By Paul Kennedy
Three hours after MLS Cup 2014 ended, U.S. Soccer assembled a group of
media in the national team locker room at the StubHub Center to meet with U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati
, national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann
(wearing the hat of technical director), U-20 coach Tab Ramos
(also the youth technical director) and CEO Dan Flynn
, among others, for a 90-minute discussion on some of the youth initiatives U.S. Soccer was announcing.
Whether it is the 100-year advantage the other big American sports
had to implement their own unique development programs or what the big soccer-playing nations have been doing for many years, American soccer is playing catchup. But what was once viewed as a
challenge is now an opportunity as U.S. Soccer, flush with its resources, backed (sometimes reluctantly) by MLS owners and riding a wave of increased popularity for the sport, is ready to take on many
of the issues facing American soccer.
Here's a look at some key takeaways from an at times fascinating and exhausting discussion that capped MLS Cup weekend in Los Angeles:
1. Big money is going to be shelled out.
Gulati would not put a dollar figure on the youth initiatives the federation is committed to or is
considering, but he said it would spent 50 percent more in the current four-year cycle than in the previous one.
"That's primarily due to some commercial agreements that are in place," he
said, "and the increased awareness in our programs, and that's the women's programs and men's programs."
U.S. Soccer certainly has the money. According to its most recent financial
statement, as of March 2014 it had net assets of more than $73 million. Those commercial agreements Gulati referred to include its portion of the increased television rights fees ESPN, Fox and
Univision will pay under their new agreement with MLS and U.S. Soccer that begins in 2015.
Some of the increased expenditures Gulati identified include adding national teams at all age
groups from under-14 to under-20 and hiring full-time national team coaches at all levels, increasing scholarships for players of need in the Development Academy, making sure cost is not an obstacle
for some of the specialty coaching courses that will be implemented, perhaps launching a summer circuit for top men's (and women's) college players.
The big ticket items Gulati laid out
related to the discussion of spending "significant resources in conjunction with others" on regional training centers and also looking at building a national training center. Right now, U.S. Soccer
shares the StubHub Center with the Galaxy as well as other sports.
"We think it is important to have a place that is our own," he said of a national training center, "that we can do all
the things from youth to senior level. And frankly, we have the resources to think about it that is different than we could have 10-15 years ago and the ability to do it."
The U-17 boys
have been at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., since 1999. Gulati said U.S. Soccer was not locked into Bradenton for life, but neither did he sound ready to abandon it even though the need for
full-time training has lessened with the advent of the Development Academy and what academies now offer. He did expect the federation will over the next few years expand into the "development model"
of opening regional training centers, into which players would periodically enter. 2. U.S. players are lagging behind in the early pro years.
Klinsmann told the story of being at the Nike International Friendlies in December 2013, and the Brazilian U-17 coach coming up to him after the USA had clobbered his team, 4-1, and marveling
at the talent of the U.S. players and wondering why more was never heard from U.S. players. Forget the fact Brazil turned around and won, 4-1, at this year's Nike Friendlies, Klinsmann said the
environment in which young American pros or aspiring pros compete is much less challenging than their counterparts face in other big soccer countries.
MLS will trumpet its 20 years of
existence next year, but the fact is the sport of pro soccer is still in its infancy in the United States. The Development Academy is less than 10 years old, and the first full-time reserve team was
only launched by the Galaxy in 2014. The second teams MLS clubs are entering in USL PRO is a start, but it still only a six-month season. Even MLS is only nine months (plus playoffs for some).
Klinsmann said soccer was an 11-month business elsewhere.
Ramos used the example of his U-20s. The good news is many of them are now pros in MLS, but the bad news is that some key players
have been sitting around with nothing to do since October. He had just come from Florida, where he was putting 10 players through a fitness camp just to get them into shape to prepare for U-20 World
Cup qualifying in January.
One of the reasons for adding national teams at every age group is to give more opportunities for players between World Cups and keep working with them.
“We had players who don’t have anywhere to go [after a U-17 World Cup],” Ramos said. “If they’re not with a pro club then they’re going back to a high school
program or a club program that may not be at the level we need for the things we need to do to enhance their gap year.” 3. Aspiring pros need to be
The current U.S. under-17 national team may have the most talent of any team since the 1999 U-17s with Landon Donovan
and Oguchi Onyewu
, and many of the top players have already left residency in Bradenton to move abroad.
The problem is, several of them are literally parked in Europe, in limbo and without playing opportunities because of work restrictions. The whole issue of what to do -- go pro or head to college?
start out in MLS or go abroad? -- becomes bigger as more players are faced with these decisions at younger ages.
Gulati said U.S. Soccer is addressing the issue with the opening of a
counseling office. Nelson Rodriguez
, the former MLS league executive and most recently Chivas USA president, has been hired as managing director of national
team advisory services. Rodriguez won't be giving out legal advice or acting as an agent, but his program will offer counseling to players and their parents on things like FIFA rules and NCAA rules
and may move into areas of counseling the big-time American sports league like the NFL and NBA offer rookies.
“It’s to show them different pathways and to educate them,”
Klinsmann said. “To educate them about what it would be like in college, what it would be in the NASL, what it would be in MLS, what it would be in Europe. The world of agents -- how does this
work? What do I need to be aware of? What is the risk of going abroad? It’s so, so crucial because a lot of our kids don’t have an idea.” 4. Envelope needs to be pushed at young ages.
They didn't exactly come out and say it, but Gulati and Klinsmann both expressed concerns about the state of soccer for young
players -- rec soccer if you will -- limiting the chances of an environment ever being created for players to thrive and become stars. That included such issues as playing rules, competition and
Said Gulati, "The notion of 9-year-olds, 10-year-olds, 11-year-old playing 11-a-side soccer, where if they stood on each other's shoulders they could not reach the crossbar, is
nonsense." He said changes U.S. Soccer recommended a few years ago will become mandatory over the next few years.
"We want to push the envelope," said Klinsmann in support of the need to
shake up youth soccer.
"I think this is very crucial for the development of the kids to challenge them with more contact, more touches and faster-decision making, just to be a lot more
alert on the field," he said of small-sided games. "All of the pieces are really crucial in the long run. They might not pay off until 2018, but hopefully they pay off in the next 10-15 years and make
a huge difference."
Plans to add an under-12 program for the Development Academy in 2016 is part of the desire have greater positive influence on players at a younger age.
"The learning curve for the little ones is highest between 8 and 13," said Klinsmann. "We know that, all the other countries know that, so the further down we go and can have influence on coaches,
with education for parents and the kids, the more we'll see coming through." 5. Someone has to pay for it all.
One of the most
interesting issues Gulati raised was the reluctance of the federation to outlaw pay-to-play throughout the Development Academy -- and the need to expand scholarship money it offers -- because of
concerns that the costs will be passed down to the rec level, where higher fees will become a barrier to entry and keep kids from ever joining soccer programs in the first place.
number of the clubs have gone to a no pay-to-play model," he said. "The concern, and we’ve talked to our clubs about it, is now exactly who’s paying. When an MLS club decides to eliminate
any fees or any travel costs, it’s the MLS owner. It’s an investment. When it’s a youth club that doesn’t have a benefactor or an economic incentive, the concern is the way
that elite player development in the United States has traditionally worked -- taxation of a broader base."
And as more layers are added to the Development Academy -- an under-14 program
in 2013 and an under-12 program in 2016 -- that's more costs that have to be covered. At the MLS level, where the Development Academy is free at all but a couple of clubs, those costs of operating
Development Academy teams -- paying for field, paying for coaches, paying for travel -- are being borne by the owners.
Back in the big picture -- the MLS picture -- one of the themes that
we will surely be hearing more about over the next months around the negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement is the increasing investment MLS owners are required to make on the
development side, whether it's more academy programs or a USL PRO team.