Taming the Wild West

Creating the U.S. Soccer Development Academy is the USSF's first step in trying to take advantage of the strengths of American youth soccer while tackling its flaws.

If boys youth soccer continued along its current path, it's safe to say we'd be getting more of the same. Lots and lots of decent players, and a handful of brilliant players. Is that acceptable?

It shouldn't be. The USA is a giant country with tremendous resources and millions of players. There's no reason why it shouldn't be churning out world-class players the way countries like Brazil and Argentina do. But with all the growth at the grass-roots, with all the self-proclaimed highly competitive leagues and tournaments that spread through the nation like kudzu, with thousands of youth coaches earning good money to "teach" our kids how to play, how often do we produce the truly exceptional player?

Sure, we have more good players than ever. Guys who can play a role on the field and hold their own - those we have in abundance. But the rate at which we're producing players who hit the field and truly offer something extraordinary has not been increasing in proportion to the growth of the youth game.

Two decades ago, we had Tab Ramos and Hugo Perez. Why aren't we seeing scores of American players with such skill now? Why don't we have more players like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey?

Those are the kinds of questions that prompted Sunil Gulati, shortly after being elected U.S. Soccer Federation President in March of 2006, to launch a Technical Committee to review all the Federation's technical areas.

"Our players are not good enough at the highest levels -- we need to get better," reads the introduction to the Technical Committee's Player Development Report.

The report outlined changes the committee believed are needed at different age groups. Notably, for ages 6-12, the assessment summary included "Need more free play, less structure ... Encourage passion and experimentation." At ages 13-17 (the development stages): "Need to eliminate clutter in the environment -- elite players are stretched too thin."

These aren't revolutionary conclusions. U.S. national team coaches and the U.S. Soccer coaching staff have been saying such things for years. But the Federation has historically been reluctant to dive into the youth soccer arena -- a free market that now offers so many different programs promising players a path to glory that it has been described as the wild west.

Now the USSF is taking action. This fall it launches the U.S. Soccer Development Academy for boys -- its most ambitious move on the development front since it (in 1999) opened the U-17 boys residency camp in Bradenton, Fla., which houses 40 players. (The USSF is exploring a similar initiative "to enhance the development of female players.")

The U.S. Soccer Development Academy will be picking existing elite clubs to run Academy teams for U-16 and U-18 boys to compete in the regional leagues, providing opportunities for more than 2,000 players. Regional winners will compete in a national championship.

Up to 80 clubs will be chosen by U.S. Soccer's national team coaches. Players in the academy program will not take part in the Olympic Development Program, which is run by the state associations and U.S. Youth Soccer and has traditionally been the national team program's main source for discovering talent.

To counter the "growing trend of clubs playing an excessive quantity of games in lieu of consistent training patterns," academy teams will not play in any other leagues or State Cup competitions. Players will be allowed to play high school ball, for U.S. national teams and in a few other situations.

"It was never more clear to me that things in our youth soccer structure needed to change than at our first U-15 camp last summer," says U.S. U-15 boys national team coach Jim Barlow, "when about half of the players, on the very first day of national team camp, told their coaches that they were tired of soccer. Too many games, too many leagues, too many tournaments and camps, too much structured soccer had already taken its toll on this group of talented young players."

Bob Jenkins, U.S. Soccer Director of Youth Development, found that the club coaches whose teams participate in an excessive amount of competitions -- placing an emphasis on results over player development -- often agreed that their players were asked to play too many games. But they go along with it because the parents who pay them judge them on their teams' trophy-collecting ability and believe that if the children miss a showcase event they may miss a chance to be discovered by college or national team coaches.

The U.S. Soccer Development Academy will incorporate the elite clubs and their coaches but limit the number of games and travel while ensuring that the players will be seen by U.S. Soccer staff coaches and college coaches. The club coaches of Academy teams can now promise the parents that their children will be exposed to national team, college and pro scouts without traveling to an excessive number of events.

Included in the Academy structure: A minimum requirement of three training sessions and one rest day per week; academy teams will play 30 to 38 games per year (8-month season); the U.S. U-16 national team will compete in the U-18 Academy League; each player must start 30 percent of the time.

"One thing that's really important to understand," says Kevin Payne, the D.C. United president who heads the Technical Committee, "is that this is just one tactic in a very, very broad strategy. In the long term, we plan to work much more in the grassroots, at the younger ages, to change people's attitude about youth soccer and the process of youth soccer."

"We want to convince parents and administrators that there are ultimately more important ways to measure their kids' soccer experience than by placing value on wins and losses."

Although the Academy is focusing on the competitive U-16 and U-18 age groups, Jenkins says U.S. Soccer staff coaches will be forging relationships with the Academy clubs and offering direction that will impact the clubs' younger age groups. The aim is to change the focus at the younger age groups from competition to development.

"What we're doing at 16 and 18, that's our target area," Jenkins says. "Not that all the resources will go there, but that's what we want to get to for our clubs. Then you look at the younger ages and everything should logically fall in line to prepare the players to get there. The results are less important at the younger ages, if we're trying to get the kids prepared to play at the U-16 and U-18s. We didn't set up a competitive model for the younger ages because at that level we didn't want that to be the focus."

By August, the Federation will announce which clubs it has accepted for the Academy. Criteria for clubs selected to field Academy teams include a club's history of elite youth player development and past success in elite competitions. The regional leagues will comprise up to 15-20 teams and will play home and away matches against other Academy teams across a complete, eight-month season.

Well aware that one of the biggest problems in youth soccer are the high costs that shut out lower-income children, the Federation is prepared to make "pretty significant" financial contributions, says Gulati.

Payne says the MLS clubs will be fielding Academy teams and he believes that they are unlikely to charge their Academy players.

"The starting point which is the most important piece of the whole thing is," says Jenkins, "what is best for the players? What is the best model for helping to get these players the best opportunity to grow? When I have that in my mind it makes it much more clear as we move forward with this thing."

(This article originally appeared in the July 2007 issue of Soccer America Magazine.)

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