Gulati and Klinsmann seek to push the envelope

By Paul Kennedy
(@pkedit)

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 better informed.

The current U.S. under-17 national team may have the most talent of any team since the 1999 U-17s with Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley 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 costs.

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.

"A 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.
31 comments about "Gulati and Klinsmann seek to push the envelope".
  1. Kent James, December 11, 2014 at 2:38 p.m.

    These seem like steps in the right direction. I'd like to see the USSF support grass roots soccer by helping make sure there is a trained coach (who's played the game) to help clubs who deal with U6-U10/12 players. Someone who would hold weekly skills clinics open to any youth player, and who would oversee the rec coaches (to make sure they were following the "Best Practices" guidelines, which focus on ball touches and fun developmental activities). Maybe the USSF could provide the tuition for clubs who want to send a coach to the Y-licensing course (for example), or even provide a monetary stipend for that position in the club. Demonstrating skills and creating an environment in which kids can be creative and have fun is crucial to developing a large pool from which we can draw an elite few for the national teams. I'd also be in favor of the USSF helping fund outdoor futsal courts in the cities, to see if we can bring soccer to those neglected areas (Cony, I'll let you provide the details...)

  2. Rick Estupinan, December 11, 2014 at 2:58 p.m.

    Well,it seems that here in the US,all the parties involve in the future development of young players,have good ideas and optimism,but don't know exactly how to go about it.The US is a huge country,so how about if every big city who has an MLS team,develops it's own academy an offers its services to any youngster who wants to train in a regular,supervise base.I read that "Manchester City" in England just opened a $ 200 academy,precisely with the purpose of developing first of all,(I would imagine)local talent.So why not try to share their methods and advice?

  3. Lou vulovich, December 11, 2014 at 3:31 p.m.

    It is not the lack of money that is the problem it is the youth development or lack of it that has to change.
    Scrap IMG, create 4 regional teams East, West, North, South and regional coaches with 30 to 35 players each region, have a training camp twice a year with multiple National Coaches identifying players for national level. Hold regional coaches and talent scouts accountable.(eliminate politics)
    Play serious international friendliest not cherry picked opponents usually 1 or 2 years younger whom got together two days before the game to play our National team which lives and trains together, play good teams don't be afraid to loose.(experience only comes through great completion not feel good wins)
    Finally understand that our 17 to 21 year olds are still developing and need continued technical work not jus competition. Don't Waite for that great group to emerge( help create it )

  4. Rick Estupinan, December 11, 2014 at 3:34 p.m.

    One very important thing is to build stadiums with natural grass.World Football is play primarily on grass world wide.Sliding tackles for one,can not be made on artificial turf because it burns the skin,and this is why we see terrible fowls committed in pitches all over the US.The New York "Red Bulls",in Harrison NJ,has the most beautiful Arena,built just for Football (Soccer,as it is Known here).I have been there and it just a pleasure to go to a game there.Just look at that ugly,discolored pitch where the "Seattle Sounders play.It is fine for the Seahawks,because there is not a part of their body expose to that hard surface, By the way,the city of Seattle,and their great Soccer fans deserve a better Arena than Center Link.

  5. Ref Evaluator, December 11, 2014 at 3:46 p.m.

    Lou, Amen.

  6. cisco martinez, December 11, 2014 at 4:39 p.m.

    Lou & Ref, they already do that. When i was on the Regional team they had 40 players in the pool 18 went to Costa Rica or England and played Machester United Youths, Newcastle, Costa Rica U-17 national team and professional teams. We need to set up reserve teams in the MLS, the national teams in each age is a good idea, college soccer is a waste for U-17 national team players to go to, college soccer develop teams not players based on athleticism not skill. There are only a handful of teams in college that have technical or tactical ability.

  7. Lou vulovich, December 11, 2014 at 5:03 p.m.

    Cisco I think you are talking about ODP which was a good idea gone completely wrong pay to play unprofessional coaches and token international tournaments.
    I am talking about a serious program with professional coaches and scouts and a hierarchy of coaches overseeing everything. All coaches and scouts are evaluated every 2 years not fired from u15 so they can coach u17 and vise versa.
    Being on the youth national team should not be a birth right kids progress, regress and grow and develop late. The current system your U15 ands up being your U17. It's an awfully big country to identify 30 fifteen year olds and keep them at IMG for the next 3 years, and assume they are the best the country has.
    100 young players should represent the USA at every age group every year. Period

  8. beautiful game, December 11, 2014 at 5:11 p.m.

    It sure took a while for the USSF to get rolling on this issue of youth development. For years the results were stagnant and money was spent on a wishful program. This program will only work if development supersedes results, and the U-12 group & up get top quality coaching. Athleticism cannot be at the top of the list, team results need to be a secondary issue; it's the player development that matters, nothing else. Finding the right coaches is a priority and they will attract players with potential.

  9. Lou vulovich, December 11, 2014 at 5:30 p.m.

    Sorry but U12 and U14 National team is a joke who cares how good a 11 year old or 13 year old is leave them with their clubs parents and Academy's. What are they going to do identify 30 12 year olds and send them to IMG.
    Focus on U16-U21 those are the ages American players stagnate. Identify late bloomers. Look at top players in the youth World Cup only 10 become pros that means players develop late.

  10. James Froehlich, December 11, 2014 at 5:33 p.m.

    Would love to see a comparison to what JK did in Germany. Would also love to see a reporter give JK some specific credit for these changes. It's a big part of why he was brought in, so why can't someone actually say it??
    BTW --- Mr. Kennedy-- good article. Better late than never.

  11. Ref Evaluator, December 11, 2014 at 5:56 p.m.

    Lou, to add to your great comments, why are we adding U12 USSDA when most of the top U15's do not play for U16 USSDA teams and same with top u13's in U14 USSDA?? Those odd number players are playing and paying big $$ to play NPL. For MLS clubs they just train mostly. 2-3 years wasted. So, to be clear a top U11 picked as top player by a USSDA club will not play USSDA for 4 of the next 8 years in most cases. Why is this good again?

  12. cisco martinez, December 11, 2014 at 7:07 p.m.

    Lou, ODP had some success, Oneywu, Alex Yi, Donovan, Beasley, and Beckerman, all were from my age group, had decent careers and were apart of the original 1999 bradenton academy. Can ODP be a barrier for low income players, perhaps. I had many friends that made the U14 or U-17 national team that were poor, in fact some of them weren't seen by ODP buy Dallas Cup and Surf Cup by national scouts, however the largest barrier I saw was the collegiate game and educational requirements instead of a professional avenue for them. The problem is that we need more academies, more reserve teams, larger pool of players, and actually develop and emphasize technical and tactical ability over the physical elements of college and preference of speed.Speaking as Former ODP regional player 1982, Collegiate player and Coach.

  13. cisco martinez, December 11, 2014 at 7:16 p.m.

    Lou, also to add, Bradenton academy had more than 30 players as residence, they also had scouts, players were always invited even if they didn't make the national team or regional team, players were seen at Dallas Cup by random scouts,or even low level tournaments, etc.

  14. Lou vulovich, December 11, 2014 at 7:30 p.m.

    Cisco. I don't want to hog this issue.
    You are correct ODP was a good idea hijacked for all the wrong reasons.
    I can't criticize college soccer because I believe in the college system it gives a lot of great young men and woman the opportunity to play soccer and get an education.
    But I think we are both saying the same thing 17-22 year old has no where to play at a high level in this country no options but college.
    MLS. NASL. USL. I will bet have fewer under 22 players playing regularly then any professional leagues in the world.
    There are 60 17-20 year olds which would be under professional contracts in Europe. Here they will go to college or play in ethnic leagues and slowly fade away.

  15. Phil Romanow, December 11, 2014 at 9:36 p.m.

    There's probably 10 Didier Drogbas on the South Side of Chicago who, in the current state of affairs will never see a soccer ball or step on a soccer field. US Soccer should focus on reaching them.

  16. Ref Evaluator, December 11, 2014 at 11:16 p.m.

    Phil, and alot of Blancos in la Villita.

  17. Tim Schum, December 11, 2014 at 11:40 p.m.

    Barely mentioned in this whole player development scenario is the role, or potential role, that intercollegiate soccer can or should play.

    While I may be off a bit, but a quick look at our mens '14 World Cup roster revealed that almost half of the team at one time or another played collegiate soccer. And were one to review past US WC rosters I think even a higher percentage of players would be found to have been products of the collegiate game.

    The obvious drawback in terms of player development is the present short fall season of 18-20 matches played in a very compressed fashion. A recent initiative was floated whereby college soccer would play a two season (fall and spring) season with the championship(s) to be contested in the spring.

    As has been mentioned, player development is a costly affair. Over the past decade colleges across the country have expended millions of dollars improving their soccer facilities. Many of our top Division I, II and III programs have excellent coaches in place. It is these coaches who have been left to fend for themselves with the NCAA to change the intercollegiate landscape.

    What has been missing is for a coordinated effort between US Soccer (aided by MLS) to politic the NCAA to change men's soccer to a extended fall-spring season. The NFL and NBA do not need to lobby for the colleges as the latter group produces players in abundance. But men's soccer (I think we are already producing enough women players to continue to be a force internationally) needs US Soccer to flex its expanded political muscle on behalf of the college game.

    IF US Soccer feels that the 17+ group of players are a bit confused as to what is their next step is in terms of development, why not work to expand the competitive collegiate environment? Were a 17+ player to spend four years training under some of our best coaches in an expanded year-round environment and then play competitively in US Soccer/MLS-sponsored summer leagues, it would seem that would bring about the nearly year-round competitive training environment espoused by Klinsmann.

    I believe that by thinking a bit out of the box in terms of working not to dismiss both the past and potential future of the collegiate game to produce national caliber players, US Soccer could address one phase of its plan. By utilizing an already existent infrastructure where talented coaches are in place to produce worthy year-round programs, US Soccer could begin to act both to further enhance the collegiate game while at the same time further its player development program.

  18. Zoe Willet, December 12, 2014 at 12:33 a.m.

    Phil and Ref- I agree! At least in Little Villita now they will have a field on which to play!
    As far as possible coaches/counselors and so forth, I have 3 recommendations: Brad Friedel, DaMarcus Beasley, and Steve Zakuani.

  19. Kevin Leahy, December 12, 2014 at 12:51 p.m.

    Not having to pay to play is, to me the biggest key to finding talent in this country. It will make for an even playing field. Coaches should be mandated to promote technical ability 1st. Inner city futsal is a way to reach our less advantaged players. The guys in the NBA were made on the courts in pickup games.

  20. Rick Estupinan, December 12, 2014 at 2:05 p.m.


    commented on: December 12, 2014 at 2 p.m.
    Big mistake paying Kaka over 7 million dollars,I don't think he is worth that much money.Meanwhile,the rest of the roster will be underpaid

  21. Mark Torguson, December 12, 2014 at 3:58 p.m.

    Here we go! Yes, it would be great if everyone could play for free, yes it would be great if we had more resources, better facilities, more qualified coaches across the board...........but like the article says, that costs money, where is the money going to come from? The trees? If USSF was serious about this issue they would look to compensating clubs for producing players, exactly how it is done around the world. If clubs knew their players are going to be sold to MLS for a profit, then we put away the trophies and state cup championships and focus only on the development.

  22. Vince Leone, December 12, 2014 at 7:36 p.m.

    I follow Villareal, a small Spanish team from a small town (51,000) that competes for fans with two other nearby teams. I just read that they are spending $2.25 million for an 18-year-old Argentine who will play on their B team. I will know our youth development is improving when U.S. youths go for similar prices. I will know that MLS is serious about developing world-class players when it pays similar amount for young players.

  23. Ref Evaluator, December 12, 2014 at 9:09 p.m.

    Mark is right. Easier to condemn the guys making the big money but money is made everywhere just in a different way. The way i see it, if so many people are dumb enough to pay $5,000-$10,000 a year to "WIN TROPHIES" then more power to those clubs getting that easy money. The most honest way for everyone is to compensate the clubs. The MLS is now kicking back 75% to their franchises for player transfers to other countries. What are those franchises kicking back to the community clubs??

  24. Allan Lindh, December 14, 2014 at 3:32 a.m.

    Tim Schum makes a number of good points. The US produces the best basketball players in the world, by a long ways. And the high schools and colleges are where kids learn to play, supplemented by AAU and summer leagues. Working to improve the high school and college programs would build a better and stronger base. And something that is ignored in SA columns and comment streams, is that 95% of the kids who forgo college for a pro career out of high school will never earn a living playing soccer. What kind of lives will they have? How will they feed there families? What kind of people will they become? Most kids with real ability will be light years ahead in life if they use their talent to get a college degree. If they have exceptional talent, they will get their shot in the pros. Work with the NCAA to strengthen college soccer. They clearly work with the NFL, NBA and MLB -- that model could work for soccer.

  25. Kent James, December 14, 2014 at 10:32 a.m.

    Low cost outdoor futsal programs in the inner cities to attract people not normally exposed to soccer and to build the skills of people already playing. And the courts should be accessible for free when not in use by those programs. I agree with Tim (and Allan), college soccer should be strengthened, not abandoned. The season needs to be year long with a winter break. In years past (particularly at small colleges), this would have been impossible because most athletes were multi-sport. For better or for worse, that is no longer the case. And colleges already have year round coaches and the facilities, and lengthening the season would reduce the need for so many games in such a short span (so it would be more sustainable for players trying also to be students).

  26. Rick Estupinan, December 14, 2014 at 9:56 p.m.


    commented on: December 14, 2014 at 9:01 p.m.
    One would think that these college players Would do their best,and win or loose,try their best by playing to the best of their abilities,so they could impress those who are interested in young American talent.But no,they have to play with the mentality of some unscrupulous professionals.It is a shame that a game like this have to be shown on National TV.I Will never waste my time watching a poor boring game like this.It is a pity that the beautiful game was performed by a bunch of thoughtless bums.

  27. Ref Evaluator, December 15, 2014 at 12:12 a.m.

    Allan, H.S. and college is not where our best basketball players learn to play. It is where they showcase their talents under a structured environment. They leanr to play in their natural habitat. The hood. AAU is no dofferent than USSDA.

  28. GA Soccer Forum, December 15, 2014 at 12:40 p.m.

    I think the players are out there, i think its a matter of selecting the players that make the best team vs where they professionally. should bobby wood really be getting a time on this team?

    not sure whats up with all this intercity talk, soccer is being played in the suburbs. we have enough talent in this country, the problem is player identification and the college schedule. i don't blame a kid for going to college, the % that will move on to a successful soccer career.

  29. Kent James, December 15, 2014 at 5:17 p.m.

    GA, the "inner city talk" is to change the fact that soccer is too often only being played in the suburbs. Only in the US is soccer (largely) absent from the cities. If we want to develop our full potential as a soccer nation, we need to make sure every athlete has the opportunity to play soccer, and thus far we've not done a good job of reaching many city athletes.

  30. cony konstin, December 18, 2014 at 10:43 a.m.

    Hello Kent James,

    Just return from Costa Rica to observe the first FIFA women's championship. It was fantastic. I wish the US would have sent a team. Small sided soccer is find but what we really need is a REVOLUTION in the US. We need 300K futsal courts in our inner cities and another 300k in our suburbs. We need to create a street/playground/sandlot environment so kids starting at the age of 5 can play 7 days a week, 365 days a year, at no cost, and especially with no adult involvement. These courts must become a sanctuary, a holy ground, a haven to our kids. If the US doesn't do this then I am sorry but we are never going to have magical warriors that will conquer the world. We need radical change and that takes radical and unorthodox thinking. JK and Sunil are good people who mean well but it is time for a REVOLUTION and what we need are not good well meaning people. We need gunslingers who are willing to go into our streets and shake up the foundations of our cities and suburbs. We need to get away from all of the gimmicks and smoke n mirrors. People need to grow a pair and speak up of what our kids really need. And need really need a place to play. In the words of Carlos Santana, "Let the children play." The pay to play model/overrated coaching environment has max itself out. REVOLUTION = FUTSAL. FIFA's mantra ----Futsal is part of Football. US needs to embrace this mantra if it wants to go to the next level.

  31. Kent James, December 23, 2014 at 12:03 a.m.

    Cony, welcome back. I was wondering where you were, since this topic was an ideal one for your "revolution". Keep on, keeping on!

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