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.)