Commentary

Klaas de Boer on scouting for U.S. Soccer: The Development Academy operates in a bubble

Since immigrating to the USA from the Netherlands in 1956 at age 14 with his family, Klaas de Boer has been involved with nearly every level of American soccer, including professional, college and youth coaching. Based in Michigan, he's served as a per diem scout for the U.S. youth national team program scout since 2015. In early October, de Boer read in Soccer America that a 16-year-old from Grand Rapids, Michigan, was the top player at the 2019 Allstate Sueno Alianza National Showcase, where he received tryout invitations from several Mexican clubs and the Mexican youth national team program.
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SOCCER AMERICA: What did you do after you read about David Zavala?

KLAAS de BOER: I made a call to his club. He plays for Midwest United, which is the big club in Grand Rapids. I asked what high school he went to because I wanted to see him play. They told me he plays for Union High School. Then I made a point to go to one of his games.

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SA: Your impressions?

KLAAS de BOER: I'm quite familiar with the level of play at the Development Academy. We have two clubs in Detroit that play in the Academy, Wolves and Vardar. And I would rate him better than any player who I saw play in that age group for both of those clubs. I had a conversation with him. I had a conversation with his father, who is his high school coach as well. I told him I was going to get in touch with the U.S. Soccer Talent ID Manager to inform him that I had seen David play and to see if we could get him in perhaps to a YNT Identification Center.

SA: U.S. Soccer has three regional Talent ID managers, and for the Central Region it's Garrett Biller ...

KLAAS de BOER: Garrett was very interested. He thanked me for providing him with the information. He had heard about the player as well, because apparently the Development Academy had a scout at the Hispanic tryout [Sueno Alianza] in California. So he said find out his age, because we may not have an ID Center in that age group. David's a 2003, he's 16. I don't know what's happened since, but there are no ID Centers in that age group. They only have them in the younger age groups. I don't know how exactly they may have pursued him since I spoke to Garrett about two weeks ago.

SA: Garrett heard about Zavala because U.S. Soccer had a scout at Alianza and Zavala was the MVP because he had the most Liga MX scouts interested in him. But U.S. Soccer didn't tell you to go look at him because he was in your area?

KLAAS de BOER: No, they didn't.

There was no youth soccer in Michigan when Klaas de Boer arrived from the Netherland at age 14 in 1956, but one year later he started playing for an adult league launched in the immigrant community. After playing at Michigan State, which finished NCAA runner-up in 1964 and 1965, de Boer played for the American Soccer League's Boston Astros -- for which he lined up against Pele in a friendly with Santos -- the Cleveland Stars and Cleveland Cobras. He coached six years at Cleveland State and served as assistant coach for the NASL's Los Angles Aztecs, to Brazilian head coach Claudio Coutinho, and Detroit Express.

SA: It sounds like he wouldn't have been pursued by U.S. Soccer if you hadn't read about him and taken the initiative. Now you've given U.S. Soccer a report and Zavala's contact information, but what options are there for kids like him who are too old to take part in ID Center camp?

KLAAS de BOER: The option that Garrett suggested was to see if we could get him to play with one of the Academy teams in Detroit, Vardar or Wolves. I told him in my opinion that was out of the question because it's a 2 1/2 hour drive each way. I also indicated that he's playing for a good club, Midwest United. I know his coach as well. He's a good coach. I think he's with a good club. But that's the natural reaction of the [U.S. Soccer] people. To get kids to a Development Academy club.

SA: What if he was an age, like 13, that would have made him eligible to attend one of these single-day ID Centers?

KLAAS de BOER: The bulk of the players who attend ID Centers are Development Academy players, but they will also bring in a smaller number of "unknown" players who have been recommended from outside the academy. He would have gone to an ID Center if he were a younger age and he would have been looked at. The problem is the coaches at the ID Center, they know all of the Academy players, but they don't know the non-Academy players. So a non-academy player would really have to stand out in order for them to express any interest in him.

For example, if a David Zavala comes to an ID Center camp and maybe he doesn't do exceptionally well on that given day. That's the end of the story. He would not be followed anymore. But an Academy player who had a poor day is still going to be scouted by U.S. Soccer as he is playing Academy games.

SA: What happens if a non-Academy does exceptionally well at an ID Center?

KLAAS de BOER: They would try and persuade this player to play for a Development Academy club.

SA: Do you believe a player like David Zavala, and the many more like him, who don't live near a Development Academy club -- could stay where they are, not be in the Development Academy, and in some cases still have a chance to develop in a way to make them potential national team players?

KLAAS de BOER: Of course. Midwest United is one example. It's a very good club. His particular team was playing in the National League, so he was playing in good competition every week. You can make an argument that with a structure and environment of a Development Academy that the training might be a bit better. But in my opinion he was getting good training at Midwest United.

David Zavala (left) at the 2019 Allstate Sueno Alianza National Showcase, after which he was courted by the Mexican national team program.

SA: When I interviewed Tony Lepore, Director of Boys Talent Identification for U.S. Soccer, in January, besides announcing the scouting license program, he said U.S. Soccer has about 100 scouts around the country and the goal is one day to have 500 scouts. How do think U.S. Soccer's scouting system can address problems you see?

KLAAS de BOER: What U.S. Soccer has to do is hire scouts to scout players outside the Academy. The Development Academy operates a bit in a vacuum. They do not do scouting of players outside the Academy, and I think there are a fair number of talented players who play in metropolitan areas in Hispanic leagues and youth leagues. If it's a city without an MLS club that subsidizes their Development Academy teams, it costs $4,000, $5,000, so a lot of talent isn't playing in the Development Academy, and they're not getting scouted.

It's an unfair playing field where amateur Development Academy teams like Wolves and Vardar, these kids have to pay, and their better players of course will be snatched away without compensation by MLS clubs that perhaps have residential academies.

SA: How does your scouting work?

KLAAS de BOER: I scout primarily in Detroit. I scout games between Vardar and opposing teams, and Wolves and opposing teams. But I've also gone on occasion to showcases

SA: What instructions do you get?

KLAAS de BOER: I will get an assignment for a day where I will scout two or three games. It used to be when you were assigned a particular game, and you would select the top players. The players who in your opinion had the most talent, and you complete a report online about them. But they changed that a year ago.

SA: How?

KLAAS de BOER: Now when you get an assignment, they also assign to you particular players who you need to focus on and send a report on. That to me that is an issue as well.

SA: Why?

KLAAS de BOER: It's almost as if they don't trust the scouts to make their own judgment in terms of talented players. They assign players to you, and quite often, quite a few players. I've had games, for example, where I had to look at eight, 10 players in one game, and then complete a report on each one. And when you're focusing on that many players, so you can write a detailed report an each one of them, it's very difficult to pay enough attention to all of the players, some who might be as good as the ones you've been assigned.

SA: You do a report on eight or 10 players they assign to you whether you were impressed or not ... I suppose their reasoning might be, this other guy said so-so is a great player, and they want to get another scout's opinion.

KLAAS de BOER: Yeah, these are players who have obviously gotten pretty good grades at other games. Maybe their club coaches recommended them.

SA: So there's some logic to that, but it reminds me of coaches like Anson Dorrance talking about going to watch a highly touted player, but preferring not to know the player's number so they could judge without any preconceptions.

KLAAS de BOER: I feel the same way. Also, I think most scouts have a vast knowledge of the game and I would say there are many scouts who have more experience in the game than the talent ID manager. If you're going to hire a scout, I think you should give them the liberty to determine for themselves who the top players are.

SA: I imagine there are cases where it would make sense, like if a player is being seriously considered to be called into a national team camp and they want to check on him.

KLAAS de BOER: I'm sure in some cases.

SA: What if you are supposed send reports on eight players but there's a ninth who impresses you?

KLAAS de BOER: Then you would write a ninth report.

SA: When I ask the Federation if they scout non-academy players, they tell me they do.

KLAAS de BOER: If they do, I'm not aware of it. Communication is not a strong suit of U.S. Soccer. I just saw for example your article about the U-17 camp. The thing is, scouts are never informed about these developments that are going on. You stay informed by reading articles like that in Soccer America to find out who's coaching them. Otherwise, the information does not filter down to scouts. You have to go out of your way to find out exactly what is going on.

I always say, Development Academy staff people, they're hard-working and dedicated individuals, but they operate in a bubble. They operate in their own little world. They are not really conscious of an outside world beyond the Academy. And the lack of transparency from U.S. Soccer, what is the purpose of the secrecy?

10 comments about "Klaas de Boer on scouting for U.S. Soccer: The Development Academy operates in a bubble".
  1. Eric Jensen, November 7, 2019 at 1:06 p.m.

    solid. an item that popped to mind is the ID center concept is flawed.

    (if you've heard this from me before, apologies but it's impt)

    because they only invite u14s and u15s, inherently there is a bias to early developers and older kids since - given that the age-based developmental gap is huge at these ages - the large majority of kids who stand out at these ages and a) older and/or b) early developers.

    For example, for two kids who both end up at 5'10" as adults, if one is born Jan 1 and the other is born Dec 31, according to the cdc, the height gap will be 2 1/2 inches and 13 lbs at u14, 3 inches and 10 lbs at u15. 

    To make this a little more real, proportionally, that's like the 5' 10" 155 lb adult being judged/having to compete against another player who is - for the u14 comparison - 6' 1" and 176 lbs (giving up 20+ pounds of muscle) or - for the u15 comparison - a player who is 6' 1" and 170 lbs (giving up 15+ pounds of muscle).

    Now, before folks start w/ "players need ot be able to play against bigger players", stipulated.

    The crazy/relevant part of this example is that both the older and younger player in this example will, both, end, up, the, same, size. 

    Scouts and coaches are aware of the issue, but when you look at the numbers, they don't seem to care in a meaningful way.

    And would argue that, pursuing results, coaches and scouts actually pro-actively screen for older players at younger ages, making the problem much worse than it might be.

    And when these b/f/s players start to fade as the few younger players who managed to make it thru catch up, we - all of us who allow this continue - have effectively shrunk our player pool to 1/4 of its original size.

    Seems like a simple problem to fix that would have a disproprortionate benefit to the ynt/mnt program and US soccer overall.

    Imagine the outcry if there was another demographic group that was so systematically excluded from consideration in a manner that was so easy to demonstrate?

  2. Bob Ashpole replied, November 7, 2019 at 3:49 p.m.

    USSF plans to remake the WNT program into this same convient to USSF form.

  3. frank schoon, November 7, 2019 at 1:19 p.m.

    David has done well all these years without any DA program...DUH!! I'ts the best thing that happened to his development.. And get this he learned to play as an Hispanic way out in the boondocks, explain that one.  Of course there is lots of room for improvement to better one self but when you look at what the DA and MLS has done for the U17 as seen in Brazil, his father saved lots of money for not having him involved in DA and he's doing just fine.

  4. Wallace Wade, November 7, 2019 at 2:51 p.m.

    I've known this was the case for sometime now. It's one of the main reason the US can't compete on the World Stage. We are not fielding our best players. Just the ones that are conveniently located and have the right connections and are financially OK. The advice I would give to a young talented athlete that doesn't live near one of these facilities is, pick a different sport. This interview is enough to turn anyone's stomach 

  5. Bob Ashpole, November 7, 2019 at 3:44 p.m.

    I realize that a lot of commenters including myself have criticized USSF for being so exclusive, and getting moreso every year, but this passage bears repeating:

    "KLAAS de BOER
    : What U.S. Soccer has to do is hire scouts to scout players outside the Academy. The Development Academy operates a bit in a vacuum. They do not do scouting of players outside the Academy, and I think there are a fair number of talented players who play in metropolitan areas in Hispanic leagues and youth leagues. If it's a city without an MLS club that subsidizes their Development Academy teams, it costs $4,000, $5,000, so a lot of talent isn't playing in the Development Academy, and they're not getting scouted.


    It's an unfair playing field where amateur Development Academy teams like Wolves and Vardar, these kids have to pay, and their better players of course will be snatched away without compensation by MLS clubs that perhaps have residential academies."

  6. Bob Ashpole, November 7, 2019 at 3:48 p.m.

    I am so tired of reading interviews with people afraid to speak frankly. Thank you Mike, and thank you Mr. De Boer for this honest interview. 

  7. don Lamb, November 8, 2019 at 10:26 a.m.

    Great reporting, Mike.

  8. humble 1, November 8, 2019 at 11:27 a.m.

    Good peice.  Interesing guy, Klas de Boer, would not have known of him if I did not read this.  One could make the case that there are very few guys in his class in terms of experience and knowlege in the front lines of soccer in the USA.  Mike does a very good job of bringing this out.  For me, the most interesing quote is the question from the sage, de Boer, at the very end: "And the lack of transparency from U.S. Soccer, what is the purpose of the secrecy?"
     

  9. Matt Kenny, November 8, 2019 at 1:09 p.m.

    Klaas also mentions he went to see the boy at his High School game. If the kid is in DA he would not be able to see him in a high school game. I know three kids from DA that left the DA because they wanted the HS experience they started at 12 and wanted to play with their classmates. The DA restricts kids too much. I am in NYC so there are 5 DA's in the area so we are fortunate. Based on the HS restriction I don't wish that on these kids. My 10 year old is trending towards DA but I'm not sure I want that for him.

  10. schultz rockne, November 12, 2019 at 6:51 p.m.

    Klass de Boer: also a NE Ohio legend. Coached Cleveland State in their mid-late 1970s NCAA heyday. Helped put CSU in the national spotlight and gave us growing up in 1980s Cleveland an outdoor soccer viewing option. Also coached the hugely successful AISA Canton Invaders. Thanks, Klaas. Thanks, Mike W.

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