What does Chelsea want from U.S. youth soccer?

[INTERVIEW] From Crystal Palace to Liverpool, West Ham to Everton, British clubs have been entering the American youth soccer "market." As part of Chelsea's quest to "build a network of top youth clubs across America to develop Chelsea Soccer Schools," it has launched a relationship with the Capital Area Soccer League (CASL) of North Carolina. Soccer America's Mike Woitalla interviewed Paul Clement, Chelsea's youth team manager, about the club's motives. ...

SOCCER AMERICA: An Associated Press article, datelined London, announced your club's U.S. venture with "Chelsea has launched an initiative to spur interest in soccer among young Americans." What do you think about that description?

PAUL CLEMENT: I think there's already a very big market for the U.S. player.

SA: How familiar are you with youth soccer in America?

CLEMENT: Youth soccer is absolutely massive in America, absolutely huge, for both boys and girls, as well. There's a massive market.

I've been across to the States a few times to various clubs. A big club in Atlanta United and more recently last weekend to CASL.

There's clubs that are absolutely massive. We have nothing like it in Europe that would touch a club that had 7,000, 8,000 players [such as CASL]. So I'm not quite sure where that [AP] comment came from.

SA: Have you seen enough of American youth soccer to point out what you think are the biggest problems, challenges facing American youth soccer?

CLEMENT: I've been over to the States a few times. I used to work at Fulham and we played at the Disney Soccer Showcase about four or five years ago when youth soccer was running through the ODP program and they played with their different regions. And over the last couple years I've been to some of the big clubs.

One of the biggest things I noticed - and this is a problem I wouldn't say is exclusive to America, because we get it here in England as well and I'm sure in a lot of European countries: The fact that winning very much seems to be the priority, and that comes across with the way the coaches are in the some cases, and a lot of the time, the parents are on the sideline.

I think if you want to produce - and this is my opinion - top talent for the future, winning at all costs at the younger ages shouldn't be the priority, because a lot of techniques, and a lot of tactical, and a lot of learning gets sacrificed in order to go for results.

You can set up, play a certain way that might get you results and might be successful at the younger ages, but when you get to the higher echelons of soccer then you need to have more than that. You need to have very high technical level, you need to have tactical ability.

That's a big thing that we work on at Chelsea. We want to win the games and create a winning mentality, but we'll play a way that will arm players to be the best they can be when they're older because our aim is to produce players who can play in the Premiership and to compete in the Champions League.

If you can't keep possession of the ball at the very highest level then you're not going to win games. So you've got to have short-term sacrifices for long-term results.

SA: Another major problem is the fact that American youth soccer costs a lot of money. If we're sitting here in the United States looking at our youth soccer, which is very expensive already, and we see a foreign club coming over, one of the first questions is: Why are they coming over here? Is it because they see this market in which millions of kids who play soccer have the money? So we question the motives.

CLEMENT: I understand that point. And I know a lot of clubs have tried to do that before. But we're going to be square. The aim of what we're trying to do, is we're going to assist a very big market in America. Not trying to make the market grow. It's a big market. What we're trying to do is assist in the development of young players at all levels in America, whether that be through grassroots programs or whether that be at the elite level.

Our relationship with CASL, the first club we signed a relationship with, is about working with their coaches, their coaches coming to us, which they've done already.

Us going to them. Us working with their young players and sharing ideas. It's going to be a collaboration that will work well for both sides.

I don't think it's just a one-way thing by any means.

The whole thing about financing, I don't think this is ever going to be a financial thing for Chelsea, for example, in terms of making money.

But by having an impact with the club CASL, it may give the opportunity for less-privileged athletes to get some more help.

I know with my conversations with Jay Howell, the technical director at CASL, he's very conscious of that and they're running their own sort of projects to make sure they can help and assist those young players.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: CASL Chief Executive Charlie Slagle says the club's shared programs with Chelsea -- such as a Chelsea-sponsored tournament (Chelsea Sevens), various coaching schools and camps and academies -- will create revenue to help defray costs for CASL players. CASL's teams in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy will wear Chelsea uniforms provided by the EPL club.]

SA: There is a constant influx of British coaches into American youth soccer. But if you are a developing soccer country and you're looking at soccer around the world, shouldn't you be looking to South America or the Mediterranean countries, one, because they win, two, because they play more attractive soccer, and three, because their demographics are more similar to ours than British demographics? If our country's demographics resemble Brazil's more than England's, why would we think it would be a good idea to have British coaches coaching our kids?

CLEMENT: You look at the managers we've had at our club over the last years at Chelsea. The manager who has just been appointed, who we're looking forward to working with is [Luiz Felipe] Scolari, a Brazilian coach [and former head coach of Portugal].

The previous coach, Jose Mourinho, Portuguese. The one before him, [Claudio] Ranieri, Italian. Beyond that we've had [Gianluca] Vialli [Italy], Ruud Gullit [Netherlands].

What we've done at Chelsea - what we don't say is that British coaching is the best coaching.

I think we've been in a fortunate position at the club in that we've seen in 10 years at Chelsea many different managers and coaches with influences from not only Europe but from around the world as well.

That gives us a very privileged position to be in, to be able to say, "Yeah, we've got some things to offer in Britain in the way we've been brought up and the way we've learned, but what we've learned from Jose, what we'll learn from Scolari, what we've learned from [Glenn] Hoddle, Gullit, Vialli, and Ranieri. It's a very wide base of knowledge."

And not only that, you add some of the players we're working with, the tournaments they're playing in and the level they're playing in week in and week out, I think British coaches, or whoever in the future -- we've had a Dutch coach working in the academy very recently -- the club has a lot to offer youth football in America.

SA: We're constantly reading criticism from Britain of the British academy system. That it should be given up on, they should revamp it, it's just not working. If we consider the fact that the British themselves don't think they're doing a good job developing soccer players, why would we think that the British should help us?

CLEMENT: That's a sweeping generalization. If you came to visit our academy at Chelsea I would think you're likely to be impressed. If you looked at what we're doing with our young players and our facilities, the investment that we're putting into our young players, and also the quality of our young players ... we've been through a big rebuilding period over the last few years.

When Roman Abramovich invested very, very heavily in the youth program, he appointed [Dane] Frank Arnesen [chief scout and director of youth development] and made a big change in the whole philosophy.

And it takes time. If things weren't getting done as well as they should have been in the past, you might change this. When you're running a youth development, it takes time.

Some of the other programs, although Manchester United haven't brought so many players through recently, 10 years or so ago they would say, "We brought through the best group of young players through at one time."

Ask Manchester City if they think their academy is working, they'll say yes. Middlesbrough would say the same. Some have had more success than others.

We're in a very successful league over here, which attracts the very, very top players, so the actual challenge we're facing is a big one. Particularly at a club like Chelsea it's not just recruiting the best players from Europe, but the best players from the world as well.

So it is a big challenge. Of course it is. But there are success stories here.

SA: How much is Chelsea's relationship with CASL about scouting talent and the possibility of an American kid ending up at Chelsea?

CLEMENT: I'm not going to say it's not possible. It's going to be spinoff of the relationship as there will be many other spinoffs.

What it will allow, and this is a great thing I think for the young players, is if you're going to be a real high-end talent, a top talent, you will be known by Chelsea and I'm sure to other clubs as well.

In the big 64 clubs in the United States, and CASL's certainly one of them, maybe even one of the 10 super clubs if you like, so if you get to compete very well and perform very well, and you move in the right direction, we're going to know about you.

Now further down the line there's complications with work permits and that kind of thing.

The way a boy would be able to come here is if he had dual nationality through the EU. An American boy who was eligible for a Spanish or Italian passport, for example.

The other way to do it is you have to wait till they attain full international status.

It could be that there's opportunities for boys not necessarily to come here [to Chelsea] on a full-time basis but to come over and experience playing at a big club with European players and testing themselves against the best.

And if they do that and go back to the States a better player, and talk to other players, hopefully it will help raise standards.

Now we're certainly not saying, "Look, we're going to sort out all the problems of U.S. youth soccer." But what we will hopefully do is assist and try and raise the standards.



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