'Development Academy Making Progress and Staying Ambitious' (Tony Lepore Q&A, Part 1)

By Mike Woitalla

The U.S. Soccer Development Academy, which launched in 2007, now comprises 100 clubs. We checked in with Director of Scouting Tony Lepore on the state of the Academy and U.S. Soccer's new youth initiatives, which include increased financial aid and adding a U-12 program in 2016.

SOCCER AMERICA: Where do you see the state of the Development Academy seven and a half years since its launch?

TONY LEPORE: We’re still very positive and feel like we’re making progress and staying ambitious. We’ve drastically improved the landscape but we have a lot of work to do.

In general, there’s a really good structure and platform in place for players to advance on a streamlined pathway. We’ve seen more players prepared for whatever the next step is, which still seems to be college, pro and, of course, national teams. We see a real critical opportunity to do a full assessment and look at how we take things to the next level.

SA: U.S. Soccer announced in December it will undertake an independent assessment of the Development Academy and the youth national team program …

TONY LEPORE: We’re looking at an independent, outside company to conduct an audit of all our programs in order to help with our strategic planning. It’s not final yet who that company will be. We want experts in academy evaluation to help us assess where we are and define really clear improvement targets to take us to the next level.

SA: What figures can you provide on the progress of Academy players?

TONY LEPORE: Talking about graduates, we had our two first players at the World Cup. [DeAndre Yedlin, Sounders FC, 2008-2010] and [Aron Johannsson, IMG Academy, 2007-08]

I think we had four or five Academy players at last year's January national team camp. There are 12 who were part of the Academy called up for this year’s January camp. Jurgen [Klinsmann] really focuses on the future and bringing in younger players and accelerating their development. From U-14 to U-20, 90 percent of the youth national teams are made up of Academy players.

SA: The pros?

TONY LEPORE: There were 102 graduates in MLS last year. About 20 of them are getting regular match minutes, starting or are key players. Another 35 that you would say are role players with less consistent match minutes.

There’s another group of those players who are getting meaningful minutes with USL partners. There are still a number of players who are training-only players, but the increase in MLS clubs with more direct relationships with [USL PRO] partners is a really good step for players to get matches. …

We had 20 players in Europe. … The number of college scholarships are increasing dramatically as it’s become the scouting platform for the top universities.

SA: How difficult is it for non-MLS clubs to compete with the well-funded MLS youth programs?

TONY LEPORE: MLS clubs are leading the pack, which is what we need, but the non-MLS clubs are also making progress and they’re working extra hard to keep up.

We are supporting both. We are uniting tracks with MLS youth player development more than ever before, and that’s crucial. And we’re also supporting the non-MLS clubs, appreciating their challenges, and providing them with resources. We’re continuing to increase scholarship money.

SA: How much progress has there been in alleviating pay-to-play costs?

TONY LEPORE: All academy clubs are focused on reducing player costs; the MLS clubs are leading the pack. We currently have 34 Development Academy clubs that are cost-free. We also have an increasing number of clubs that now offer a tuition-free program, where players do not pay to participate but they do cover their own travel and expenses. All the clubs have need-based financial aid programs for top level players.

SA: How extensive is the Academy’s Development Academy Scholarship Program, which the Federation announced in December it would be expanding?

TONY LEPORE: With the support of Nike and The U.S. Soccer Foundation, since the academy's inception U.S. Soccer has contributed more than $1.7 million in direct funding towards financial aid to more than 1,000 players. Last year, $225,000 went to 168 players in 41 clubs. The number of players receiving scholarship funds this year nearly doubled, to 264 players.

SA: This aid goes to individual applicants …

TONY LEPORE: Right, after a financial need assessment, also based on ability, and we look at the environment as well and we look at all the markets.

SA: What’s your assessment of the U-13/14 program, now in the middle of its second season?

TONY LEPORE: It’s been excellent. It’s had a real impact at a crucial age. Scouting is so much more systematic with the U-13/14 program added. These players are now part of a streamlined pathway.

It’s had a real impact on scouting for [U-15 national team coach] John Hackworth and [U-14 coach] Brian Johnson. Ninety percent of their player pool came from Academy clubs. And we’re casting a wider net -- with the 23 additional clubs.

(Editor’s Note: 77 clubs field U-16 and U-18 teams. Twenty-three 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 with their U-14 teams, which play in non-Academy leagues.)

SA: What becomes of the players who excel at the U-14 level at clubs that don’t field U-15/16 and U-17/18 teams?

TONY LEPORE: Many of them have ambitions to become a full academy. Others are what we call feeder clubs that have the resources to provide an academy-level environment up to that point, and then it’s very difficult, and so they’re promoting and sending their top players to full academies. We’re seeing more cooperative relationships developing there. The full academies are working closely with them.

SA: How much expansion can be expected?

TONY LEPORE: It’s always dependent on who’s qualified to provide an academy-level environment. We definitely want to expand to younger age groups.

We seem to be around that optimal number of full academies but we’re in the midst of our full analysis, which we’ll have in February. We’ll look closely at that to determine renewals and expansion.

SA: What can you tell us about the introduction of the U-12 program come fall of 2016?

TONY LEPORE: We know who has U-12 programs right now and we know who doesn’t. Our full academies would be expected to be a part of that, except for the clubs where geography would require too much travel, as is the case with the U-13/14s.

We’re right in the middle of the early planning stages what the U-12 should look like, age appropriate, the number of players, the size of the field. We’re also at a point where we’re standardizing field size and small-sided games for all of Zone 1 [ages 6-12] and early Zone 2.

(Look for Part 2 of our interview with Tony Lepore, in which he addresses U.S. Soccer’s quest to raise level of U.S. coaching.)

18 comments about " 'Development Academy Making Progress and Staying Ambitious' (Tony Lepore Q&A, Part 1)".
  1. Futsal nation, January 14, 2015 at 8:58 a.m.

    OK, so 90% of our National Teams are USSDA players. Next question should have been, Are we better for it?? If we have all the top players playing uSSDA and it is easier to monitor them and better develop them, then this progress should reflect via National Team results, right?? We should also have more players going to Europe than ever before and the MLS should want to pay its own Homegrown products more money, right?? MLS should want to start more and more players because USSDA is producing better players, right?? Well, what we are seeing is the opposite.

  2. BJ Genovese, January 14, 2015 at 9:40 a.m.

    Yeah, im not convinced. Plus national training centers and scouts are missing kids that may not be ablt to make it to a USSDA because they may not live near one. I think them claiming AJ is wrong as well. He may have gone to Bradenton but he was not a product of them. The case could be made for Yedlin as well. He was naturally gifted with speed and bite. He even went to... college.

  3. Futsal nation, January 14, 2015 at 9:58 a.m.

    So 1/2 of USSDA clubs are pay to play free. Travel costs are what get you. Many many people cant afford this alone. $250-$350 a weekend for away games for about 6-8 weekends a year plus about $400-$500 for Florida SHowcase and another $400-$500 for playoffs if you dont make finals. Uniform kits are $300-$450. It all adds up to $3500-$5000 a year on travel alone. Thats without the $2500-$4000 the club charges for pay to play. How many people can afford that?

  4. Chance Hall, January 14, 2015 at noon

    I've been asking this question for over two years. What about the girls programs? Right now, the ECNL is the closest thing to a development academy for girls. Is anyone, in a position of authority, brave enough to step up and talk to this? Or will we get the usual blah, blah that it's coming in a few years?

  5. Chris Morris, January 14, 2015 at 2:04 p.m.

    Tony Lepore’s mentioning AJ and Yedlin is typical because the existence of a few prominent graduates supposedly proves the overall quality of a development program. In the same way people used to cite Donovan as an example of the value of Bradenton. By this reasoning two great development programs were the youth teams of Kearny NJ and Westlake Village CA in the 1970s. Harkes, Ramos, and Meola played together on the former team and Wynalda and Cobi on the latter. These teams were part of the parent-coached, immigrant-flavored, play-also-for-your-school atmosphere of earlier U.S. youth soccer. And how many players has the more formally organized Development Academy produced with the talent of those five Hall of Famers?

  6. Futsal nation, January 14, 2015 at 2:32 p.m.

    Does anyone know the playing history of AJ & Yedlin?? Does anyone know exactly how many players of the current USA U20 team are USSDA products?

  7. Ginger Peeler, January 14, 2015 at 2:49 p.m.

    Futsal, you should be able to find the info on AJ and Yedlin on Wikipedia. Not sure if that would work for the USA U20s. You could check them out individually, I suppose, to see if Wikipedia covers them.

  8. Clayton Davis, January 14, 2015 at 3:35 p.m.

    There are still huge gaps in the maps of academies at all age groups. For example, there's not a single U-14 DA club in the Pacific Northwest. There's not a single academy club at any level between Georgia and Texas. We're surely losing lots of talent due to that.
    Something's not right. It seems like our pipeline is still not producing many more world class players; just a lot more above average ones.

  9. Clayton Davis, January 14, 2015 at 3:42 p.m.

    I meant to include the link of the academy map from US Soccer. Here it is:

  10. Noe Bastidas, January 14, 2015 at 4:56 p.m.

    Tony is a good trooper who is echoing the party line. However, if the goal is to develop world-class soccer players, then the reality is bleak. First, the design of the DA is developmentally backwards. Unlike other sports, soccer demands (absolutely requires) significant technical development that should start with programs at the youngest ages (4-5 years of age). So having a “development” program starting at age 13/14 (or now 11/12 with the U12 DA) is an oxymoron and ineffective. Second, the design of the DA is based on the identification of already developed players as opposed to creating players (i.e., managing the acquisition of expertise in talented young athletes). Missing from US soccer, especially at the youngest ages, is the concept of a holistic trainer/guru (a “formador” for those with a background in Argentinian/Mexican soccer development). Lastly, the DA has a top-down control structure and is limiting the number of participating clubs, resulting in significant talent leakage. You do not have to look very hard to find US-born (i.e., American citizens) professional prospects opting out of the DA for soccer development in other countries and then playing for other national teams. And then our national team staff is left coaxing non-Americans to nationalize so that they can play with a US national team. Crazy!

  11. Futsal nation, January 14, 2015 at 6:06 p.m.

    Noe, very well said sir. Please keep posting on these matters. DA Stands for "Development" Academy. You would think that USSF would hold the very few clubs they let in (USSDA) accountable for developing talent, wouldnt you?? Instead we have nothing more than a recruitment of players that are identified to help the local USSDA win as first objective. A talented player may not help you win at U14 as much as a less talented player that is bigger & faster. This is exactly why it is backward as our friend Noe pointed out. USSDA clubs are not even recruiting the best simply because their overall objective is to win now. Not develop pros for the future. There is a big difference in those 2. Certainly Crazy!

  12. R2 Dad, January 14, 2015 at 11:05 p.m.

    I think the U12 level is counterproductive if it's set up like all the others. Perhaps they should have separate camps at that level for kids under, say, 4'8" and over 4'-8, so they're playing against similarly-sized kids. That would take away the size/speed advantage. The problem with getting these tall-fast kids with no skills (eg Brek Sheas of the world) is that once they're in the system these kids (and their parents) expect to continue in the program, taking up space and mindshare. If they're going to have U12 it will be critical to filter out these big galoots. Which US Soccer representative is earmarked to do that, Tony?

  13. Futsal nation, January 15, 2015 at 10:46 a.m.

    It worries me that there is so much worry about picking big players. Size is good. Look at Germany. Mexico gets bigger at youth levels all the time. Brazil is big and strong. Why are we looking to be like Spain when our player pool, physically, mostly resembles Germany or Brazil?? Big, strong, fast with skill and great dynamic ability is what Germany is. The bigger problem in USA is what we do with the big fast skilled players. We either stick them at center D or play kick ball to them as lone striker up top. All designed to win games. Not to develop their great physical potential. Little skilled players have no other option but to improve their skill. Instead of complaining about the big galoots, lets hold our USSDA accountable for developing the very best in all sizes. I bet you that when we do get a world class player, he will be tall, fats and very skilled.

  14. George Gregory, January 15, 2015 at 3:46 p.m.

    There is a coaching problem in this country. We have the best athletes and no reason why we should not be more competitive in soccer. Whe need to get kids involved early and for the fun of the game until they reach 12/13 and the it should become more focused yet remain local until 16. At that point, program is over and kids play local club and school and those that are truly high level can play for a MLS Youth Academy. This would save a lot of time and money and yield a better result. If we took all the money spent on "Premier" or "Academy Soccer", and redirected it to supplement town based programs, we could hire the best coaches locally and not spend so much money.

  15. Gak Foodsource, January 15, 2015 at 11:55 p.m.

    34 clubs that are cost free is fantastic. Had no idea it was that high.

  16. Futsal nation, January 16, 2015 at 11:42 p.m.

    Free is a funny word. IS being used to win at your own age even though you are good enough to play up 1-2 years top level just so you can help your age group win National Championship, at no cost to you, really FREE??? Or are you helping the club market itself better to get them to attract big time pay to play parents by sacrificing your full potential ?? Nothing is free my friend and certainly not Academy play.

  17. Aresenal Fan, January 22, 2015 at 7:21 p.m.

    Seems like we are bagging on academy costs a little to harsh. My kids played club travel ball since 9. He has played Club, NPL, ACADEMY, and back to NPL. Cost are about the same, which by the way too much. No cost difference, I actually spend more in club setting. In terms of quality of play academy way better. Are they actually developing players? Some academies are better than others at further developing players others not so good. Don't want to offend anyone here but NPL feels like straight up kick and punt. In regards to kids that can't afford it, they will always find suiters as long as they can contribute to the "w". That those not change any were.

  18. Futsal nation, January 26, 2015 at 9:28 a.m.

    Arsenal, exactly. As long as they contribute to the "W". Why is that so important to a club that is supposed to have "development" of the very top elite player as top priority? Its important to understand the difference of what is being promoted/marketed and what actually is being done. The kids that play USSDA that cant afford it are not doing it Free. It's a mutual understanding. Problem there is the very elite are stuck helping the other players along instead of maximizing their potential

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