In January 1999, the U.S. Soccer Federation created the U-17 national team Residency Program in Bradenton, Florida. The first class of 20 players included Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Oguchi Onyewu and Bobby Convey.
In February of 1999, the John Ellinger-coached U-17s finished second to Jamaica in the first round of U-17 World Cup qualifying, and in May, they beat El Salvador, 10-1, on aggregate in a two-leg playoff series that qualified them for the 1999 U-17 World Cup.
“The idea was to put them in a soccer-saturated environment, and that worked,” said Ellinger, whose 23 years as a teacher prepped him well to oversee the Residency Program, at which the players attended high school from 8 till 2:30 p.m., before heading to afternoon practice. “Having those guys everyday made a big difference. They certainly bonded, and became a very close group, like brothers.”
Ellinger’s team finished fourth at the 1999 U-17 World Cup that November as Donovan won the Golden Ball and Beasley the Silver Ball.
Subsequent Residency Program classes expanded to up to 40 players and 450 players have attended. More than 150 of those players have moved on to MLS or professional leagues in Europe, 33 alums went on to play for the full national team, and 10 made the roster of a U.S. senior World Cup team.
On Friday, U.S. Soccer announced that the current semester of 32 players, the John Hackworth-coached squad that is preparing for the Concacaf qualifying tournament (April 21-May 7 in Panama) for the 2017 U-17 World Cup, would be the last.
“One of our main hopes when establishing the U.S. Soccer Residency Program was that at some point advancements in youth player development would make its existence no longer necessary -- we believe that point has been reached.” U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati said. “Not only did the program develop a number of key players for our national teams, it served as a model for academies across the country to follow. With the U.S. Development Academy having achieved high standards in preparing our young athletes, we are now able to impact future American professionals on a much larger scale.”
Not since 1999 has the USA won a knockout-stage game at the U-17 World Cup and in 2013, under Coach Richie Williams, it failed for the first time in history to qualify for the biennial world championship. Williams' 2015 team, which included Christian Pulisic, exited in the first round.
"I don’t think it was ever intended to be there forever," Ellinger said. "Back then, you didn’t have the MLS academies like you have now. You didn’t have those kind of facilities. You didn’t have the kind of infrastructure that you have now. Not just the MLS academies, but the non-MLS DA academies. Coaching’s gotten better every year. More and more ex-players are getting into coaching. That environment didn’t exist back in 1999."
The U.S. Soccer Development Academy, a nationwide league launched in 2007, was designed to take the Residency Program model to the club level and has grown from 63 clubs to 150 with more than 10,000 registered players.
“It’s a bittersweet moment because the program has been invaluable for almost two decades as a critical piece of the development process for U.S. Soccer,” said U-17 national team head coach John Hackworth. “The end of the Residency Program signals the next step in the evolution of player development in this country.
“We will maintain robust U-17 programming to accomplish our goals of providing players with international experience, and qualifying and competing in FIFA U-17 World Cups,” said Hackworth. “We will expand on our work with Development Academy coaches and clubs in order to evaluate players in their home environments on a regular basis."
Hackworth is in his second stint as U-17 coach. He succeeded Ellinger, who coached the USA at the 1999, 2001 and 2003 U-17 World Cups, and coached the USA at the 2005 and 2007 U-17 World Cups. Coach Wilmer Cabrera ran Bradenton through the 2009 and 2011 U-17 World Cups.
“I don’t think I’d be where I am without it,” Jozy Altidore, who was in the Residency Program in 2004-06, told USSoccer.com. “It helped bridge the gap. Having the ability to train everyday with the best players available at the time, it pushed me to be better. I think it was very valuable for me in learning how to be a pro and take that next step as I transitioned into being a professional player.”
The 33 Residency alums who played for the full U.S. national
Kellyn Acosta, Freddy Adu, Gale Agbossoumonde, Juan Agudelo, Jozy Altidore, Paul Arriola, DaMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman, Michael Bradley, Bobby Convey, Landon Donovan, Greg Garza, Eddie Gaven, Luis Gil, Omar Gonzalez, Joe Gyau, Eddie Johnson, Perry Kitchen, Eric Lichaj, Justin Mapp, Chad Marshall, Dax McCarty, Oguchi Onyewu, Heath Pearce, Christian Pulisic, Santino Quaranta, Robbie Rogers, Rubio Rubin, Brek Shea, Jonathan Spector, Danny Szetela, Anthony Wallace.
Bold = played in senior World Cup. (Jonathan Spector was in the 2010 World Cup squad but didn't see action.)
Aloys Wijnker is new U.S. Soccer DA director
Aloys Wijnker, the Dutchman who has served as U.S. Soccer Coach Educator since January 2016, is the now Director of the Boys U.S. Soccer Development Academy. He will serve as the “technical lead” of the boys DA, a role played by Director of Scouting, Tony Lepore, since 2008. Lepore will now serve as the Director of U.S. Soccer's newly established Talent Identification Department.
"The focus of the Talent Identification Department will be on improving the quality and quantity of scouts for U.S. Soccer and Development Academy clubs," said Lepore, who joined U.S. Soccer full-time as a Technical Advisor in 2006. "Our plan is to implement a scout education program that will help Development Academy clubs to develop their strategy, methods, planning and networks for identifying players."
Before joining U.S. Soccer, Wijnker was the Academy Director for Dutch club AZ Alkmaar.
"I am very excited to take on this new challenge and join the nation's leading youth development program," said Wijnker. "Our plan is to continue to work closely with Academy Directors and club leaders, providing them with support and education to help our member clubs develop their own identities, philosophies, leadership and talent identification plans. Ultimately, we want our clubs to establish their own technical plans to continue to provide environments that work to develop world-class players."