By Mike Woitalla
U.S. Soccer has been evaluating the clubs that comprise its Development Academy league since its launch in 2007, but it has now made those evaluations, in which clubs get rated on a 5-star system, public*.
“We feel the only way to continue to improve is to make sure we hold the clubs accountable to what they’re doing,” said Claudio Reyna, U.S. Soccer’s Youth Technical Director. “They don’t like it [being made public]. They’re a little protective, which is normal. But our message is that it’s part of improving to put these out in the open to discuss.”
Clubs are star-rated in seven categories: Player Development, Style of Play, Training Environment, Administration, Facilities, Fundraising, Respect.
The report cards also include detailed information on last season’s 77 clubs, such as player stats (eg, goals, yellow and red cards), lineup diagrams, and coaching staff.
To grade the clubs, U.S. Soccer conducts live evaluations and video analysis at clubs’ training and games and collects administrative information on the club throughout the year.
“We do training visits, where the technical advisors visit the clubs and they have an important job to be the link to the clubs and support them and make them better and helping the coaching,” Reyna said. “We’re looking at it holistically. It’s not just one coach or one player who’s going to make a club. It’s the club from top to bottom that can influence the players for many months and years.
“Above everything, it’s about trying to raise the level of player development.”
The clubs are graded in comparison to the top international developmental environments.
“So if Barcelona and Ajax are five stars -- that’s what we work off,” Reyna said. “It’s a realistic view of where we are compared to the rest of the world. Some of the clubs have very good coaches and play well, but their facilities are not great – but that doesn’t weigh as much. The most important thing that we really highlight is the style of play, the training, the player development over the years, how many players go to the national team program relative to the player pool in the market.”
Player Development, Style of Play and Training Environment are at weighed at 20 percent; the other categories 10 percent each. (Clubs are also evaluated on how they approach the pre-Academy age groups but without the star system. Academy league play is at the U-15/16 and U-17/18 levels.)
Regarding the Fundraising category, Reyna says, “Around the world at the best clubs, they don’t pay to play. However our clubs can get there, we’d like to get to point where it’s free to play. That’s a goal and an objective that’s easier said than done because our system is different.”
Eleven clubs got 5 stars on Funding for last season; nine of which are MLS clubs.
The “Respect” grade is part of the Respect Campaign launched by Reyna when he took his position in spring of 2010 and is based on the club’s disciplinary record, professionalism of staff and parent sideline behavior.
“I was blown away by the behavior of coaches on the sideline,” Reyna said, “and by the behavior of players. … Screaming and foul language. Disrespecting referees … I thought to myself, if we continue with this environment it affects the players negatively.
“It’s a problem in all youth sports. But this our sport. Let’s be the sport that cleans up the behavior on all levels. Let’s have that goal. … We know it’s competition and we don’t expect it to be Disneyland, but we understand when we cross the line and that message will keep coming and coming.”
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the evaluations is that it takes the focus off results. A club that creates a good environment for long-term player development but doesn’t win titles can point to the evaluations as evidence of the validity of its approach.
“We also hope these evaluations can help parents ask important questions -- not in a negative way -- of their clubs,” says Reyna. “The idea is to lay out what we’re trying to do and not hide anything.”
That they’re being compared to the likes of Barcelona, it’s no surprise that the most common grades on Player Development (PD) and Style of Player are 2 to 3 stars, with a handful of 3 1/2s.
The highest ratings given in those two categories were 4s, which FC Dallas got in both, Real Salt Lake in Style and the New York Red Bulls in PD. (D.C. United rated 3 1/2 in both categories, ranking it second-highest in those two categories combined behind FC Dallas.)
There were 17 clubs, in addition to FC Dallas and D.C. United, that earned at least 3 stars in both PD and Style: Albertson SC (N.Y.), Arsenal FC (Calif.), Baltimore Bays Chelsea, Colorado Rapids, Cosmos West (now merged with Chivas USA), Columbus Crew, Derby County Wolves (now Crew Academy Wolves), FC Westchester (NY), Houston Dynamo, Internationals (Ohio), Kendall SC (Miami), Los Angeles Galaxy, PA Classics (Pa.), PDA (N.J.), Real So Cal, Solar Chelsea (Texas) and Scott Gallagher Missouri.
One caveat from U.S. Soccer: These evaluations are not useful to draw comparisons between Academy club programs and other domestic programs or teams associated with other organizations.
* To access the evaluations: click HERE, scroll down to "ACADEMY CLUB EVALUATIONS" section, and click on “end of year evaluation” to download PDF).
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United in Oakland, Calif. His youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)