Commentary

The Development Academies: The saga ends

Well, actually, the Development Academies (DA) saga does not end here, but my story ends. I had been writing about the DAs for the past couple of weeks so this will be my conclusive article.

We had earlier talked about the fact that Bruce Arena’s long list of 32 USMNT candidates include 10 DA products. This show that the DAs are serving their purpose since 2007 as far as U.S. Soccer is concerned.  Recently, U.S. Soccer published a roster of 64 players born in 2002 and 2003 for U.S. Soccer’s first Boys National Team Futures Camp of 2017 at the U.S. Soccer National Training Center in Carson, California. This is an interesting list to analyze with the DAs in mind.

Futures Camp 2002:
17 MLS Development Academy
11 Development Academy
3 Pre-Development Academy
1 USL/NASL Development Academy

Futures Camp 2003:
15 MLS Development Academy
9 Development Academy
5 Pre-Development Academy
3 Other

If you look at the list of players born in 2002, all of them are from DAs across the country:

Out of 32 players, 17 of them are from MLS DAs. The others are from various DAs including three PDAs (PDA is Pre Development Academy; please refer to my last article why they should be called PDAs and not DAs).

For the younger generation -- born in 2003 -- 15 of them are from MLS DAs, nine from DAs, five from PDAs and three from others. Yes! There are players selected to the roster from non DA youth development clubs. What is more exciting is that two of those players are from states (New Mexico and Wisconsin) that the DA system did not proliferate yet.

Also the roster of 64 covers 16 states headed by California (5), North Carolina (4), Colorado (3) and Virginia (3) and covering all four time zones. The numbers are very promising. They show that

a) U.S. Soccer scouting process is not limited to the DAs;
b) They do look around the country; and
c) The PDAs function well.

That is the current scene. The DA system is a correct step in the correct direction, but needs some serious tune-ups to achieve its goals
Let us look at the rationale for forming the DA system.  We see two clear reasons:

a) To develop players across the USA like the rest of the world and improve our USMNTs performances; and
b) To circumvent the pay-to-play system in one way or the other.

First of all, the DA leagues are the only leagues that are run by U.S. Soccer in a chaotic youth world comprising of state youth associations, U.S. Club Soccer, AYSO etc. Compared to other countries where every league is either run by the FA or the regional association, the U.S. youth soccer league system is different.

On top of that, pay-to-play system is a reality in this country we have to learn to live with. The great majority of the non MLS DAs are pay-to-play system clubs whose targets are profits rather than developing soccer players to the best of their abilities. What is ironic is that those clubs are non-profit organizations.

As long as U.S. Soccer cannot -- or shall I say will not -- find a solution to the training compensation problem, the youth clubs feel that they are restricted to the pay-to-play model to survive.

The status of DA is the greatest title that the U.S. Soccer can crown the youth clubs with. Hence it is a carrot. Most of the current DAs use this title to lure new players into their pay-to-play system clubs. Where there is a carrot there must be a stick.

So here are my suggestions to U.S. Soccer for improving the DA system and hence meetings its goals. All or some of these could be spread over time.

I. U.S. Soccer should make it mandatory for all professional clubs (MLS, NASL, USL or future D3) to have a DA. As the governing body of soccer in this country it has the right and the obligation to do it.

II. All DA players should play tuition free. Especially non-MLS DAs might find this unacceptable, but if it is spread over time -- with increasing percentage of tuition free players in each age category -- then these clubs will find alternate methods of funding the DA teams over time. This way the coaches will concentrate on the development of the players rather than satisfying the customer -- the parents.

III. There should be different categories of DAs. I mentioned those in my earlier articles. For the DAs that only have U-12, U-13 and U-14 teams, the Pre-Development Academy (PDA) title is more appropriate. Once they have all the age groups then they can be called DA. Also there should be different categories of DAs. DA1, DA2 and PDA1, PDA2 etc. The requirements and the corresponding subsidization (carrots) of the club by the U.S. Soccer should be different.

A special DA category should be set aside with lower standards -- like facilities, coaching certifications -- for a regional league where the communities are less affluent but are ethnically diverse.

Moving from one division to the other should depend on meeting the criteria set forward by that division. Since U.S. Soccer chose the European way of player development by contracting Double Pass (DP), the “scan” reports of DP should not be just recommendations, but should decide the eventual divisional status of the DAs. In a way, the scan reports will be used for promotion/relegation between divisions.

U.S. Soccer should reward DAs whose players are selected to different age group USMNTs. There are different ways of rewarding the club, not necessarily a monetary reward.  U.S. Soccer can cover some of the expenses of the club, like offering a number of gratis coaching courses to the coaching staff. This will be the carrot for non-MLS clubs to develop players and in a way substitute training compensation.

None of those require the knowledge of rocket science. They are common sense recommendations. Yes, it does put a greater burden on U.S. Soccer, but that is their reason of existence.

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet@ahmetguvener.com) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of the Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, Texas.
9 comments about "The Development Academies: The saga ends".
  1. don Lamb, June 15, 2017 at 7:18 p.m.

    Well done, Ahmet. I think it is fair to say that the overall DA structure is still taking shape, so I hope that we end up with something along these lines. Like MLS, the DA is not perfect, but considering how far it has come (promoting the culture surrounding the game along with it) in such a short period of time is what the doctor ordered. I don't think we can say it is astounding or use too much hyperbole here because the fact of the matter is that we were operating at a level so far beneath optimal before the DA system, it was pitiful. So the progress was always likely; we just needed the organization. Still a little ways to go as you and others have pointed out. However, it cannot be denied that the infrastructure and culture are improving quickly and those are the two most important aspects of widespread success in player development. One thing that I would be curious to see is the socio-economic status of current DA and MLS academy players. There are many reasons this would be interesting data. I don't see this situation as dire, but it certainly could use improvement, and the only way to see where we actually stand with regard to lower income player involvement would be to see some actual data (which I am sure is not readily available). Again, well done, and thanks for taking the time to study and write about this topic.

  2. Bob Ashpole, June 16, 2017 at 2:10 a.m.

    Good analysis.

  3. Guy Walling, June 16, 2017 at 8:15 a.m.

    Great conclusion! I think Ahmet should run for US Soccer President. It seems like he has a direction unlike our current man in charge. We need a man with a knowledgeable plan who is willing to put it into action and expedite it. The biggest problem is that we still have pay-to-play DA's. I think that if a professional club wants to stamp (brand) their name on an affiliate DA, they should be required such club to subsidize the tuition for the player. Why should clubs especially from the LaLiga, EPL or any other foreign wealthy league come to the US, exploit our players to spread their branding and financially capitalize on it? Ahmet said it correctly, it's just to make money in a non-forprofit loophole and player development in most cases is still secondary.

  4. Kent James, June 16, 2017 at 11:16 a.m.

    Ahmet's analysis seems to be accurate (though since there are no official development academies around here, I don't know much from personal experience). I think the idea of DA's being free for participants is excellent, but I have some concerns about PDA's (as he calls them). My main concern is that there needs to be a pyramid structure to select youth soccer; while at the older ages, it is okay to be exclusive (one DA team with the best players from the region, e.g.), bringing that exclusion down to younger ages I think will cause more harm than good (there should not be one such team of U12s). I don't know what the numbers should be (though experience may suggest some), but U12 and below (especially) efforts should be made to bring high level training and play to as many kids as possible (maybe through clinics at less exclusive clubs), to cast as wide a net as possible and give young players a chance to reach their peaks. Maybe the PDAs already do what I'm suggesting, but my fear is that efforts to find the "best" players at younger ages (to put them on one team, and focus resource on just them), will exclude too many players that could have become much stronger players than those chosen for the team at such a young age.

  5. John Lander, June 16, 2017 at 11:57 a.m.

    There is a big part of the problem. People with authority, in decision making roles and position of influence making illogical conclusions just to support their position. The US has to fill a team of 18 for every international game. If we didn’t have DA programs and had to select from college players would we conclude that we had a team of mostly college players so the college programs are successful? That is illogical. Just because the national team has DA players doesn’t mean the DA programs are successful. I will consider the DA programs successful when they starts producing world class player. Not players making the US team by default.
    People are talking about “culture of the game”. The game does not have a culture, countries and communities do. And the academies, residency programs are not part of US culture. We are trying to force the culture of other countries into the US and calling it soccer culture. That is stupid. Research the residency programs and academies in Europe. They are used for all sports not just soccer. Should we use it for other sports in the US? Residency program are really a communist system used by USSR, Romina, China etc to develop athletes in all sports. They identify them early, separate them form their families and train them every day. THAT IS ANTI-AMERICAN.
    These exclusionary, selective type programs give undeserving kids a false sense of accomplishment, entitlement and eliminate competition be leaving out other players. We have our own sports culture, our own way of creating world class athletes in every other sport. And it can work for soccer. But the powers that be in soccer don’t want that. WHY?
    With enough time and MONEY spent it may eventually work. But it hasn’t.

  6. K Michael replied, June 17, 2017 at 11:46 a.m.

    Every sport in the US has elite youth carve out programs. Residency or not, they feature exclusive training, better resources, interstate travel, etc. Also, keep this very important fact in mind: the DAs do not produce world-class players; they aggregate them in a format that allows the best to train with and play gainst other elite players creating the optimal environment for scouting, coaching, and forming our National teams, and therefore the best environment for one-stop-shop college and professional scouting. This aggregation has already proven its mettle as we have more youngsters in top European league clubs than ever before; MLS has more Homegrown youth signings on rosters than ever before. And the DA is not an exclusive club; players are constantly having to prove themselves worthy of a roster spot at all ages as there are frequent youth trialist opportunities at every age group. I have personally witnessed this roster movement many times over. It is this competitive opportunity that attracts the better players in every DA's region to knock on the door and attempt to get in. Bottom line, it's working!

  7. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, June 17, 2017 at 4:43 p.m.

    "The US has to fill a team of 18 for every international game. If we didn’t have DA programs and had to select from college players would we conclude that we had a team of mostly college players so the college programs are successful?" The article actually says the opposite.

  8. Scott Johnson, June 18, 2017 at 1:45 a.m.

    With regard to the notion that for-profit clubs are acting as nonprofits... most of the youth soccer clubs I know are true nonprofits: they have no equity ownership, make their finances public, serve a community purpose (providing competitive youth soccer certainly qualifies). Nobody is getting rich off of youth soccer. That said, a few clubs I can think of do compensate their directors of coaching (and/or a few "star" coaches) fairly handsomely--six-figure salaries aren't uncommon. In some cases, it can be argued this money is earned; in others, not s much.

  9. GA Soccer Forum, June 19, 2017 at 10:25 a.m.

    It seems like the latest fad is all about the home grown -- signing 15-17 year olds to home grown contracts and declaring them the next great home grown player. Some of these kids played 1 season with DA, and the DA programs are getting all the credit and recognition.
    The mega clubs in Georgia, are sheltered under non-profit, but don't kid yourself they are for profit. nothing is done to reduce fees, uniform costs or minimize expenses for players.

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