James Bunce: 'Players all develop at different times'

“Players all develop at different times.
All their attributes can develop at different times, and if you’re coaching a player at a very young age you can make massive fundamental errors around their trajectory and their ability.”
-- James Bunce, U.S. Soccer’s new High Performance Director.

By Mike Woitalla

When James Bunce headed Southampton FC’s youth program, its ranks included Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, now an Arsenal and England midfielder.

Oxlade-Chamberlain’s development became an example of the importance of considering a player’s rate of physical development instead of simply evaluating his talent against other players of the same age.

“At under-14 he was very immature in regards to his physical ability,” says Bunce in a interview upon his hiring as U.S. Soccer’s High Performance Director. “He was not going through puberty like a lot of his other counterparts. He was fragile and underdeveloped. In many organizations, he might’ve been released, but we rated him as a technician and as a person and we put a lot of time and effort into him.”

Instead of moving him through the academy system, Southampton kept him back a year.

“We created a specific program to develop him physically on a different trajectory from the other players and allowed him to play amongst people that he could match up with and not just get pushed off the ball, bullied, or not be allowed to use his skills and abilities,” says Bunce. “Looking back, Alex talks about that timing being really important to him in regards to being able to perform and being able to develop on his own trajectory.

“In many cases within England, players are being released for being too small. … We took a massive stance on this, giving the players the right opportunity and the right environment to thrive no matter what their birthdate was, but rather what their individual requirements were.”

Oxlade-Chamberlain made his professional debut before his 17th birthday. Theo Walcott, now also with Arsenal, joined Southampton at age 11 and he also made his pro debut at age 16.

After eight years with Southampton, Bunce spent three years with the English Premier League, first as Head of Sports Science and most recently as Head of Performance. In that capacity he implemented “bio-banding” for players ages 12 to 15 to address the bias by clubs for selecting players born early in an age group cycle because they tended be bigger. Bio-banding groups players in competition based on their level of maturation, based on a child’s height, weight and the height of both parents. Players of different sizes still compete against each other, but bio-banding reduces “violent swings of maturity difference within the chronological system,” says Bunce.

U.S. Soccer announced that Bunce “will lead the supporting personnel and initiatives dedicated to enhancing elite athletic performance and improving the development of younger players” ... covering “all areas across physical development, nutrition, recovery, strength and conditioning, mental conditioning, performance data and performance research and innovation.”

While Bunce worked at the EPL, it created an Injury Surveillance-Based project that tracked injuries for all players from U-9 to the first team and a National Profiling project for every player from under-12 to under-23

He’ll be working with all U.S. national teams and the U.S. Soccer Development Academy.

“If anyone is judging a player at under-17 or under-18 purely based on their ability to score goals or their ability to dominate in a training session, there is a massive amount of evidence now that shows that you could be misidentifying them,” Bunce says. “The way we coin the phrase here is that you start seeing fool’s gold and missing the diamond in the rough. You can’t start backing the player who isn’t actually your best option only because he’s just doing well in that age group. You want to be identifying the longer-term strategy, seeing what they could offer in their 20s."

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Brazil fails to qualify for U-20 World Cup

Brazil, winner of five U-20 World Cups, second only to Argentina’s six titles, failed to qualify for the 2017 U-20 World Cup. Uruguay, Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina earned South America’s berths for the South Korea-hosted U-20 World Cup that kicks off in May. Brazil, which finished runner-up to Serbia at the 2015 U-20 World Cup, finished fifth in South American qualifying by tying an already eliminated Colombia, 0-0, on Saturday.

The USA begins its qualifying campaign Saturday at the Concacaf U-20 Championship in Costa Rica from which four of the region's team will earn berths at the World Cup.

2017 U-20 World Cup Qualifiers


New Zealand

Saudi Arabia

AFRICA (4 teams)
Qualifying tournament: Feb. 26-March 12

CONCACAF (4 teams)
Qualifying tournament: Feb. 17-March 5 in Costa Rica

USA first-round group games
(live on Univision Deportes and Facebook Live)
Saturday, Feb. 18 vs. Panama 3:30 pm ET
Tuesday, Feb. 21 vs. Haiti 5:30 pm ET
Friday, Feb. 24 vs. St. Kitts & Nevis 5:30 pm ET

Further Reading:
Meet Tab Ramos' 20 players for U-20 World Cup qualifying

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U.S. U-18 girls head to England

The U.S. U-18 women’s national team, coached by U.S. Soccer technical director April Heinrichs, will travel to England with a 20-player squad for a Feb. 15-26 training camp that will include two games against England and one against Norway.

The team of players born in 2000 will train at St. George’s Park, England’s National Training Center and play England on Feb. 19 and Feb. 25 and Norway Feb. 21.

This U-18s are starting two-year cycle before transitioning to U-20s in 2019 -- the group that aims to qualify for the 2020 U-20 Women’s World Cup.

U.S. U-18 women’s national team
GOALKEEPERS (2): Hensley Hancuff (Oklahoma Football Club; Edmond, Okla.), Meagan McClelland (PDA; Kearny, N.J.).
DEFENDERS (6): Maycee Bell (Sporting KC; Wichita, Kan.), Madelyn Desiano (So Cal Blues; San Clemente, Calif.), Cassie Hiatt (Real Colorado; Parker, Colo.), Shea Holmes (Real Colorado; Highlands Ranch, Colo.), Brianna Martinez (NM Rush; Albuquerque, N.M.), Sarah Piper (Texas Rush; The Woodlands, Texas).
MIDFIELDERS (5): Cori Dyke (Colorado Rush; Littleton, Colo.), Jenna Nighswonger (Slammers FC; Huntington Beach, Calif.), Kali Trevithick (San Diego Surf; Temecula, Calif.), Madeline Vergura (FC Stars; Concord, Mass.), Natalie Viggiano (Michigan Hawks; Macomb Township, Mich.).
FORWARDS (7): Rachel Jones (Tophat SC; Lawrenceville, Ga.), Ashlynn Serepca (NC Fusion; Cornelius, N.C.), Sophia Smith (Real Colorado; Windsor, Colo.), Alexa Spaanstra (Michigan Hawks: Brighton, Mich.) Emaly Vatne (Michigan Hawks; Sterling Heights, Mich.), Olivia Wingate (FC Stars of Mass.; Wilmington, Mass.), Summer Yates (PacNW SC; Pasco, Wash.)

18 comments about "James Bunce: 'Players all develop at different times'".
  1. Bob Ashpole, February 14, 2017 at 4:12 p.m.

    Bunce's and Southhamptom's views are spreading to the English FA. If the USSF can actually alter practices here, it will easily be the most significant advance in player development, period. This not only helps develop late bloomers but improves development of early bloomers as well by eliminating opportunities to beat opponents through temporary physical advantages. It makes tactical, technical and mental aspects as important as physical (athlectic) ability and substantially eliminates biological maturity as a factor in talent identification and selection. Everyone will benefit.

  2. R2 Dad replied, February 14, 2017 at 5:34 p.m.

    Wish it was so in this country, but you can imagine parents with children that benefit from the Relative Age Effect will not go quietly. Birth privilege, as it were.

  3. Brian McLindsay, February 14, 2017 at 6:30 p.m.

    RAE is real and well understood, yet the USDA has yet to address the issue. As said on a local forums, one easy way to begin addressing the problem is mandate a player turnover rate at every DA age level and a higher turnover rate at older ages as RAE diminishes. It would help ensure top talent is seen at some point of development and discourage early selection and locking- in of players by local decision makers who are hesitant to remove players from the DA program once they have entered it.

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, February 14, 2017 at 6:38 p.m.

    That seems to me to be "cutting off your nose to spite your face."

  5. Brian McLindsay, February 14, 2017 at 6:52 p.m.

    Not really Bob. All those same studies the have shown RAE also support the idea that no one coach is capable of seeing who will be successful at adult age, rather they are identifying who is most advanced at the time of observation. At most you will only have 2 or 3 players on any youth team that will go on to be successful at an adult professional level of soccer. So requiring a 50% team turnover each year would not be unreasonable. The very top of each team could be retained and the bottom 50% should be rotated out, not only establishing a natural process for physical and ability maturation that is a given, but helping to eliminate the talent sage coach issue and reluctance to take players out of the DA once selected.

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, February 14, 2017 at 10:17 p.m.

    Brian, there is no logic in the proposal. It is completely arbitrary.

  7. Brian McLindsay replied, February 15, 2017 at 12:08 a.m.

    Explain your complete arbitrary comment please. If you are saying 50% is arbitrary I would agree. If you are saying the idea of having a high player turnover at the club DA level is arbitrary, you either don't understand what is in the REA studies or you don't understand what I have written, which is always possible.

    I will rephrase. There are almost countless high level studies that show a consistent REA in every country and every league. REA ensures according the studies that about 30% of the player population evaluated is underrepresented on top or elite teams until physical maturity is reached because the coaches making player placement decisions cannot see past the physical advantages or disadvantages as the case may be, and select the talent that will succeed at the senior level. Since we are miss evaluating 30% of the player population early on, it is only reasonable that as the late birthers mature, the DA should be finding them and replacing the earlier selected players with less talent. There is no logic in a DA system that does not have a fairly high turnover rate, at least relative to the current turnover rates. The studies clearly indicate there is no selection process which can be relied upon to consistently identify top adult talent at young ages. That last sentence requires a regular and significant player rotation if the goal is to find the best talent. Additionally, the turnover for the teams should increase up to about age 17 or 18 when physical maturity reaches parity. If you don't see the turnover trend in the DA program, the are simply not finding all of the top talent.

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, February 15, 2017 at 12:27 a.m.

    Brian, I am well read in the area. We partially agree as you agreed that the 50% goal is arbitrary. The other particularly illogical aspect is that the proposed solution to coaches making inaccurate player selections is to have those same coaches make more inaccurate player selections. That is just perpetuating the flawed selections while hoping for improved results.

  9. Bob Ashpole replied, February 15, 2017 at 12:31 a.m.

    With the 50% rule, it is not only that 50% of players are cut, but also that 50% of players are retained without competing for their place.

  10. Frank Trovato, February 14, 2017 at 9:56 p.m.

    We did this in Alaska Girls ODP five or six years ago while I served as State Director and Boys/Girls ODP Director as well as in Kansas Boys ODP when serving as director. We started with one age group, the youngest, and put them into training and playing groups based on height alone. The tall group worked on what they lacked in terms of technique and what they excelled at, medium and longer play. The "mighty" group or the not tall group were focused on developing soccer strength as well as what they excelled at, the short and medium game.

    In both cases, Kansas boys in the 90's and Alaska girls in the 2000's, the players excelled and were able to determine what really defined them as a player. The tall teams played a game fit for their range and the mighty group played an unbelievably skillful short game.

    The big issue are the small markets at the club level. In Alaska which is a small market if a medium or small sized club played have players playing up it can kill off entire teams and deteriorates clubs. There has to be a balance between individual player development and team/club development. Our solution in Alaska at the time was to recommend that players "train up and guest play up" rather than play up. That addressed both needs and was a balance for everyone involved.

    Playing down instead of sitting on the bench is a philosophy needed in youth soccer. Rules generally don't allow it at any level however we do employ this in our club.

  11. R2 Dad replied, February 15, 2017 at 12:59 a.m.

    Sounds like this process worked well. I've noticed that clubs/coaches prefer training in age silos, as a means of hoarding players and building a relationship with the parents so the coach can age up with a core team. The more enlightened coaches employ age cross-training, which seems to benefit the players rather than the coach. I have yet to see a club in our area insist on a playing style the parents buy in to, from U8 to U18. It's either a big rec program that plays long balls to win, or Playing At the Highest Level or segregating by language. Not one club claims they develop players via possession-based play while building from the back, at every age. You might get one or two coaches at a club, but never the club mission statement. Maybe the DOCs in our area are neutered figureheads?

  12. Frank Trovato, February 15, 2017 at 2:09 a.m.

    It is true most clubs lack the focus necessary. Normally an issue of regular turnover of parent board leadership and reinventing the wheel every few years. True youth player development is a 10+ cycle as you say. If no style is selected and change comes often no true measurement is available. This is a major downside to non for profit run clubs. Most do not have a voted in development program. Most obvious is the USSF National Player Development Curriculum from Claudio Reyna.

    As such my club is a for profit club in which I make all decisions with parent input where necessary. No board, no politics, just pure soccer for players and parents. Quick, effective decision making.

  13. GA Soccer Forum, February 15, 2017 at 9:55 a.m.

    Big problem around here is the amount of teams each club carries. Most try not to do anything "special" for just their top 2 teams for example, to show being fare across the board. So instead of paying in tournaments in the fall for example, the top clubs should have/could have just gotten together and set up a 3 or 4 friendly weekends, where 5 teams were invited and the kids played. No trophys, no brackets, no medals, minimal costs if necessary. Just play. Never happens here. Too much structure and organization. Ask a coach to get a friendly with another club and it needs the POTUS's approval. We have clubs where DOCS despise one another so for years certain clubs would never play one another. What good does that do? Personally I'm still pissed off about the unnecessary age mandate switch, with DA already being on calendar year, and now with DA expansion from u12 to u15 with single year teams, I don't think it was necessary. DA could easily implement a bio banding method within their system, the u12s to u14s are basically just playing friendly's etc.
    However, I think you need to find a way to make sure it remains competitive and the kids are playing meaningful games. I also thing substitution restrictions at u13-u15 need to scrapped. You have goalies playing 2 games a month, when teams carry 2 keepers. At least allow re-entry in the 2nd half etc. Stop trying to treat 13 year olds like they are playing in the champions league.

  14. Gary Allen, February 15, 2017 at 12:07 p.m.

    I wrote an article a number of years ago related to this topic entitled "Until U-14, Inclusion is the Key." I used U-14 only because in the US even that early age is difficult for the powers that be in the US to comprehend. It really should be much later, as the article above recognizes.

  15. GA Soccer Forum, February 15, 2017 at 12:47 p.m.

    I'm not sure what the rules are for linking to other sites etc, but a quick google 'Gary Allen u14 inclusion is key'
    gets you Gary's article. Very interesting read -- especially given it was written in 2010!

  16. MA Soccer, February 15, 2017 at 5:19 p.m.

    I like the hire, push the status quo, try some new things and it Looks very interesting . Is also great in that If it works it is scalable can help every level of soccer in the country. Good job USSF!

  17. Goal Goal, February 15, 2017 at 9:49 p.m.

    It will be very interesting to see if the clubs and the youth national team coaches pay attention to his observation on maturity both physical and mental. Because there are too many kids being left in the dust because they aren't for a better set of "words" big and strong ". Even though their skills are over and above they are swept aside. Too many exceptional players are being left behind.

  18. Goal Goal, February 17, 2017 at 4:31 p.m.

    Tom you are right on and we are in quick sand until corrected. The problem is that so many kids with potential go by the wayside because the coaches haven't a clue as to how to utilize that talent. Unless they are big and strong and knock down a tree.

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