Curt Onalfo: L.A. Galaxy builds bridge from youth to first team

Interview by Mike Woitalla

One of the biggest challenges in U.S. player development is providing a highly competitive, professional environment for players who have graduated from the youth game but aren’t ripe for first-team MLS action. The LA Galaxy has addressed this by creating LA Galaxy II, which competes in the 14-team USL PRO.

We spoke with Los Angeles Galaxy II coach Curt Onalfo about the team’s first season in USL PRO and the Galaxy’s quest for homegrown talent.

As a player, Onalfo won an NCAA Division I title at Virginia under current Galaxy coach Bruce Arena and started his MLS career in the league’s inaugural 1996 season. Onalfo has been an MLS head coach (Kansas City and D.C. United) and served as a U.S. national team assistant coach in 2002-2006.

SOCCER AMERICA: How young is your squad?
CURT ONALFO: I generally play five, six players 20 years old and younger. The majority of roster is under-23. We have a few older guys but for the most part it’s a very young team.

SA: How does having a team in USL PRO improve on the previous setup?
CURT ONALFO: We’ve had the MLS Reserve League. Players would get 10 games and develop -- but it’s not enough. You’re trying to bridge the gap from the Academy to the first team.

MLS is so competitive it’s very difficult for players who are exceptional players in the Academy, they sign Homegrown contracts, and all of a sudden they’re supposed to perform for the first team. It’s too big of a jump. This bridges that gap.

It gives these guys competitive games to develop and make mistakes with us rather than with the first team.

We invest millions of dollars in player development. We have an Academy that we’re really serious about, starting at 12 years old. It’d be a waste if you just develop those guys and they don’t have anywhere to go.

SA: Besides being in fourth place and having clinched a playoff spot, how has the first season gone so far?
CURT ONALFO: It’s been a really positive project. I’m really pleased with how it’s progressed. Our young players are thriving. And they’re positioned to advance in their careers.

It helps us brings back first-team players from injury. It also keeps first-team players who aren’t regulars sharp and keeps them developing.

We have a lot of things we’re trying to accomplish, which means we have a rotating roster. I haven’t played the same team twice.

There are days were I’m given six, seven players who regularly train with the first team -- and I incorporate them into the team. I think it’s a unique project, with unique week-to-week challenges. That’s something I really enjoy.

It’s not always easy to get the result you want because of the lack of continuity and you’re playing against clubs that are a lot older and they’re established.

SA: How does the club ultimately measure the success of the Galaxy II?
CURT ONALFO: Are we keeping some guys sharp for the first team? Yes. Check that box.

Are we developing young players? Absolutely.

The young guys are thriving. They’re in a long season [28 regular-season games] where they travel in sometimes not the most ideal arrangements and they have to perform. There’s ups and downs and a lack of consistency and that helps you become a better player, a better professional, and progress.

Ultimately we measure it by the guys who make it to the first team and that will take sometime.

My youngest player is [17-year-old] Bradford Jamieson. He’s played minutes for the first team already. He’s progressed really well.

He played for the U-18 Academy team. The Galaxy II provided a platform to accelerate his development and he is just thriving.

SA: With MLS clubs expanding their youth programs, how do you see the role of the college game?
CURT ONALFO: It’s still a great option. If you look at the U-18 team. How many would qualify to make Galaxy II? It’s just a few of players. So all the rest need to continue to develop and that’s where you go to college.

The college game has produced a lot of great players and will continue to produce a lot of great players.

SA: What do you think of the increasing number of talented teenage players opting to move abroad?
CURT ONALFO: In most situations the best option is for young kids is develop here in the U.S. at those critical ages – like, for example, what Michael Bradley did. That’s the perfect scenario. You’re getting your development here around friends and family and, in most cases, you’re better situated than going into an extremely difficult environment outside the U.S.

My son [Christian, a member of the Galaxy’s U-16 Development Academy 2014 championship team] is able to develop in the Academy right here in L.A. That’s a positive. As long as the economics continue and we can compete with these other clubs around the world there’s no reason why we can’t provide the same sort of environment for these kids.

Look at Bradford Jamieson. He’s 17 years old. He missed one of my camps to go to prom. I wanted him to go to his prom. He’s in his backyard, he’s getting great games against good players helping him progress. And he’s living with his mom and his dad.

That’s a real positive. He’s in his own community. He’s just one example.

As more teams do what we do, our U-20 program and U-23 program are going to become more competitive.

These guys are in a professional environment earlier. It’s going to be huge. It’s so good for our country in so many ways. It’s exciting. When young [homegrown] kids make the first team, it’s also going to make more fans.

SA: What’s your view on the progress of American youth soccer overall?
CURT ONALFO: I think the Academy program is really good. It’s not perfect but it’s certainly moving in the right direction.

They’re monitoring the amount of games these guys are playing. The practice-to-game ratio is better. The emphasis on technique is important.

There’s still too big of an emphasis on winning, so that ends up stifling a bit the development of players. But as long as we continue doing things for the right reasons and get kids more touches, and good coaching …

SA: The Galaxy Development Academy teams are cost-free?
CURT ONALFO: The kids don’t pay a penny. The more of that we have, the better it’s going to be.

SA: What’s your advice for coaches at the youngest ages?

CURT ONALFO: Don’t take away the opportunity for the kids to make their decisions on how to play soccer. What often ends up happening is you’ll get these coaches who have all the right intentions, but they want to control the environment so much at a young age that they start taking away the kids' decisions. Let them play.

Sometimes the best soccer is letting the kids play -- and that’s certainly the case at the younger ages, getting a lot of 1v1s, 2v2s, 3v3s -- small-sided stuff. Getting lots of touches and enjoying the game. Don’t work on set plays at 7 years old.

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