Tony Lepore is the Director of Boys Talent Identification for U.S. Soccer, which this month launched a Talent Scout License. Lepore, who started serving as the Director of Scouting in 2010, was formerly the U.S. U-15 boys national team head coach. Before he joined U.S. Soccer full time as a Technical Advisor in 2006, Lepore served as an assistant coach for six years with the U-14 and U-15 boys national teams.
SOCCER AMERICA: How many scouts does U.S. Soccer currently employ to identify talent for the boys youth national teams?TONY LEPORE: On the boys side, our network is made up of a hundred scouts. It's always expanding and evolving, and hovers at around 100.
SA: How will the launch of the Talent Scout License affect the scouting process?
TONY LEPORE: We believe the launch of Talent Scout License will strengthen our network and be a real-game changer. We put some KPIs [key performance indicators] on this and in the next five years we'll be at around 500 licensed scouts.
SA: Before we get back to discussing the Talent Scout License, can you describe the scouting structure on the boys side?
TONY LEPORE: We have our three Talent ID managers -- Cris da Silva (East), Garrett Biller (Central), Henry Brauner (West) -- who each oversee about a third of that network.
We also have what we call our informal network, which is a really important part of the scouting, especially when we talk about screening for new players and the information-gathering process and monitoring. These are persons from clubs, various members. It can be former scouts. We have a lot of former scouts who work for key clubs. It's nice because they're really familiar with our process and have a good benchmark, a good reference point, good knowledge of the national team player pool.
SA: And the youth national team coaches ...
TONY LEPORE: The youth national team coaches play a key role in the scouting. They're the experts on their particular age group, and we work in really close collaboration in terms of talent ID, on YNT [youth national team] monitoring, on selection, on the evaluation.
SA: In a giant country like the USA, you must have to observe and keep track of a large number of players. How is that done?
TONY LEPORE: We put the players in a few different categories.
The "core players" are the regulars where it's really clear. They're usually the best, or second best in their position in their age group. These are the ones the national team coaches monitor. They stay in touch with their clubs. They stay in touch with the players themselves, and monitor them in conjunction with the Talent ID Managers and scouts.
We have "discovery players," whom we want our scouts to focus on. They are the new players. For example, we had 11 discovery players in [a 20-player camp] camp of 2001s with [U.S. Youth Technical Director and U-20 head coach] Tab Ramos earlier this month at the U-18 camp. It's a great opportunity to go a little deeper in the pool with these discovery players, who we've been following for some time now.
Then you have the "in-and-out" guys, who are important too. These are the players who may have been in [a national team camp] at a younger age or maybe earlier in the cycle. And they're either showing some weaknesses or they're showing a certain trajectory that right now maybe they're on hold, but we're monitoring them and they may come back in.
U.S. Soccer's Philosophy of Talent
• Talent can be developed.
• The clubs must drive talent identification in their communities through networking.
• Identification and examination must happen within the context of the game.
• Players develop at different rates and their performance trajectory is non-linear.
• Talent identification is a process with long-term objectives influenced by chronological, relative and biological age.
• Scouts must use a common observational structure and speak the same club/U.S. Soccer language.
• Making connections with all communities.
• A gender-neutral approach when possible and a gender-specific approach when needed.
SA: Can you run us through player's path to a youth national team camp?
TONY LEPORE: For all the players, the process starts with the initial identification. That's at the screening level. That could start with a club recommendation. We have a formal process for the clubs to recommend players. And then we assign a scout.
It could start with screening, where in certain times of the year we are screening for new top talents. Which we means we are assigning [scouts] more to games than player-specific. It could be part of a video. In the case of international players [USA-eligible players based abroad], a video or a cold-call where they contact us, so there's the initial identification, at which point our scouts in that market, with the Talent ID Managers, decide if they want to extend that follow-up. It's a process. It's never just one snapshot.
We always want multiple observations over time, in a few different settings, or few different games. Usually there's a minimum of three to five live game observations, some video, and interviews with the club before they're selected to a youth national team. At the young ages, they also come into a YNT Identification Center before they come into a youth national team. We like to put value in multiple scouts as well, so it's not the same scout who has all the reports on this player. And to average ratings and compare ratings.
At some point in the process, a youth national team coach can often have an observation. We never make a decision off of one snapshot.
Then there's all the other information gathering too, which is part of the training of our scouts. More questions to ask the club. It always helps when we can bring them into an Identification Center where we can have the best of the best play together, and that's what the U-14 program is really all about. Now we can compare them in a more challenging environment. We have taken that program to a multi-day concept with the U-14 regional mini-camps, like we just had in the West.
U.S. Soccer has regionalized its U-14 youth national team setup, doubling the number of players going through the program annually to 240. Each region -- East, Central and West -- hosts five-day, 80-player mini-camps. Sixty players, roughly 20 from each region, will then gather for a U-14 National Identification Camp this summer.
SA: This year's expansion of the U-14 national team setup increases the number of you players who are getting a look ...
TONY LEOPRE: That's the first benefit. It also allows us to expand that base of our scouting that starts at U-14. We do some identification at U-13 as well. It allows us to evaluate more players, in that "best with the best playing against the best" in that challenging environment. All the Talent ID Managers, East, West, Central, attend the mini-camps, and that's the other benefit. It can be really difficult to compare a player in a game in Southern California with a player in a game in Northern California and a game in New York, Dallas, etc.
Talent ID Managers now have this benchmark after coming to all three mini-camps. So we're comparing players by position with a cross reference that's national.
SA: Clubs can recommend their own players?
TONY LEPORE: We have a formal recommendation process which starts online, and then that's usually followed up with some communication, and questions. We also want to give them a reference. So, for example, at the young age groups, YNT ID Centers are a really great platform. We can ask a club coach to attend, so they can have a comparison point. We can have a conversation where we ask the coach which players may already be in the pool in their area, to help give them benchmarks, providing comparisons. The most value we put is on live game observations, but we may ask them to send video clips.
U.S. Soccer invites players to YNT Identification Centers in 25 markets. About 5,000 boys and girls age 12-16 attended Talent ID Centers in 2017-18.
SA: You previously had 12 Technical Advisors, but now it's three Talent ID Managers ...
TONY LEPORE: The difference is the Technical Advisors were also tasked with club support. The Talent ID Managers have a 100 percent singular focus on scouting and they each manage about 30 to 35 scouts.
They have these defined scouting areas. What's positive is by narrowing the focus, they're able to be more effective, to be more productive, and for me it's really streamlined the communication, and with the youth national coaches as well.
SA: How do you assure that the scouts are looking for the same qualities in players that the national team coaches are?
TONY LEPORE: That's what the framework is about. That's where communication comes in. There's really close collaboration and regular communication. And we attend the national team camps. For example, Cris, Garrett and Henry attended the U-18 camp to benchmark the 2001s. They meet with Tab, and the meet with Clint Peay about the U-14s.
We know the groups really well. We go in and do the evaluations together. We make sure when we're looking for players outside the pool, we're comparing them to players inside the pool, and that's really helped the specialized focus. We also have to set the example with our own selections. ... It starts with game analysis, how to rate the player within the game. Then evaluating players based key qualities. Our position profiles as well.
U.S. Soccer's 6 Key Qualities for a U.S. YNT
• GAME UNDERSTANDING & DECISION-MAKING: Read and understand the game and make autonomous decisions.
• INITIATIVE: Take initiative, be pro-active.
• OPTIMAL TECHNICAL: Execute their task for 90+ minutes with optimal technical ability.
• RESPONSIBLE: Take responsibility and accountability for their own development and performance.
• FOCUS: Focused for 90+ minutes on their task.
• OPTIMAL PHYSICAL: Execute their task for 90+ minutes with optimal physical ability.
SA: What do you think has been going well with U.S. Soccer scouting and what needs improvement?
TONY LEPORE: We're always looking to make improvements. And that's what drives us. We want to keep taking it to the next level and finding ways to improve it. It's been really cool to be part of this evolution over the last 10 years.
What's going well is the players we're identifying for our youth national teams. We have a really strong scouting network, and our centralized reporting system has become more advanced. We're using technology better to help us be more efficient with all our processes.
We have some incredibly dedicated individuals who have been scouting for us for many years. We have a handful of guys who have been scouting for us since we started the project 11 years ago. They have become mentors to new scouts. I think the fact that our Talent ID Managers have a specialized focus now really helps identify players and to develop their scouts.
One of the areas where we want to take next steps is we want to continue educating scouts. We're looking at the education role that we can play, especially as we support the academies and member programs to advance their own scouting programs, because we want them to drive scouting in their own communities. So I think we're taking some positive steps in the education side.
The Talent Scout License is really exciting. The new U-14 format is really exciting and a good next step. The other thing that's going well, is we're starting to see the top academies improving their own youth scouting program, which in turn helps us.
SA: Can you give some examples of what will be taught at the scouting license courses?
TONY LEPORE: It's built on the profile of youth scout. It's a youth-specific scouting course. It's built on all the key tasks and competencies needed to be successful in the role. We break those down into four areas: Self-development; examining or evaluating payers; reporting; building and managing a network.
We believe the course model will also help to strengthen our network between the Federation, clubs and members. We believe this kind of education is especially valuable as we support the academies and member programs to advance their own scouting programs, because we want them to drive scouting in their own communities.
We believe there is a great value in bringing people together in this really collaborative, intimate, learning environment, that helps them build relationships. When you're learning together in a small group, you have empathy, you begin to develop relationships. We know these will carry over to help strengthen the network.
We also want be have courses where U.S. Soccer can partner with MLS and they can run a course. Or with ODP, and they can run a course. Or with U.S. Club Soccer, and id2 and PDP, and they can a run a course.
The makeup of the [scouting] instructor course includes 12 of our youth national team network scouts, who are located in key markets where we want to roll out the courses. We have also have Chris Duke, who is the chairman of ODP and responsible for the ODP rejuvenation project. We have Gerry McKeown and Tricia Taliaferro, who represent, id2, U.S. Club's scouting arm. Obviously, our relationship with MLS is key when it comes to top talent, so we have Gordon Bengston, who used to also be a scout with us, who works in MLS youth development office with Fred Lipka [MLS Technical Director of Player Youth & Development, Player Personnel] and also Alecko Eskandarian, who works in that office with Fred. It will be the same vision when we roll this out in the markets.
2019 Talent Scout Pilot
J.B. Belzer (YNT Network Scout, Denver), Gordon Bengston (MLS), Shawn Beyer (YNT Network Scout, San Diego), Garrett Biller (U.S. Soccer Boys TID Manager, Central), Todd Bramble (YNT Network Scout, Virginia), Henry Brauner (U.S. Soccer Boys TID Manager, West), Rafa Brazo (YNT Network Scout, Houston), Katie Cole (U.S. Soccer Girls TID Manager, Central), Cris da Silva (U.S. Soccer Boys TID Manager, East), Diane Drake (U.S. Soccer Girls TID Manager, East), Chris Duke (ODP, Kansas City), Tina Ellertsen (YNT Network Scout, Washington), Alecko Eskandarian (MLS), Ian Hennessy (YNT Network Scout, Delaware), Deejae Johnson (YNT Network Scout, San Francisco), Gene Klein (YNT Network Scout, Ohio), Marieke Laurens (U.S. Soccer Girls TID Manager, West), Gerry McKeown (US Club id2, New Jersey), Michael Moynihan (YNT Network Scout, Chicago), Matt Potter (YNT Network Scout, Oklahoma), Katie Schoepfer (YNT Network Scout, New England), Tricia Taliaferro (US Club id2, Florida), Greg Vallee (YNT Network Scout, South Carolina).
SA: Can you address a complaint I've heard a lot, which is that U.S. Soccer scouts favor players who are part of Development Academy clubs?
TONY LEPORE: I think they say it less and less, because the pathway has become more clear. We look for quality, no matter where it comes from. You also have to realize that talent needs to develop in the right environment and the right fit. That's really important. And of course, when I say the pathway is clear, that's the fact the top players have migrated to the Development Academy. That's because it's the highest standard and the clearest pathway to the pro and national teams.
A number of players on our radar who we identified as part of early U-13 identification in the spring through various platforms in scouting, different settings, were not in the [Development] Academy. And since then, many of them, over the summer transfer window, they are now with an Academy. They made that next step. We started following them when they were outside the Academy and then came inside.
But at the same time, with the U-14s, there were a couple of kids from Northern California from some of these [non-DA] pockets that were in our YNT Identification Center who were part of the camp. We don't have a younger academy in Arizona and we had 10-12 players from Arizona. That's also thanks to partnerships.
We had a player from Hawaii. There is not a DA in Hawaii, but there is a history there -- national team players, men's and women's. We're scouting an id2 event, which is U.S. Club's scouting arm, which starts with U.S. Club's more local scouting arm, where they drive into communities through PDP. We have overlap. Ian Mork scouts for us in Northern California. He runs the PDP there. So it's a nice overlap. That's part of this whole networking. We have a really good partnership there.
SA: One of the more intriguing youth national team player stories recently is Frankie Amaya, who within a year of getting called up to the U-19s, was a key player in the USA's Concacaf U-20 Championship final win over Mexico last November. And in January, he was the No. 1 MLS SuperDraft 2019 pick. The 5-foot-4 Amaya played in Santa Ana, California, Latin leagues until when at age 14 he joined the DA club Pateadores. What was the tracking of Amaya like?
TONY LEPORE: Frankie is a really good example of how talent identification starts with the clubs. We cannot be everywhere. Our academies need to drive scouting in their community and so Frankie is an example of someone from the local community. The better the clubs are, the better we are, because players also need to take the next step before they're ready for a youth national team. So it's a real credit to Pateadores.
I remember when I first scouted Frankie, when he first came into Pats, at the futsal event in L.A. He showed some special qualities. He really excelled in the futsal format. And then later Todd Saldana and Alex Zotinca, our Technical Advisors in that area, tracked him. Later we selected him for our Futures Camp, which is the late-developer camp.
I think Frankie is such a great story on so many levels. He was so engaged and so excited at the Futures Camp. It was his first experience of that kind. We talk about making the most of opportunities and being grateful for the opportunities that we have -- and he was all about that. We hope, just like for players in the U-14 camps in this cycle, it may have inspired him to take the next steps.
SA: One of the big concerns in American soccer has been that youth coaches favor big players or early bloomers, because they help get you the wins in the short-term. U.S. Soccer has addressed this with the Futures Camps and bio-banding. How is it addressed in the scouting department?
TONY LEPORE: The Futures Camps and bio-banding are two really good examples. It's a legitimate concern. It's a real issue. For us, it starts with educating our own scouts. So we spend a lot of time educating them about the impact of biological and relative age.
It is one of learning blocks in the Talent Scout License in terms of the content and training of how biological and relative age influence and challenge the identification process. It's about shifting away from the team, and focusing on the individual. It's about taking a long-term view, not just on relative age and biological age, but also on performance vs. potential.