By Mike Woitalla
The U.S. Soccer Federation continues increasing its influence on boys soccer.
Launched in 2007 with 64 clubs, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy enters its 2012-13 season with 80 clubs, and for the 2013-14 season will add a younger age group, U-13/14.
Academy clubs currently field one team in each of the two groups: U-15/16 and U-17/18. The U-13/14 division will include teams from clubs not part of the current Academy structure.
The U-13/14s will, like the older age groups, play a 10-month season. It will, during the winter, include a futsal component.
Tony Lepore, the Development Academy Director of Scouting, answered questions about the Academy's growth during a Friday morning conference call.
Will players at the U-13/14 level also be banned from high school play?
TONY LEPORE. First of all, there’s no high school ban. There’s high school choice. There’s a 10-month choice. And we think this will help.
This is an age group with some entering high school, some in the eighth grade, and I think it’s much easier to make the decision when you’re in the Academy structure and environment and you really know what to expect from that environment.
So it will be a much more educated decision. We’ve also seen during these transition years to the 10-month season that the hardest decisions are for the players who’ve gotten a taste of high school. And in most cases it’s been that social draw to pull them back.
With the 14s they’ll enter an Academy environment early enough so they’ll be much more educated and we think that when the top players get in this environment early, they will know how to make the choice that’s best for them. The Academy is not for everybody.
How closely will the U-13/14 season resemble the older age groups?
TONY LEPORE: We’ll probably build in a longer break period in the winter for this group. We’re also going to implement a futsal program, because we know the benefits of futsal, during that winter time.
And then it will be the same standards in terms of approved events outside the Academy that meet our standards. For example, the Dallas Cup is in a window for the 15, 16, 17, 18s, and Disney is another one of those. It will be similar for 14s. We’re also encouraging all our age groups to consider international experiences during these open windows.
What’s the rationale for welcoming clubs outside the Academy to field U-13/14 teams?
TONY LEPORE: Really there’s three parts to that. For us the first one is we want to spread the philosophy of the Academy, the principles, the approach to player development. We want to also fill in some travel gaps.
We know that the current schedule, when we look at the match schedule for the 15, 16, 17, 18s, that doesn’t fit [the younger division].
That was part of the challenge in the beginning. That model doesn’t fit the 13, 14s. In some cases we can, where there’s less travel, but there’s certain parts of the country where the 15, 16, 17, 18s' schedule would just be too much travel. So we’re going to look to fill in those travel gaps.
The other piece is we want to cast a wider scouting net. The Development Academy has always been an extension of our youth national team programming. As you know, we start at U-14s there. So we want to cast a wider scouting net with younger players, which is in line with our training centers as well, going into 12s, 13s, 14s as we scout these national team prospects. Bringing in more clubs helps with those three things. …
Obviously this is exciting because it opens up room for some more clubs. We’ll continue to be careful. There are areas where we probably won’t expand at all for the same reason we don’t expand at 15, 16, 17, 18s, which would be because it would dilute the competition.
How do you evaluate potential clubs?
TONY LEPORE: We have nine full-time technical advisors and through our training center models they not only know the Academy clubs intimately, they also know about non-Academy clubs. We’ll be looking for coaching, philosophy, history of player development – how many players they’re sending to our training centers and our youth national teams. We also know it takes good facilities – availability and quality, not just for matches but for training. We’ll also look at their funding model. We continue to push for no pay to play at the youth level.
How much progress has been made in alleviating the costs for Academy players?
TONY LEPORE: We’ve seen progress but we still have a long way to go. Sometimes it’s surprising for people to hear there are a number of non-MLS clubs that are providing full scholarships for their players. They have moved away from pay-to-play. The MLS clubs are leading the way, but that’s motivated the others, especially where an MLS club is a neighbor and they want to continue to compete with each other, which is healthy.
There are 24 fully funded clubs now. [Half the clubs cover at least 50 percent of the costs for players.] We’re making progress but this is a big one so we still have a long way to go.
Will there be a national championship for the U-13/14s?
TONY LEPORE: We know that the league needs to be competitive, because that’s part of any good league. But at the same time we know we want to put development ahead of results. We also want to be careful about the showcase model.
Right now, we’re leaning toward not having a national championship because we want to regionalize everything, including their travel.
What’s the main benefit of expanding to the younger age group?
TONY LEPORE: The first thing that comes to mind is training hours. We know that’s where players develop. We’re moving to four times a week, and that’s a big increase in training hours in the top environments.
A lot of the same philosophy we apply to the 15, 16, 17, 18s we wanted to spread to the younger age group, which is more meaningful games -- games where they’re held accountable for technical execution, decision-making.
This is a really important age group that needs that calendar cleaned up, and that model cleaned up. And also shifting the focus on development ahead of results. The big benefit will be increased hours in the training environment and more meaningful games in terms of their technical development. …
We also know the best model is where one club takes charge of a player’s development. We want to empower the club.