'We're all in this together' -- U.S. Soccer Development Academy (Tony Lepore Q&A, Part 2)

Interview by Mike Woitalla

While becoming the main avenue to the national team program, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, launched in 2007, has also sparked controversy by introducing a 10-month season that prohibits its players from participating in high school ball. Development Academy Director of Scouting Tony Lepore, who is also U-15 national team coach, addresses that issue and complaints from some non-Academy clubs that the national team program is steering players to Academy clubs.

SOCCER AMERICA: Did you expect keeping Academy players out of high school play would cause so much controversy and is there concern that this has further divided the soccer community?

TONY LEPORE: When we started the Academy and did a lot of research, one of the things we wanted to make sure was we don’t have the thinking that, “This is the way it’s always been done. It’s what we know. So it’s what we do.”

We came into this knowing that change is always a challenge. We also knew we wanted to empower the clubs and that the everyday environment is the most important foundation of player development, and that’s all-around technique.

We knew there would be some difficult things to change so we knew all along a 10-month season would be a challenge. That’s why we waited until we thought the clubs and the players were ready and the Federation was ready.

We expected this would be controversial and was a change in culture. But this is something soccer people had been talking about long before the Academy.

SA: What’s the fallout been like?

TONY LEPORE: I think it’s going great. It’s a credit to our clubs in the Academy. I think the players were ready. We knew our clubs intimately, so we knew which players were having a hard time with the choice. For some clubs it was full speed ahead and easier, and there’s other pockets and markets where it’s been a little bit harder. There’s a reason why SoCal and Texas and the Northwest were the first. There are certain dynamics around the high school issue.

For the most part we’re not looking back. Once we start the U-14 program this gets easier, because in most cases it’s a social decision and not a soccer decision. The 14s will be on this pathway and [high school ball] is something they won’t get a taste of it, so they won’t get enough of it to know if they’ll miss it.

Clearly, the hardest was for the players who were entrenched and were a part of their high school program.

I really don’t think that this has divided the soccer community. There are plenty of players who need the opportunity and different pathways, but we now have a clearly defined pathway with the Academy and that’s where the top players should be.

SA: I’ve been told by some non-Academy club coaches that when their players go to a youth national team camp, they’re not only highly encouraged to leave their clubs for Academy clubs, but also that they won’t be invited back if they don’t ...

TONY LEPORE: That would never happen. Would we encourage players to go to the top development environment in the country, which is the Development Academy? Absolutely. But we don’t discriminate with the national teams. If they’re good enough, we bring them in.

I think 80-85 percent of youth national team players come from Academy teams, but that’s also because they’re in the key markets. And the top players have migrated to Development Academy clubs.

SA: I’ve been told by some non-Academy club coaches they may not send their kids to a national camp for fear of them being convinced to leave for an Academy club ...

TONY LEPORE: How appalling is that? That someone would want to keep a player away from an opportunity to keep them at their own club longer, which I think would be simply to help them grab more trophies.

That’s not a player development model. These are real opportunities that you wouldn’t want to hold a player out of for any reason.

And you can’t hide good players.

Part of being a good Academy is having good scouting. This is how it is in the rest of the world. And hopefully there are more and more cases when your player gets this opportunity you feel really good about the role you played in helping them go to the next level.

How is this any different than when they got the player? It so often becomes one of these things that lacks any type of empathy. They also got the player from somewhere else. That the player started out with them is rare.

Hopefully, we all have the best interest of the player in mind. That we’re fine with having them go somewhere where they can get more than we’re giving them. And hopefully the Academy clubs represent that.

SA: Is it still possible for players to reach the highest levels of American soccer without being on an Academy team?

TONY LEPORE: I think if you’re a player who wants to reach his full potential and you have access to an Academy – that’s the best choice.

But we also realize that there are a lot of different pathways for players.

And players need to be ready. The Academy is a much bigger commitment. If they want to reach their full potential, if they want to reach the next level, the commitment required is different than the other pathways.

SA: Isn’t there also a geography issue -- that some players don’t live near an Academy club?

TONY LEPORE: Absolutely. There are more and more of those players looking for a residency opportunity.

The pathway to the national team is also Training Centers. We’ll do a few hundred Training Centers this year. They are a good opportunity for us to see players from Academy and non-Academy, affiliated, un-affiliated clubs – the top players who are recommended by the clubs.

You don’t have to be an Academy club to apply the same principles to player development.

The training centers have really helped us evaluate who the clubs are out there outside the Academy that do a great job. A number of them do a great job up until that age group. Some continue to do a great job. So there are situations in which a player might have a hard decision to leave for an Academy club. ...

We still scout ODP. It’s important for us to continue to scout not just the Academy but wherever we think we can identify the top players.

SA: There does seem to be a trend of clubs merging to handle the challenges of Academy play, and non-Academy clubs partnering with Academy clubs. ...

TONY LEPORE: There are a number of non-Academy clubs that have a great relationship with neighboring Academy clubs -- and they’re happy to be a feeder and work with them. Which is the model throughout the rest the world.

But we still have a long way to go in recognizing that we’re all in this together.

Read Part 1 of our interview ("Progress in Triples") with Tony Lepore HERE.



25 comments about "'We're all in this together' -- U.S. Soccer Development Academy (Tony Lepore Q&A, Part 2)".
  1. Dennis Parces, January 19, 2013 at 8:30 p.m.

    I agree with Tony regarding the need to have top players experience a training program geared to develop pro prospects, such as is the Academy model. I am looking for a residency program for my 14 yr old currently with Union de Santa Fe in Argentina. My son trains mornings and afternoons, 5 days a week and goes to school at night, from 7 to 10. His progress thus far has been amazing. We reside in Puerto Rico where there are no similar training platforms!! That is why he is at Union...

  2. Francisco Albelo, January 20, 2013 at 5:34 a.m.

    Totally agree with the pro-model approach, we were in on of those market that did not had an Academy at reach. There are plenty of talent on those out of market areas, the key is to get the Training Centers into those areas more often. Luckily military service took us to Germany where his ability did not go unnoticed. Now he is an Academy(Bundesliga 1) team and part US 15 YNT pool player.

  3. Wesley Hunt, January 20, 2013 at 7:38 a.m.

    The nearest academy club to our area is 3 hours away. A non starter for even my best players. Too much time and money for the families to commit. We train hard but fun playing futsal 4 nights a week through the winter. I have good players but no one will see them them but their parents and high school coaches. To say that the Academy is the best choice or to say that the USMNT has good scouting is BS. There are whole sections of the country missed by this system.

  4. Luis Arreola, January 21, 2013 at 4:26 p.m.

    So if a small club is truly developing his players and are excelling at a higher pace than anyone else, they are selfish for not wanting their top players to move to an Academy ? Isn't it selfish for an Academy to recruit a player that they know they will not be able to keep him developing at the same pace or better ?? I congratulate the Academies that recognize the smaller club's efforts and talents and work together with them.

  5. Luis Arreola, January 21, 2013 at 4:35 p.m.

    Moving from a small club, H.S., to Academy should be a transition and not a take it or leave it deal. What good does it do a U14/99' Top player to play for an Academy 99' team when he is used to playing with and vs top 98/97's with the smaller club ?? What good does it do a player sit on the bench for 1/2 the season or more with an Academy instead of playing 100% with his club ? Some will say because it is more competitive. Sure, but at what expense ? And this really depends on the circumstances. Talent is in the eye of the beholder. Academies in other countries train 3 times as much and integrate their player's schooling. We are far from that. So if Academies can't yet offer enough training why tell players they must only play there ??

  6. Luis Arreola, January 21, 2013 at 4:39 p.m.

    How about Academies making sure all of their players get as much playing and practice time by working with the smaller clubs they came from until they are ready to shine and manage an entire game ?? Makes more sense to me. How about requiring that all Academies at least acknowledge what small clubs their best players came from that many times are responsable for most of the developmental years ?? In other countries they are monateraly compensated.

  7. Mark Torguson, January 22, 2013 at 2:29 p.m.

    Why would Tony Lepore call it "appalling" that smaller clubs would not want to send their kids to the national program when they are constantly told "you need to leave the club you are at and play for the Academy?" Isn't a major conflict of interest for US Soccer to push kids to the program they sponsor? Why are not US Soccer/Academy teams compensating clubs that are producing players of that level if they are leaving our club? We run a smaller club and we have not yet taken the step of telling kids to not go to the national program, but is frustrating to do everything we can to develop them the right way, only for them to be told to leave at age 15 "because they need to play in the Academy". We have facilities that are nicer then 90% of the Academies and continually follow the structure presented by Mr. Reyna. We strongly feel that US Soccer should not be pushing kids to a program they sponsor. If and Academy wants a player, they should help fund our program so we have the ability to go and find the next player.

  8. Luis Arreola, January 22, 2013 at 7:27 p.m.

    Mark, I agree with you. Alot of these Academies are still rated pretty in the only 3 aspects that really matter - Playing Style, Training & Pay to Play. History has shown us that the very best players in the world have grown up poor, so why is it not a demand that Academies don't charge their top teams at "every age"? This would gaurantee much more top talent is getting the "Great Academy Training" at U8 and up, correct? Why leave to an Academy that has such low ratings in Training & Style ?? Are they saying that no matter how bad these academies are they are still better than the small club ??

  9. Luis Arreola, January 22, 2013 at 7:39 p.m.

    Academy get the recognition for national, college, pro players that many times developed most of their years under small clubs. It's a great marketing tool along with winning, rankings and great recommendations relations with USSF. The small club that many times charges close to nothing gets nothing. Many times not even a thankyou. Instead they get Academies to look closer at more of their players, steal them and make them fold and move on to the next. It's called a monopoly. That is not how it works in other countries.

  10. Adam Block, January 22, 2013 at 8:11 p.m.

    This thought process is a prime example of why the, "top players" in this country are either wealthy, or international players. You are creating a system that creates absolute biasness, the players HAVE to move to academies(which cost thousands of dollars per year per player) to be able to have any national attention what so ever. There is no less and less opurtunity for the less fortunate players and players who live outside immideate metro areas. Other countries systems of having a school and academy integrated as one is not fessable, the idea that this country's development of players must follow that of their foreign counterparts is not going to help anything. I can guarantee that this program will not assist in the national team winning any major tournaments in the future. Let me leave you with a question, why are we the best country by far in the world, and yet those kids still play for their PUBLIC and private high schools?...

  11. Adam Block, January 22, 2013 at 8:13 p.m.

    *best country in basketball by far

  12. Luis Arreola, January 22, 2013 at 8:24 p.m.

    USA Basketball gets it's best players the way 3rd world countries get theirs in soccer. There Basketball Clubs that charge Academy money though but we all know where the best mostly come from. 3rd world status neigborhoods- the projects. We talk alot about an education when it comes to soccer, saying it is more important and that we prefer it. How come not the same with the NBA's best players? The excuse lies within the problem. We don't produce players that will get the big $$ in soccer therefore they pick college first.

  13. Luis Arreola, January 22, 2013 at 8:32 p.m.

    Let me be clear, Not ALL Academies because I dont know all of them but I do know a few to state an opinion and I want nothing more than there to be truly a higher level of soccer in reality and not just on paper.

  14. Luis Arreola, January 22, 2013 at 8:34 p.m.

    How much an Academy wins means nothing to me. I look at how much their players improve individually year after year.

  15. Adam Block, January 23, 2013 at 5:17 p.m.

    Let me nullify that, I live in Prince George's County, Maryland. This county was ranked as the 3rd best area for youth baseketball talent in the nation by ESPN. The county always has a top recruit in the ESPN recruiting lists. Produced such players as Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, and Michael Beasely. But, Prince George's County is also the wealthiest prodimneitly African-American county in the entire nation...

  16. Luis Arreola, January 23, 2013 at 6:10 p.m.

    Damn. Used to be then. Maybe that's why other countries are fastly catching up in basketball.

  17. Adam Block, January 24, 2013 at 3:02 a.m.

    ... You're missing the point, what I'm saying is that soccer in this country is too focused on players coming from affluence. I used that example to show that it doesn't matter what someone's socioeconomic background is in accordance with whether they are a quality player or not. But, with the academy system it will be much harder for the less fortunate players to be noticed whatsoever. I have witnessed this first hand with teammates of mine. American soccer is unintentionally biased against less fortunate players and therefore suffers drastically in talent.

  18. Luis Arreola, January 24, 2013 at 12:30 p.m.

    I agree with you 100% Adam. Of course they can come from everywhere. All I was pointing out was we are missing out on what can come from the less fortunate according to history throughout the world and in our own country. I think it is intentional. Soccer is intentionally run as a business first, development after. Players arent seen as future prospects. They are seen as clients first and foremost. If you are a great U12 (a useful tool) you might get free play only to help the team win to keep the $$ clients happy, then disposed of when there is no longer a use for you. This is seen in some Academies. If you are a great U16/U18 you are recruited heavily on chance by an Academy in case you make it somewhere and give the club the recognition it does not deserve as a development academy. They are never honest in saying, we only had this player for 1-2 years and they also developed under this other club we recruited from. Some Academies are wising up and working together with small but good clubs. I hope that's a trend.

  19. Benjamin De Point, January 26, 2013 at 11:15 a.m.

    It is about player development and exposure. Not recognition for small clubs or clubs at all. If a kid has reached the highest level of competition they can in their club and it is right for them, they should move into the next most competitive environment to continue their growth.

    I am from Rochester, NY...small market. This little area has 5 "premier" programs. Each club director is more interested in growing their club than providing the best training environment for their kids. If they were interested in player growth, they would push to have the best kids playing together and work with the other clubs to do so.

    In Rochester, this is where the Academy has helped out. Our Academy draws from all over Western NY, from Utica to Buffalo and even into Ontario CA. The better/best players, not all but the ones who want the challenge and that type of commitment, are coming from multiple clubs to join.

    It is about the player. Providing the best environment as possible to develop in and at the same time getting them more exposure to US Soccer and college recruiters.

    Again, it is not about small club recognition, or stealing players or some self serving mess, it is about player development.

    Additionally, if you live in a MLS market, most of those academies are paid for by the club. Also, there are scholarship programs through US Soccer.

  20. Benjamin De Point, January 26, 2013 at 11:23 a.m.

    Also, exposure to US Soccer may be easier when a kid is on an academy team, but not required. There are members of the BNT u15 national pool that are not academy players.

  21. Luis Arreola, January 26, 2013 at 11:43 p.m.

    Benjamin, I agree it should be only about player development and recognition but its not everywhere. At least not from what I have seen. MLS Academys do appear to be fully sponsoring their players. That's a step in the right direction. Its not about a small club? Then it shouldn't be about Academy's either. It should only be about players. That's all in a perfect world where Academy's do it "only for the good of the player". That is not the case. Many Academy's want the best players but I don't see many developing them. "Development Academy" is the term. They are advertised as a place where the best development is going on. Is this true in all 80 Academies? How about in 40? Therefore it is about the club. Maybe just maybe, there is much more player development going on in smaller clubs that don't have the title. If this is the case then people should know where their players will actually be developed and not just follow a nameor title. If great players are only 1-2 year Academy players but developed elsewhere, like a small club for example, everyone should know so they can be fully aware when making a decision for their future players development. If 4-6 year Academy players aren't cutting it at a National level or college, everyone should be informed of this as well. Its accountability. Anybody with a lot of money can buy an Academy, recruit the best players, get the best facilities, higher the biggest name coaches, get ranked by wins and receive Academy status. Is that development to you? Property should be informed accurately and not just rely 100% on the name "Academy". No way.

  22. Luis Arreola, January 27, 2013 at 12:07 a.m.

    I say this from experience. We have 3 Academies by us. My son was a very talented goalie at U8/U9 but wanted to score goals. He was not good on the field and the one Academy club we were at would not give him the opportunity to be a field player. Why? Because its all about the Wins even at the youngest ages. The team is one of the best in the country. That's all that mattered. I started a small club where my son developed into the best 99' forward in Region 2. Neverwoulf have happened at this Academy or any top club. That's a fact. He is still a top goalie but he is heavily recruited as a forward/mid. He will probably play Academy as they all want him so he can get the recognition he deserves but his development until now is due to a small club. Don't you think future players should know this story to better evaluate their decisions? Don't you think "Top" clubs should k kW this as well so they can rethink their philosophy? Don't you think Academys should know this so they can challenge themselves to do better than small clubs do or at the very least work with those small clubs that are getting those results? Of course its about the club. Its about who is focused on the players and developing. It would be wrong to blind oneself to Academies, especially since its still in its initial stages. We must challenge it and make them accountable to help them improve their strategies.

  23. Dennis Parces, January 30, 2013 at 9:34 p.m.

    Great comments, guys! I reside in Puerto Rico where there is no Academy platform but we were lucky to have my 14 yr old son, Fernando, invited to live and train at Union de Santa Fe in Argentina. He trains full time daily and attends school at night (walks 20 blocks to school and sits from 7 to 10 pm). The adjustment to the rhythm and speed of play has been tough, but the rewards are great. I saw him start a "very meaningful" AFA league game against Atletico Rafaela wearing "10" and playing "enganche" or creative midfielder. I would love to find him a residency program in the states, as he is an american citizen (US passport). Any suggestions? Please help with contacts if at all possible and keep up the good work supporting the development of our young talent!
    Luis, I wouldn't mind Fernando playing at a high school since he will likely play for Puerto Rico's U-17 national team in the CONCACAF 2014 qualifier. But he wants to go to college in the US and I believe coming out of PR will be harder than coming out of an academy or high school in the US. Contact me with your comments and suggestions at

  24. Brandon Elwood, February 11, 2013 at 8:41 p.m.

    This thought process is a prime example of why the, "top players" in this country are either wealthy, or international players. You are creating a system that creates absolute biasness, the players HAVE to move to academies(which cost thousands of dollars per year per player) to be able to have any national attention what so ever. There is no less and less opurtunity for the less fortunate players and players who live outside immideate metro areas.

    I due believe this is going to be the case. I kind of reminds me of a glorified ODP just rapped in a fancier and broader envelope. They are gonna get great kids. But what if the next Messie is in his stuck four hours from the NTC and his club has absolutely no ties to any academy. I guess he just falls through the cracks. Lets say this kids does get into a NTC session or even a few. Will he be excused when they only have so much room and another kids from a DA is on the list right below him. How can we be sure that will not happen. I mean really. Lets no be naive... in this budding system... everyone runs in the same circles. That kids director could be your next job offer. I hope this is not the case.

  25. Luis Arreola, February 26, 2013 at 12:30 a.m.

    Brandon, look a little harder and you will most certainly see it is exactly the case.

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