Rick Derella is one of the founders of Connecticut's Oakwood Soccer Club.
Oakwood Soccer was a member of the the Boys Development Academy and Girls Development Academy from their respective launches in 2007 and 2017. Since U.S. Soccer folded the
DA program, Oakwood has joined nine other non-MLS DA clubs in the Northeast in discussions with MLS about entering the new youth program the league is contemplating. On the girls side, Oakwood has
joined the new Girls Academy League to which most former Girls DA clubs have moved.
Derella, the club's director of coaching, grew up in New York's Rockland County, an area that produced a host of Haitian-American stars like Ronil Dufrene, one of the first U.S. internationals to play in France. Derella fell in love with soccer at a young age and in 1970, when he was in eighth grade, his mother let him take a bus from their home in Spring Valley to New York's Port Authority and then a couple subway rides over to Met Oval in Queens to play for German-Hungarians.
"OK, that's not happening today," Derella says. "But that's my life. That's how I got hooked on soccer, on my club soccer, because I liked it in middle school. There were challenges, there were always challenges."
There are challenges today for Derella and his club in face of the COVID-19 pandemic. But he also sees them as opportunities for his players.
SA: What has been your message to your players during this break?
RICK DERELLA: During this period of social distancing and hiatus, you need to build a relationship with the ball. All you need is the ball, and the ball could be a toilet paper roll right now for all I care. But you really need to develop a relationship with the ball, spend time with the ball, whether it's juggling, whether it's against a kick-board, dribbling around your dog, playing 2v2 in the basement.
I'm the oldest of six siblings and I used to play in my basement with my other brothers all the time. And when we moved, there was a rider on the sale of the house to fix all the broken windows. That's a true story. My mother doesn't like it.
You got to play with the ball. And if you take ownership in your development, it's going to go a long way. I think it's going to stick with you. I mean, if I can remember how I trained 50 years ago, it made an impression on me.
SA: How receptive are your kids to what you're trying to tell them?
RICK DERELLA: You have to sell it because it's the truth. It's how the rest of the world develops players. Soccer starts at home and it starts with the ball. And the kids know that if you put time in with the ball, they're going to get better. Obviously, some take it more to heart, but they've been forced to do it. They don't have the resources of a normal week at Oakwood. So they have to be really creative. And if they put their mind to it, they'll take ownership of it. And we've been selling it to the players as some of them will come back better players if they put the time in with the ball.
The feedback I've gotten from players and from families has been fantastic because we try to be empathetic and we want to stay connected and we want provide good leadership at a time of crisis. And that doesn't mean make rash decisions. It means figure things out and be patient and have trust. And trust is probably the most important thing that we have with our membership.
SA: How important is it to build or rebuild
relationships with other Connecticut clubs?
RICK DERELLA: We're trying to reconnect. We think that this is the rebirth. I'm reaching out to the executive director of the Connecticut Junior Soccer Association. The Development Academy came in and we eventually became isolated. We didn't get to play the local clubs as much. We're trying to rejuvenate those relationships. And it could mean in any form. We want the former DA teams to play vs. the ECNL teams. We're all for that. We've put on benefit games where our boys and girls played against ECNL. If I could get them to come. We're ready to do it. And so I think the opportunity to re-bridge what's been fragmented is there right now.
Left to right: Dave Farrell, Tom Mulroy, Rick Derella.
Derella was a graduate assistant at the University of Akron when he came to Connecticut in 1980 to work for the MISL Hartford
Hellions, where his childhood friend Tom Mulroy was playing. The Hellions needed a place to practice and they used the facilities at the Oakwood Farms Racket Club. The Hellions
folded, but Derella stayed on. At first, the facility had one soccer field and three tennis courts but later the soccer business became so successful the tennis club was turned into all soccer fields.
Derella bought it along with co-founder Dave Farrell and turned it into the Oakwood Soccer Center. Oakwood Soccer, a youth club, was formed in 1988 and joined the Boys DA when it
started in 2007. Derella and Farrell used the equity they built up in the indoor facility to purchase land for an outdoor soccer complex, TD Oakwood Soccer Park.
SA: Were you surprised at the news of the Development Academy folding?
RICK DERELLA: We were shocked with the timing of it. Obviously, there's been a lot of talk about MLS creating their own league the last few years, but the timing of it was shocking, for sure. When I heard about it, I immediately tried to reach out to leadership at U.S. Soccer. I sent personal emails to [president] Cindy Cone, [sporting director] Earnie Stewart, [women's national team general manager] Kate Markgraf to plead with them that you need to know what's happening on the ground and that you need to protect all the clubs. So we have a landing place. I was urging them to stay involved somehow, somewhere in the youth game because they need to connect the alphabet soup.
It's a chance to bring everybody together. And I think with the MLS option on the horizon here they were kind of going in that direction. It's going to be a reinvention of the landscape and hopefully there will be greater input from the member clubs. One of the things that's impressed me the most over the last two and a half weeks is that we have great intellect and soccer leaders across the country who are like-minded whom we have been on the calls with, and it's pretty moving.
To think where we were -- forget about 1981 but 2007 to now. We've grown a lot in terms of overall resources for the youth game. We invested $2 million in a complex, put coaching education and leadership skills in place and created daily environments that are much better. So we are going in the right direction. Don't get me wrong, the implementation by U.S Soccer was poor, and there were a lot of reasons for that. They never really had someone who had run a youth club in that office. Only Tony Lepore. The only one. You have some foreign people that were brought in. That's a different animal. The relationship between a pro academy in foreign country to Oakwood only overlaps 50 percent in terms of the DNA because we're a family community club. We only have 450 members teams because we don't have second teams, so we are an anomaly. We are, as Tony Lapore would say, the boutique club because we chose to not have all these extra teams because we wanted to keep the quality high and service the people that we cared about.
SA: What was the response from the three leaders at the federation you wrote to?
RICK DERELLA: Do I have to answer that? Of course, there was no response. One of the biggest problems that I used to argue or complain about was that there was no face to the DA. We used to get these emails -- or these demands -- and it was signed by the "Academy staff." I don't want to talk to an intern in Chicago. You know what I'm saying?
SA: What was the best and worst thing about the Development Academy experience?
RICK DERELLA: I think the worst thing was that they didn't give us a platform for input, to collaborate with us. So there was lack of trust there. They had different needs. The MLS clubs have different needs than the amateur clubs. So it was kind of a love triangle to U.S. Soccer, and that wasn't going to go away. They couldn't figure it out.
The best part is we created much better, improved training environments and the DA was a true development model. It was not a business model. They were pumping a lot of money in subsidies that are now gone, and we were going to have to pass on to our members going forward. So that's a real challenge. The standards, the philosophy, the principles, higher coaching education. There was a lot of good things going on. The implementation is where they failed. The coaching licensing things -- it's kinda hard to find an A-licensed U-12 coach, guys. The shoe doesn't fit.
SA: What are some of the subsidies that are gone that you and the other clubs will have to figure out how to pay for?
RICK DERELLA: We think that with self-governance in new model, we'll be able to keep money in the game. One of my pet peeves with most of the leagues in the country, not the DA, is that the money comes out of the league. There's a lot of fees being charged, whether it's hotel commissions, showcase fees, etc. We're going to have to figure out a new budget this year. We're working on that diligently now. There were no showcase fees with the DA. They were no referee fees for U-15 and above. So we got to pay for that. Now, it's pretty black and white.
SA: The 10 non-MLS clubs in the Northeast have banded together. How important it is to have a unified front and common interests to be able to navigate what's next?
RICK DERELLA: We're prepared to run our own league. If the MLS isn't prepared to roll this out in September, we have to be prepared to protect our interests in our clubs and our memberships. We're prepared to run U-12 to U-19. We want to work with MLS, we're ready to jump on board. But if they're not ready because they got a lot on their plate -- they're losing money with a "b" not with an "m" -- we're losing less than that. We have empathy for them. And I'm really excited from what I've heard.
The timelines are crucial. The worst-case scenario is it's going to be the same as the Development Academy. We want to make it better. And I think going forward, it gets a little trickier with player movement protocols and all that type of stuff. Are there going to be solidarity fees? How is it going to work? What are the relationships? If MLS wants the ecosystem to flourish at the younger ages, if they've got all young kids at a young age, it doesn't really help the league. It hurts the league. They need to keep the talent spread out. The kids get a little older and then they start to migrate towards the pro academies if that's the pathway that's needed. So there has to be trust, it has to be a two-way street. And I think we've seen some growth. The relationship between Oakwood and the Revs was built over time because there were some bumps in the road.
SA: It's ironic that last year the Boys Development Academy was split into two tiers at the U-18/19 age group, driven by MLS's complaint about the level of competition. But now MLS needs every club, including the ones that weren't in the top division.
RICK DERELLA: It's kind of a Mexican standoff, like in those movies. Be careful what you ask for. But we're all in this together so we have to figure it out. That's hard on their part, I think, because they have a lot of different opinions and different type of MLS clubs. Just like there are different amateur clubs. A lot is determined by your geography and your philosophy. Those are probably the two biggest components.
SA: While all the uncertainty of the current crisis makes it difficult, what is the path going forward?
RICK DERELLA: We're prepared if they're not prepared, that's all. They're on, like, a three-week timeline and they're one week in. They're coming up with their process, whether that means their CSOs (chief soccer officers), their competition committee. I don't work for MLS, and I don't really want to speculate. But the collective unity on the boys and girls side from the Northeast clubs has been commendable and it's been enjoyable to be part of the process. It's pretty important to us. I'm a lifer. It's pretty good to see where we've grown if this can happen like this.
Geography is an advantage for Oakwood, located in central Connecticut. Most Development Academy away games are less than two hours away with only a couple of games requiring a bus. But Oakwood is just far enough away from the three MLS teams in neighboring states -- the New England Revolution, NYCFC and New York Red Bulls -- that as Derella says, "they're not breathing down our neck. We're 70 miles away from them. So if a kid goes at a young age, it's probably for the wrong reasons. And we have really good relationships with the Revs, NYCFC and Red Bull." Geography helps in terms of college recruiting. New England has one of the highest concentrations of colleges in the country, most with soccer programs, and they frequently are at Oakwood games, lessening the pressure for players to attend showcases.
SA: One of the issues that comes up so often is the cost and time of the travel involved, and all the showcases, which revolve around college. How do you balance going forward the issues of cost and the college pathway that is so important to so many of those involved in DA programs?
RICK DERELLA: Our approach on the college pathway is, again, built on the trust. We are not like a leader in these gimmicks and recruiting services and all this stuff. If you learn the game and play the game to a high level, the recruiting process will sort itself out. And that's the message that we send to families. We have fantastic relationships with college coaches at all three levels, Division 1, 2 and 3, across the country. If you just worry about the showcases, you're worried about the wrong things. We want to prepare the kids to be able to play and get on the field in college. It's not about getting into the college, we're preparing them to get on the field.
SA: Talk about the move from the Girls DA to the new Girls Academy League.
RICK DERELLA: Unfortunately, the Girls Academy only lasted two and a half years. In our club, we had the opportunity for the girls to see how the boys' culture changed through the Development Academy since 2007.
When the ECNL was first rolled out, it was just a few tournaments initially in the very first year. It was a string of tournaments, and you had to go to these events and you would get in. We are not event-driven. It didn't work. It didn't float my boat. Now as it evolved a couple of years later, we did try to apply and we were rejected or blocked on the girls side. We were part of the group that created the New England and Mid-Atlantic NPL, which was very strong. It included Match Fit, it included a lot of clubs, and we were part of that process and we created a really good platform and we went forward.
While that was happening, the girls saw what was happening on a 10-month basis with the boys, and our girls were ready to do it. We're ready to do it. I started a fall 10-month team the year prior to the Girls DA and we played against club teams, we played against college teams, we played against prep school teams and we trained in the fall, and they really bought into the training environment. It's not the training environment, it's about having that opportunity to do it. And each kid has the choice. If they played at a high school that was in a strong situation, they might lean in that direction. But it's not for everybody. They just want to have the choice.
Anyhow, two and a half years in, the girls really bought in. We were really pointed in the right direction this year. If you do look at our standings, etc., pretty good. We were doing the right things and, and we were pleased with it. So when this all happened with the DA announcement, we quickly banded together with this grassroots movement with people like Matt Grubb down at FC Dallas and David Richardson at the Sockers. It's pretty amazing. And I think we have a chance with self governance to push this forward. I hope that we can stay the course. We're committed to a 10-month season, 100 percent. That's what all our players want. And when you think about that, it's really about having the option, the ability to do it because it's not for everyone. We think that with the self-governance, we can steer this in the right direction and keep money in the game by having a cooperative venture with these showcase events, etc. But the reality is that in the short term we're going to be playing much more localized. We know that. And fortunately, we can make that happen with our complex and with neighboring clubs.
SA: The Development Player League in its announcement about the Girls Academy League mentioned "offering the flexibility to play high school soccer."
RICK DERELLA: It's going to be a 10-month season, but most states can play high school as the same time as club. In Connecticut, you cannot.
SA: The distinction would be that instead of the Development Academy, which banned girls from playing high school, now girls will be allowed to play if it's practical and permissible.
RICK DERELLA: The problem is, the science doesn't match. Anyone that believes in periodization can't believe in doing both.
SA: Anything else you would like to add ...
RICK DERELLA: I'm positive that this opportunity created by a perfect storm can turn into something new and better. And with collaboration and trust, we can bring the youth landscape back together. And I am hopeful there is a role for U.S. Soccer to be part of that. They are the federation, and hopefully they can bring US Club and USYS together. I don't want to be naive about it, but we have a chance, especially because we have to play locally in the short term, former DA teams with ECNL teams. We need each other.
Photos: Oakwood Soccer