When the players at the U-17 Residency Program hit the field for their daily practice session, they are first met one-on-one by the coaches.
"Everyday we greet the players, shake their hands, look them in the eyes, and communicate with them before practice," says Keith Fulk, one of the U-17 U.S. boys national team assistant coaches. "They're asked how they're doing. Were there any issues last night? Anybody get in trouble? Anybody need to talk about a sick parent - or talk about anything."
The 40 boys in Bradenton, Fla., have left their homes, family and friends to train in what is supposed to replicate a professional environment. Some of them last only a semester and are replaced. Others spend three years of their mid-teens in the program and represent the USA at the biennial FIFA U-17 World Cup.
"It's pretty rigorous," says Fulk, who says that while the players who come to Bradenton may be the best in the country, "their mentalities are far from professional."
Their previous youth soccer experience, Fulk points out, usually consists of Tuesday-Thursday practices, maybe some pickup soccer on a Wednesday and a little soccer on a Friday.
At Bradenton they train daily. On Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays, they're in the weight room by 7:50 a.m. Soccer practice goes from 9:00 to 11:00 a.m. After a visit to the training room, they're bussed to school for classes from 1:00 p.m. till 5:30 p.m. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, movement training, in which they work on running technique and how to use the explosiveness in their legs, replaces weight training.
The Residency Program was launched in 1999 and its first class remains its most successful, having reached the semifinals of the U-17 World Cup later that year and seeing players - DaMarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan, Bobby Convey and Oguchi Onyewu - from that team move on to the full national team and senior World Cup. Also in that class was Kyle Beckerman, now an MLS veteran who has played 10 times for the senior national team since 2007.
Accrording to U.S. Soccer, of the nearly 200 players who have been in residency, more than 80 moved on to MLS or pro leagues in Europe, and 17 have played for the senior national team.
In last September's U.S. qualifier for the 2010 World Cup against El Salvador, six Bradenton alums - Jonathan Spector, Chad Marshall, Beckerman, Michael Bradley, Donovan and Jozy Altidore - saw action, while Robbie Rogers was on the bench.
"There's always two parts to assessing the success of the program," says U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati. "One is the short-term success in Concacaf and at world championships. The second is the success of producing players who are able to play professional soccer and ultimately be on the national team."
The USA is the only nation to have qualified for all 13 of the U-17 World Cups. The 13th world championship, scheduled for Oct. 25-Nov. 15 in Nigeria, will be the sixth since Bradenton's launch. The last, in 2007 in South Korea, was one of the most disappointing, as the USA's three losses in four games included a defeat to Tajikstan. Afterward, two-time Colombia World Cup veteran Wilmer Cabrera, who had moved to New York four years earlier, replaced John Hackworth to become the third Bradenton boss. John Ellinger ran the program from 1999 to 2004. Unlike Cabrera, who played nearly two decades of pro ball, neither Hackworth nor Ellinger had professional experience. Cabrera was also part of Colombia's 1985 and 1987 U-20 World Cup squads.
Fulk, who worked under both of Cabrera's predecessors, says that Cabrera's pro experience is a major benefit and he has created a more demanding environment.
"Ellinger tried to do his discipline and Hackworth the same, but I think definitely the players are held more accountable now, on and off the field," says Fulk. "It's always been labeled down here as a country club. I can tell you from first hand it's not a country club anymore. It's very hard. It's very difficult."
Before moving to the USA, Cabrera co-founded the Chico Futbol Club, which was built upon a player development system in which teens from across Colombia moved into its residency camp.
"It's definitely tough for the kids [in Bradenton], because in other parts of the world, this is what the kids do to survive," Cabrera says. "In the United States they don't need this. So they have to love this. They have to desire to be here. They have to have that kind of passion to come to Bradenton, because it's tough. It's tough because the amount of work and responsibility.
"At home with their club, they're relaxed, having fun. Over here it's 100 percent business and responsibility. But when they commit to it, because it's what they want, it becomes easier. We help them a lot."
Fulk says, "We hold them to a higher standard. We hold them very much accountable in all areas. From their nutrition to the rest to their behavior, in movie theaters to walking around in a grocery store, because they're representing their national team."
At the U-17 World Cup, where they face Spain, Malawi and the United Arab Emirates in the first round, the Bradenton boys will face the most pressure they've ever had to cope with in their young careers.
"I think most important is the mental aspect that we're working on," says Cabrera. "If we can get the players confident and in that zone where they can feel that they are capable, I think they can do well."
In their successful qualifying campaign, Cabrera's squad outscored its three opponents - Cuba, Canada and Honduras - 12-2.
"[Cabrera] wants them to express themselves on the soccer field with their personalities," Fulk says. "That's one thing that I think is really the biggest difference here. I think a lot of times we were mechanical and almost robotic in years past."
Cabrera says that the launch of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, which coincided with the start of his U-17 tenure, an outreach to unaffiliated leagues and the launch of MLS youth programs, makes him confident that Bradenton is capturing the top talent.
"To say we saw everyone may be impossible because it's such a big country," Cabrera says, "but at the same time it's hard to hide good players. Everybody knows the best players in the area, the city, the town, and talks about them. And we have a good network of scouts and good support from the Development Academy."
Candidates are first brought in to trial camps at Bradenton.
"We expose them to the environment and notice whether they can deal with it," Cabrera says. "There are some great players who are not mature enough to deal with the national team."
The kind of players he says the USA needs more of?
"It's hard to find players with the offensive mentality," Cabrera says. "Especially players who are thinking to score goals. Because most of the kids, they go to practice, and most of the drills are focused on possession. They need more finishing drills. We need more kids with forward mentality, who know how to strike the ball to score goals. If all the kids are made to play is possession, possession, possession, they're not learning how to score goals.
"Yes, we have to possess the ball, but most important in soccer is scoring goals. That's what makes you win or loss. You have to score goals. Everybody has to know how to score goals."
(This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)