Specter haunting the Development Academy

It would be quite superfluous for me to add my congratulations to USSF for the success of its Development Academy program. They themselves, during some 16 hours of television exposure over the weekend, spent quite a lot of time patting themselves on the back, bringing up numerous positives, finding no negatives.

Yes, I agree with everything they're saying - the achievements in less than a year have been remarkable at the organizational level, and the two sets of eight-team finals (for u-18 and u-16 boys) were staged professionally, among a welter of related "development activities" - such as training sessions and lectures from the likes of Bob Bradley.

I am not about to argue with any of that. The basic principle behind the development academy is indisputable: to allow elite players to play the game in the way that their counterparts do around the world. Those are the words of DA director John Hackworth. By elite players, he means players with the potential to play for the U.S. national team. He adds that the players have to "train more and play less, but the games that they play must be more meaningful."

That is a philosophy that goes a long way to answering the growing complaints that youth players in this country are simply overwhelmed with constant - and frequently not very good - tournament play.

So far so good. But good intentions are never the whole story. There is a specter haunting the DA - the very same specter that has already undermined two previous efforts to foster elite players, Project-40 and Bradenton. The specter of college soccer.

Very quickly, and very strongly, that specter made itself felt on the DA telecasts. The first three games in the U-18 age group came over as typical college games. Athletic, unsubtle, full of hustle, short on real soccer and very, very disappointing. Maybe one shouldn't be surprised, but one always hopes that we have moved on, that the national team candidates of today should look a bit different from those of 20 years ago. These did not.

The final was more hopeful - featuring LAFC, a team full of Latino players, who played a rather different style of soccer, and gave us a much more interesting and dramatic game.

But ... how many of the LAFC players have any realistic chance of becoming national team players? Indeed, despite the professed - and totally commendable - aims of the DA, will it be the national team that is the true beneficiary of all this effort? One might doubt it.

The gaff was blown, ingenuously and delightfully, by the Columbus Crew's Travis Wall. Having scored a great goal to help the Crew beat the Colorado Rush, he was asked what his 9-month stint with his DA team meant for his future, and replied without hesitation that "it's prepared me for college a lot better."

Throughout the telecasts the commentators went on and on about the college commitments of the players. Except, significantly, for LAFC - for whom, it seems, no information was available.

Now, it is utterly inconceivable that intelligent, knowledgeable, soccer-involved people like Sunil Gulati, John Hackworth, Dave Sarachan and Thomas Rongen do not know that there is a problem here. All of them had quite a lot to say - but not one of them talked about college soccer. Neither to praise it nor to criticize it.

Both Hackworth and Rongen heaped praise - as they are quite right to do - and the DA's insistence on "no re-entry" as far as subs are concerned. For Rongen that was a vital point, as the young players were learning to play under FIFA rules - and that, said Hackworth, "is the way the game is supposed to be played."  Yet neither would face up to the reality that in college, the evident destination for most of these boys, they will not play according to FIFA rules. They will in effect, take a step backwards.

If only that were all. But we know now, beyond any reasonable doubt, that college soccer is a step back in virtually every soccer aspect. It does not develop players. If anything, it restrains their development. The skills and the knowledge necessary for the elite players who will stock future national teams will not,  can not, be learned in college - which, truth be told, is merely an extension of the age-group soccer of white, middle-class suburbia.

The training that these young boys need - that will, in Hackworth's words, allow them "to play the game the way their counterparts do around the world" - will come only by association with the youth divisions of pro clubs. Either MLS clubs or foreign clubs.

The DA is clearly a step in the right direction, but it is a compromised step. I'm not at all sure that it has to be that way, but the evidence - the playing, on the field, evidence - of most the 16 teams and the players seen this past weekend, strongly suggests that the specter of college soccer - I'll give it a more appropriate name - the blight of college soccer maintains its unhealthy influence and has yet to be effectively scotched.

Until it is, development programs like the DA will always contain the self-negating element of feeding college soccer, and thus bolstering the very distortions they are designed to correct.

7 comments about "Specter haunting the Development Academy".
  1. Dennis Yunke, July 21, 2008 at 7:32 a.m.

    Take it a step down, look at club soccer and high school soccer. There is another step down.

  2. philip Tiewater, July 21, 2008 at 8:29 a.m.

    While college soccer may not be a great source of national team players, I do not see why this is places a "specter" over the DA. For the majority of the players, college is the terminal level. There are only so many spots on the national team and there is very little turnover. The DA supports the college and the national team by giving both the college scouts, the national team scouts, and even the professional scouts an opportunity to see top players perform against top players. This need to lament how soccer works in America is growing tiresome.

  3. Rand Swenson, July 21, 2008 at 9:30 a.m.

    I, too, find this repetitive of many prior articles by Mr. Gardner (although it is correct in many aspects). The question is whether the entry of profession youth setups will change the nature of play (teams tend to adopt tactics that work - at every level). Also, the issue should not be whether this is going to directly contribute to the national team (since youth teams at the U18 level never do), but whether this is going to promote development of professional players who can advance (since all national team players will certainly come from the professional ranks). The statement by Philip that "there are only so many spots on the national team and there is very little turnover" may be true now, but in the best national teams it is not... this is a reflection of a very shallow pool of competent professionals. Expanding this pool is essential since it is impossible to predict who will fully blossom into an international quality player until they have been in the professional environment for a few years. Expansion of the quality and depth of the professional pool is a necessary and critical intermediate step (even if unvoiced) for any program that proposes to improve the national team. The entry of professional setups into this equation is critical since that is their expressly stated purpose. The question is, whether they, by their example, will be able to bring the rest of these developmental teams to the level that is necessary to advance soccer in the US. I have my doubts, but am more optimistic than Mr. Gardner about the potential for this nascent effort.

  4. , July 21, 2008 at 9:58 a.m.

    Mr. Gardner:
    I have been reading your articles for over 20 years now. I agree with you on a lot of issues. But when it comes to college soccer, I find it difficult to agree with you. At one point, before MLS, college soccer was the only option for youth players. It has produced a lot if good players. Most notable of which is Claudio Reyna and many others who went to play in Europe. Nowadays, there are many avenues for the youth players to go through. Many of them leaves high ascool to join professional teams, in MLS or Europe. College soccer became an option for those who wants to continue with their education and also continue playing soccer but because of their mediocre level can't make it to the prefessional leagues. There are tens of thousands of high scholl graduates every year and not every one will make it to the professional level.
    You should criticize the system if it failed to discover those talents in high school and take them directly to MLS or other professional leagues; and leave the college soccer for the rest of them and there are too many high school players who will benefit from it.

  5. Susan Boyd, July 21, 2008 at 2:59 p.m.

    I have been intimately involved with the DA through my son's participation in the program. I have a dim view of the ability of the DA to accomplish what its stated goals offer. First and foremost I agree that out of the 1800 or more players involved perhaps a handful will get the nod to train with the National Team. Since the DA recruited the top teams in the country it is a sure bet that the players on those teams have been seen many times by coaches with connections to the National Team. My own son has been seen by National Team coaches directly with three trips to Bradenton to play and ODP. So I'm not sure that a surprising discovery will appear.

    Second, since the DA covers only 22 states there are huge gaps particularly in middle America where teams and players don't have access to the DA. Several of the teams in the DA now are not up to the caliber of play and their players have suffered in getting college exposure as coaches just don't attend their games. A player outside of the system won't be seen except through a college showcase tournament or ODP.

    However the main problem remains that college dilemma. The U18 division suffers because most of those players committed to colleges months before competition began for U18 in the DA and those players no longer have a reason to spend the amount of money they would have to spend to travel to the games. They would rather play locally, save their money for college, and even participate in the US Youth Soccer Championships. As a result several if not a majority of the U18 teams had half U17 players. This created uneven competition and for the players and parents on teams with whom I spoke a great deal of frustration.

    The expense makes the program exclusionary. Unless teams have sponsors with deep pockets, parents have to be able to afford numerous plane trips to play games a thousand or more miles away, which is not to mention the DA showcases. When my son's team played the National Team it was just the one game in Florida but the cost for airfare, hotel, meals, and incidentals was just under $500. On next year's schedule we play three games in Colorado, but right now only two of them are scheduled together. The third is a separate trip. We usually traveled to three or four tournaments a year; now we are traveling to that many DA showcases plus around 1/3 of our games.

    Finally if the philosophy of the DA is more training / less games, I have not come across many teams that changed their training protocol for the DA. They were already top teams training at a top level. And the number of games seems to be never ending. My son is a U17 playing on a U18 team in order to fill out the team with U17 players. Since this is a major year to be seen by college coaches (and let's face it - that is where most of these players are headed) then playing behind U18 players becomes problematic. I saw potential D1 players sitting on the bench for most or all of the games or not even being placed on the roster. This isn't sour grapes because my son got a good amount of playing time. Instead it's a concern for what the DA did for at least one year of top U17 players in order to create an atmosphere where one or two National team players might emerge. In addition the "no return" rule meant that coaches were reluctant to sub a player in to get exposure. Players don't need to play under FIFA rules to get it. They need exposure, and coaches need an opportunity to pull players off the field, talk them about what they can improve, and then send them back in to exercise what they learned. Isn't that what development is about?

    I lived in Europe for five years, so I do understand the European system of developing and training players. Since youth players cannot be owned or paid given NCAA constraints and since the ratio of professional teams to able players is ridiculously small compared to European and South America opportunities, only college offers most gifted players another few years of soccer play. The DA seems to ignore that factor. We can establish a more professional system for training our top youth players, but if they have no where to go but college, then what's the point?

    We keep reinventing the wheel, but in the process I think we've forgotten we need a vehicle on which to put those wheels. In the meantime gifted players serve as guinea pigs for these new ideas. I really don't think most players have been well-served by the Academy. They may not have been well-served by any other system previously. But so long as college is the endgame for most players, it might be a good idea to be sure that strong players get a chance to compete there.

  6. Eric Hernandez, July 21, 2008 at 8:53 p.m.

    As a coach, parent and student of the game. I find that the DA is missing several key components that will take time to develop. First, I feel as diverse as the soccer communities are across the country, so should the panels that run the NSCAA, USSF and any other Soccer engine that drives our players to the fields and beyond. Our national standard should be to reach out far beyond the communities that we typically see at National Tournaments at the youth level. We need to deep far into the corners of the cities where skill and the mere love of Soccer exists. I hear the need for street soccer being echoed throughout every article, well its there. We are just very limited on the resources that reach these players in sometimes rural areas. I feel our sights should go further, and reach these talent pools we are missing, and find those hidden gems that just need the direction to ultimate game. Secondly, our need to create more than one Soccer Academy is necessary. Not every player can reach Florida, some may not even know where it is, however this shouldn't limit their chances of representing their country or to make the college ranks. We need to develop that staff I spoke of, that diverse group of coaches that represent America, and then create a roving camp that rotates from city to city, giving each child the opportunity to play at the highest level possible.

  7. Kent James, July 22, 2008 at 9:48 a.m.

    There are many thoughtful comments on this blog. I agree with most that have read Paul Gardner for years, appreciate his insights, but tire of his bashing college soccer, which, while not perfect, has provided a steady place to play for good players, most of whom will never make a living playing soccer. I played college soccer in the early 1980s (when I graduated, there was no professional league anymore), and loved it. As a result, I have continued to play on adult teams at the most competitive (amateur) level. And while my current team is about 1/3-1/2 immigrants, who often do bring the creativity and ball skills Gardner prefers, every US citizen on our team played college soccer, and many have skills and creativity to match the foreigners. And I know a lot of good High School/youth soccer players (because I also coach HS & youth teams) that if they don't play soccer in college (at the Varsity level), they stop playing. This is a shame. So college soccer, with all its flaws, has a role on the soccer scene, and it's contribution should not be brushed aside. I hope, as I'm sure Gardner does, that eventually there will be enough professional teams with enough staying power that they can train the young players they need to form their teams. But for those who realize they will probably never be a professional player but still love to play, college soccer has a role.
    As for the DA, it seems like a very good idea for the elite clubs trying to limit the number of games for their players while still allowing coaches to see their players. But I don't think it is possible to use it as the primary system for recruiting national team players, since many good players may have no ability to play for one of the teams in the DA. And if you have enough teams in the DA so that its reach is comprehensive, then the quality will be watered down. Additionally, the travel time and costs associated with the DA now seem to be replicating some of the problems with the ODP system. So the DA seems to work for many of the clubs involved, but I don't think it can serve as the primary system for developing national team players. But perhaps it can be the catalyst for a more rational club system. One can dream....

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