'Development Academy boosts U.S. talent' (Q&A: Tony Lepore)

Interview by Mike Woitalla

Soccer America checks in with Director of Scouting Tony Lepore on the state of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, which launched in 2007 and now includes nearly 100 clubs, having added a U-14 division in 2013 to complement its U-16 and U-18 national leagues -- and for insight into how U.S. Soccer has expanded its scouting system to identify talent for the youth national teams.

SOCCER AMERICA: If in 2007 you imagined where the Development Academy would be in 2014, how close is it to meeting those expectations?

TONY LEPORE: After six and a half years, we feel good about the progress that we’re making. I think we’ve totally changed the landscape to improve the environment to develop talent and we’re headed in the right direction. There’s really strong belief, commitment and momentum from the Federation and our clubs.

SA: Do you have any figures that reflect its success?

TONY LEPORE: On players who have gone pro -- this is just domestically, players currently on MLS [2013] rosters -- we have 70 who came from Academy clubs. In 2013, we had the highest numbers. We look at the lineups week-to-week and we averaged about 20 players starting MLS matches. Thirty played regularly.

SA: Are there more talented players coming into the national teams because of the Academy?

TONY LEPORE: Without a doubt. We see it on the field. Our clubs are really improving. We also know who that talent is. The nine Technical Advisors are at the matches and the training, and our scouting network is up to about 100 right now. The Academy has been really valuable at not only improving the talent but monitoring the talent. Identifying that talent and evaluating that talent. Because the top players who have access are with Academy clubs.

I also think the '98s are a really good example … [Coach Richie Williams’ U-17 national team] that beat Brazil and England in December and had a really successful Nike International Friendlies. The core of that group has been together as part of the 14s and 15s.

When we look at that group, the clubs deserve the most credit. They’ve been part of the step-by-step process. All these players are products of the Development Academy system. They all played for Academy Development clubs. And it’s really important to know that they all played up with their U-15/16 Academy clubs last year.

Eight of the 11 were moved up exclusively to train and play with their U-16 age player pool in their club. This really accelerated their development.

We can look at the '97s now who have been part of the Academy system. We can look at Hugo Perez’s '99s and 2000s who are part of the U14s. There’s a really strong connection between the Academy clubs and the youth national team teams.

I’ve heard people mention cyclical recently a couple times. There’s merit to that. The age groups have different qualities and different makeup. But I think this is more than cyclical. They’ve come through the system.

SA: How often are U.S. national team program scouts at Academy games?

TONY LEPORE: Last year we averaged anywhere from 15 to 25 matches for all of our clubs. We also attend their training sessions about five times per club. And then we have the Training Centers for the players we evaluate through that process. We know who the talent is. We know our clubs intimately.

SA: How many Training Centers are there?

TONY LEPORE: Last year we finished at around 300 Training Centers. Hugo and I started the Training Centers as a pilot back in 2008 and we did two that year. I did one in New Jersey and Hugo did one in San Francisco. Right away, the value was so clear. It’s a pathway to the youth national teams.

We also want to do more of the combines. We worked with our partners at Nike and in the major markets we did combines, mini-camps. Right now the Training Centers are one day, the players drive in and go home. We wanted to add to that. So we had players come in on a Friday evening, when we have the first session, then two on a Saturday, when we provide their lunch, do some video and off-field work between the sessions and provide a good place to relax as well. We have sessions in the morning and evening on a Sunday.

SA: And the Training Centers and Combines are for any players, whether they’re with Academy teams or not?

TONY LEPORE: That’s correct. And it was the same for the National Combine.

SA: So that’s one reason why to spread the net beyond Academy clubs?

TONY LEPORE: Yes. It’s helped us cast a much wider scouting net. We don’t care where they come from. We do notice it’s harder and harder for players outside the Academy to keep up because the Academies are doing more and more. But it’s been a good way to evaluate players from outside the Academy.

SA: It’s been one a year and a half years since the Academy went nationwide with the 10-month season, thus eliminating high school play for its players. …

TONY LEPORE: No question it was the right thing to do and I think we’re through the challenging stage. And for the vast majority of clubs it’s been successful. I still think there are a few markets where they’re still dealing with some challenges. It’s a huge change in culture, but for the most part everybody recognizes this is the right way to go – to be in this environment for 10 months.

This decision is not for everyone. It’s a personal choice and players need to be the ones to who want to make the sacrifice and commitment to reach their full potential.

SA: How smoothly or bumpy has the introduction last year of the U-14 division gone?

TONY LEPORE: It’s been smooth. We were ready. The clubs were ready. The regional events have gone really well. It’s good scouting opportunity. At this age group, we want to be really careful about the schedule and how it impacts travel and cost.

(Editor’s Note: 78 clubs field U-16 and U-18 teams. Nineteen clubs field only U-14 teams. Thirteen of the full Academy clubs do not field U-14 teams in Academy play because of their location, but they apply Academy philosophy at with their U-14 teams, which play in non-Academy leagues.)

SA: Have you seen more cooperation between clubs?

TONY LEPORE: In general, yes. There are more examples of clubs who were the fiercest rivals coming together, pulling their resources. Their talent pool, their facilities, their infrastructure, their coaching, their structure to provide the best possible environment for the top players in their area. I think Richmond United is a good recent example. In the Northeast, Beachside and South Central coming together to create the BSC Connecticut Academy.

I also think there are more examples of club cooperation between Academy clubs and non-Academy clubs. We like to see the bigger clubs and the smaller clubs work together.

SA: MLS clubs reportedly invest $20 million on youth programs. Their clubs play in the Academy league. Are they satisfied with the Academy setup?

TONY LEPORE: Yes. We’ve provided a competitive structure and support for a clearly defined pathway for professional talent development and we work closely with Alfonso Mondelo and Jeff Agoos. Right now, all of the U.S.-based MLS clubs are part of the DA. And we’ve also helped them develop a calendar to add more MLS vs. MLS programming and games. In general our philosophies and goals match up very well.

SA: Tab Ramos was named U.S. Soccer Youth Technical Director last November. What role does he play in Academy matters?

TONY LEPORE: He’ll be another great support person and he’ll also help us strengthen that connection between our youth and the senior team, because he’s with the U-20s but also working as assistant to Jurgen Klinsmann with the senior team.

SA: For sure, Jurgen Klinsmann is busy with the World Cup challenge -- but does he connect with the youth programs and how?

TONY LEPORE: He’s personally very interested and more and more involved with our youth programs. He’s also more involved with coaching education. He’s really good at opening doors and setting high standards. We’ve had regular meetings with him.

We met with him during the December Academy Showcase and he met with all the Academy coaches. With his renewed contract [through 2018] and new title [Technical Director] I think he really set standards. What we’re always looking to do is taking the things he does with the national team and see how they apply in an age appropriate way to our youth national teams and our Academy clubs.

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, is co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper and co-author with Claudio Reyna of More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at

Soccer America on Twitter: Follow Soccer America | Mike Woitalla

10 comments about "'Development Academy boosts U.S. talent' (Q&A: Tony Lepore) ".
  1. Brandon Elwood, January 14, 2014 at 9:29 a.m.

    Coache Lepore, I have a question. My Son was invited to your TC sessions. I was told he was doing really well. He also was invited with a very select few to the id2 national camp. All of the kids he was selected with are in Development academies. My Son is not with a DA. We live about a 6-7 hour round trip from a DA. So we have him play with the closest club available which is about a 5 hour round trip. I have been told that my Son has a ton of potential within the game. I would like to see him involved with US soccers development somehow. So are you only inviting kids to TC's that are part of DA's because he attended 5 and has not been asked back since. Obviously he just could not be good enough and that would be fine if that was what we were informed. But we did not get any feed back about him.

  2. Scott Rosberg, January 14, 2014 at 12:08 p.m.

    I see the term "talent" mentioned throughout this interview. Is it all about talent, or do other qualities that true athletes display enter into the picture? Is there any emphasis on teaching and instilling characteristics like discipline, selflessness, work ethic, perseverance, etc., or is it all about developing skills/talent? Far too many "athletes" are focused only on technical skills and not on these elements that, quite honestly, determine how far their skills an take them.

    What about character education? Are the academies teaching character as well as technique and skill? For the few kids who "make it" to the MLS or to high level programs, there must be many more who don't. What are the academies teaching them other than how to put a ball in the back of a net? There is so much more to our youth sports than just winning and losing and playing at the top levels. I hope we aren't forgetting that and that we are focused on ALL of the kids rather than just the few who have more skill/talent than the others.

  3. Kevin Leahy, January 14, 2014 at 1:03 p.m.

    To follow up on Mr. Rosberg, all good coaches teach the things he mentioned. What concerns me is how we identify talent. I have had high level coaches tell me that, players are not skilled enough or fast enough to play @ a certain level. How would they know if they dismiss someone under that criteria? You have to find the players that, have a knack for certain aspects of the game. You don't have to be fast to always be in the right place. You don't have to look pretty playing if you have the ability to get the job done. Some players are cut off before they can show what they have to offer. They are many examples @ the highest level of the game that, might have never had a chance if they were turned away by outward appearance. Passion and soccer intelligence is something that works too!

  4. Peter Skouras, January 15, 2014 at 8:42 a.m.

    How we identify talent? By experience. The assessor needs to have in the best case "professional playing experience" which he may refer to his "youth" days and what it took for starters. Most assessors in the United States do not have this "reference" due to the fact that "Youth Professional environments" did not exist in their generation nor really exist today compared to the rest of the world. That is a problem. Next, these "training centers" are a waste of time and money! There is only 1 way to assess: "In competitive environments" meaning " matches!" No training sessions, no combines, simply CLUB V CLUB and a RELEGATION system would add even more to creating a "fierce" playing field. Where do I base my opinion? My experience...playing experience. Take care guys, Peter Skouras

  5. Al Curry, January 16, 2014 at 7:53 p.m.

    As the father of a former U17 and U20 national team (and pro) player (selected under the Olympic Develop Program (ODP))and a long time coach, referee and soccer administrator, I see several glaring faults of the system as LaPore (or whoever) has it structured. First, in many areas of the country the Academy programs are few and far between. In my area I know of two players in the closest academy which is some 60 miles away. These players rarely attend the training sessions of the Academy. The strain on parents due to work obligations prevents them from taking the player to them. The Development "ACADEMY" (DA) has a rule that players cannot play for either their High School team or local club team, it's either the Academy or Club/High School. Besides denying a player the youthful experience of playing for his school (with the games usually being week nights) I fail to see how this rule improves young "talent" if they don't team train on a regular basis. It seems as if the "rule" to attend training sessions is ignored while the High School/Club ban is not. I also know of several highly talented high school age players who refuse the DA program even though it's nearly within walking distance simply because of the DA's ban on High School play. Players are being overlooked due to the, in my opinion, ridiculous "rule" of DA play only.

    I will admit that I have no idea of the cost (if any) of a players participation in a DA program but I DO agree with Mr. Skouras above. Mr. LaPore's playing experience seems to consist of playing for an NCAA Div 3 school and limited PDL playing time. His appointment to this Youth National Team scouting position seems to be predicated mostly on his association with Manny Schellscheidt rather than a talent for recognizing talent.

  6. Angel Guerrero, January 21, 2014 at 10:31 p.m.

    Fair warning: since Legends FC think they are growing and Josh Hodges as a prime leader of a club that does not care about development of the players who pay to sign up and pay. He hired a coach with no experience and just wasted everyones money through the whole year of 2013, now the season is over, Josh Hodges calls me just to tell me I'm not allowed at his club because I posted the truth about his coach which they never provided proof of license" BRET HODA" , these type of people must be stop and they should not be apart of soccer as a matter a fact they are a discrace to the SOCCER Community. Legends FC of Chino has terrible people under there management.

  7. Apache Joe, February 22, 2014 at 5:24 p.m.

    Mr. Guerrero you need to find another hobby.. As for Bret Hoda we have very limited experience with him. However, the short time our child along with her teammates had with him, they learned a great deal about the game. He did an amazing job coaching them during the game. I'd like to elaborate more but do not want our current trainer to feel we don't appreciate all he has done which is a great deal. If weren't fortunate enough to have our current trainer we all agreed we'd take Coach Hoda in a second..

  8. Tim Hart, March 2, 2014 at 12:11 a.m.

    Tony Lepore,

    Perhaps you can answer my question about the nepotism that is going on right now at the NE Revolution Academy?

    Mike Burns and Bryan Scales, who work for the NE Revolution (GM and Director of Youth Development respectively) have officially added their sons to the New England Revolution U14 DAP roster. I say "officially" because they have been an unofficial part of this team for almost two years and they still aren't quality enough to be on it. What does that tell you? There are two qualified players who missed out because these kids were penciled in two years ago....regardless of talent.

    If you want DAP to be really successful and be well regarded and respected, you need to take action. Otherwise DAP is will be just another corrupt "Old Boys Network" of an organization which will fail to live up to it's potential. Corruption is the enemy of development. This is not just happening at the New England Revolution. Several clubs do this and you turn a blind eye. Why?

    Tim Hart

  9. Tim Hart, March 2, 2014 at 12:38 a.m.

    Mike Woitalla,

    Can SoccerAmerica investigate this? I think if the soccer public is more aware of this, it will serve to embarrass the DAP officials and maybe then they will do something which will create a more fair and just environment in the Academy. Otherwise, this will continue to get swept under the rug and is only hurting US Soccer and those players who would have had a chance had these positions not been penciled in for less talented "players of privilege".

    I look forward to hearing from you.

    Tim Hart

  10. Tim Hart, March 6, 2014 at 11:46 p.m.

    If your unhappy with the corruption at DAP clubs please sign this petition. You can sign anonymous with a pseudo name/email if you fear repercussion if you have a son or relative already (or soon to be)in the DAP system:

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