why to spread the net beyond Academy clubs?
TONY LEPORE: Yes. It’s helped us cast a much wider scouting net. We don’t care where they come from. We do notice it’s harder and harder for players outside the Academy to keep up because the Academies are doing more and more. But it’s been a good way to evaluate players from outside the Academy.
SA: It’s been one a year and a half years since the Academy went nationwide with the 10-month season, thus eliminating high school play for its players. …
TONY LEPORE: No question it was the right thing to do and I think we’re through the challenging stage. And for the vast majority of clubs it’s been successful. I still think there are a few markets where they’re still dealing with some challenges. It’s a huge change in culture, but for the most part everybody recognizes this is the right way to go – to be in this environment for 10 months.
This decision is not for everyone. It’s a personal choice and players need to be the ones to who want to make the sacrifice and commitment to reach their full potential.
SA: How smoothly or bumpy has the introduction last year of the U-14 division gone?
TONY LEPORE: It’s been smooth. We were ready. The clubs were ready. The regional events have gone really well. It’s good scouting opportunity. At this age group, we want to be really careful about the schedule and how it impacts travel and cost.
(Editor’s Note: 78 clubs field U-16 and U-18 teams. Nineteen clubs field only U-14 teams. Thirteen of the full Academy clubs do not field U-14 teams in Academy play because of their location, but they apply Academy philosophy at with their U-14 teams, which play in non-Academy leagues.)
SA: Have you seen more cooperation between clubs?
TONY LEPORE: In general, yes. There are more examples of clubs who were the fiercest rivals coming together, pulling their resources. Their talent pool, their facilities, their infrastructure, their coaching, their structure to provide the best possible environment for the top players in their area. I think Richmond United is a good recent example. In the Northeast, Beachside and South Central coming together to create the BSC Connecticut Academy.
I also think there are more examples of club cooperation between Academy clubs and non-Academy clubs. We like to see the bigger clubs and the smaller clubs work together.
SA: MLS clubs reportedly invest $20 million on youth programs. Their clubs play in the Academy league. Are they satisfied with the Academy setup?
TONY LEPORE: Yes. We’ve provided a competitive structure and support for a clearly defined pathway for professional talent development and we work closely with Alfonso Mondelo and Jeff Agoos. Right now, all of the U.S.-based MLS clubs are part of the DA. And we’ve also helped them develop a calendar to add more MLS vs. MLS programming and games. In general our philosophies and goals match up very well.
SA: Tab Ramos was named U.S. Soccer Youth Technical Director last November. What role does he play in Academy matters?
TONY LEPORE: He’ll be another great support person and he’ll also help us strengthen that connection between our youth and the senior team, because he’s with the U-20s but also working as assistant to Jurgen Klinsmann with the senior team.
SA: For sure, Jurgen Klinsmann is busy with the World Cup challenge -- but does he connect with the youth programs and how?
TONY LEPORE: He’s personally very interested and more and more involved with our youth programs. He’s also more involved with coaching education. He’s really good at opening doors and setting high standards. We’ve had regular meetings with him.
We met with him during the December Academy Showcase and he met with all the Academy coaches. With his renewed contract [through 2018] and new title [Technical Director] I think he really set standards. What we’re always looking to do is taking the things he does with the national team and see how they apply in an age appropriate way to our youth national teams and our Academy clubs.
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, is co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper and co-author with Claudio Reyna of More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)