John Ellinger on U.S. youth soccer progress since the 1999ers, the DA's big impact, and high school ball

As head coach of the U.S. U-17 men’s national team, and director of U.S. Soccer’s Bradenton Academy residency program, John Ellinger played a major role in the development of a generation of legendary American players. Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Bobby Convey  and other future stars all came through the system the Maryland native oversaw.

Two decades later, he still works with elite players. The nation’s soccer landscape has changed – and, with the introduction of a new academy system, is poised to evolve once again. But Ellinger still relishes the opportunity to make an impact on American soccer, training top teenage players at crucial points in their careers.

When Ellinger – a former college coach at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, and U.S. Soccer national staff coach – took over the U-17s in 1997, the primary route to the top was through state and regional Olympic Development Program (ODP) teams. Staff coaches also identified promising players at major tournaments like the Dallas Cup. For the past decade, U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy was pitched as the primary pathway for the top tier. The program imploded in March. Now, a new academy – propelled by Major League Soccer – is poised to take its place.

“It has a similar feel, but is a bit different,” says Ellinger, who now serves as boys academy director and technical director for the Baltimore Armour club and is one of six Eastern Conference Chairs for MLS's new youth leagueMLS Next.

Today’s talent pool is “huge,” Ellinger says. But there is more to being an excellent player than technical ability. National youth coaches look for athletes with “bite and grit. You have to combine talent with the drive to get to the next level.”

Ellinger’s 1999 squad reached the semifinals of the FIFA U-17 World Cup in New Zealand. That’s still the best finish by a U.S. men’s youth national team at any world championship in the last 30 years. Yet Ellinger cautions against casting the years since 1999 without similar success in a negative light. Since the formation of MLS, he says, young players have been sold to European clubs. That limits opportunities to play with the national program.

Coach John Ellinger guided the USA to a fourth-place finish at the 1999 U-17 World Cup. (L to R, standing): Nelson Akwari, Alex Yi, D.J. Countess, Oguchi Onyewu, Kenny Cutler. (lneeling): DaMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman, Jordan Cila, Landon Donovan, Seth Trembly, Adolfo Gregorio.

At the club level, Ellinger sees a major positive shift. Many more people now make full-time careers out of youth coaching. They teach the game well, and create strong training environments.

Similarly, more “soccer people” now run the organizations powering youth soccer. The Development Academy was a “game changer,” Ellinger believes, because coaching professionals at U.S. Soccer were in charge. MLS’s involvement in the new academy will continue that trend. Of course, starting a new academy program – even one based on the previous framework – is not easy. It has taken new organizers a while to realize “how many pieces of the puzzle” are needed to run a youth league, Ellinger says. “They’ve done an admirable job, getting club agreements, working out liability and all that.”

Doing it in the midst of a pandemic has not helped. He cites a local example. Maryland’s Montgomery County mandates that players wear masks at all times, including on the field. Spectators are prohibited.

“When you ask a team like FC Delco to drive two hours from Pennsylvania and wear masks, then tell parents they have to sit in their cars, it’s hard. But the kids and coaches have a great attitude everywhere. Just give us a game, and we’ll play!”

Opening games in MLS Next are set for this coming weekend, where play is allowed. Ellinger envisions the fall as a chance for competition, though without any kind of championship. Regional events may follow in the winter, if longer-distance travel is safe.

So how will the new program be judged? “I was a fan of the DA,” Ellinger says. “They did a great job of getting clubs, college coaches and U.S. Soccer coaches in one place. If we can get to that same level, it will be a success for sure.”

It may be surprising to hear that the former national U-17 coach and current academy leader is also a believer in high school soccer. Then again, Ellinger began his career as a high school coach and athletic director.

The long-running debate over whether academy players should or could play high school soccer continues, Ellinger says. “Some areas have great high school soccer. In other areas it’s not very good. When I was with Schellas Hyndman at FC Dallas, we talked about that all the time – playing against older players, learning to play quicker, all the positives of social development. It’s still a discussion.”

In his long career, John Ellinger has heard plenty of discussions. On the cusp of his next adventure – a new academy program – he is once again ready for action.

8 comments about "John Ellinger on U.S. youth soccer progress since the 1999ers, the DA's big impact, and high school ball".
  1. R2 Dad, September 8, 2020 at 9:37 a.m.

    "Since the formation of MLS, he says, young players have been sold to European clubs. That limits opportunities to play with the national program."
    This may be true for the Women's side because of how they've structured their contracts, but the improved training, coaching and competition in Europe between 16 and 23 far outweigh USMNT concerns. We have plenty of competition for spots in the U20 & younger teams and not enough competition in the full Men's team. We need 2 or 3 times as many professionals in Europe playing in the top 5 leagues than we have now.

  2. Bruce Murray, September 9, 2020 at 11:30 a.m.

    John was my youth ODP coach along with Keith Tabatznik and Ken Kreiger. He mentions bite and grit. That has gotten lost in the world of coaching experts that make it all about them and all the formations and philosophies.  John Ellinger was a genius at making players want to play for him. We need to buy in to the way John does it. All the guys I played with would have run through a brick wall for coach Ellinger
    Bruce Murray

  3. frank schoon, September 9, 2020 at 2:14 p.m.

    It is a shock to read what John, an old teammate of mine back in the early to mid-70's , states about the National youth coaches who look and favor athletes with 'bite and grit'. U.S youth soccer has been around for over 50years, and the main criticism over the years  of the American coaches, year in ,year out.....COACHES LOOK FOR SIZE ,SPEED AND ATHLETICISM. It's been that way for over 50 years now. And what do we hear from John, nothing has changed, it's still that way...

    Why is the DNA of American COACHES and we're talking about the so-called better coaches, the National Youth COACHES for that matter, still follow the NEANDERTHAL approach to soccer....Hasn't the US coaches in the past 10 years, or for that matter the USSF Coaching Academy not learned from Barcelona that playing good soccer has nothing to with ATLETICISM, SIZE, SPEED, when you only have to look at Xavi, Iniesta, Burquets or Messi. Barcelona's midfielders were munchkins and showed the world that it was all about technique, and intelligence and good ball handling skills....

    WHY ARE WE STILL STUCK ON ATHLETICISM or rather STUPID..WHY DO WE STILL CREATE COACHES LIKE THAT.  The reason ,I see, is the lack of leadership at highest level that still hasn't come to the realization that we need to instill a certain style or manner of soccer development whereby those coaches who prefer the NEANDERTHAL type of game will no  longer have a future. 

  4. Christopher Tierney replied, September 10, 2020 at 11:28 a.m.

    Frank, you make good points, and US Soccer has to figure out how to recognize and develop cognitive ability in younger players and enhance it.  With that being said, the players you mention are some of the best athletes in the world...if you play at that level, you can run, plain and simple.  Those guys may not be the fastest in the world, but they're not losing many races.

  5. frank schoon replied, September 10, 2020 at 12:51 p.m.

    Christopher , Are you implying the only way midfield munchkins who lack the size ,speed and ATHLETICISM to succeed is to be a great players  but Athletic types don't have to be great to succeed at midfield; I totally disagree with that implication. The point I'm making is you don't have to be big and Athletic to be a good is all about ball movement and ball skills and not Athleticism or size and speed. Look at Pirlo, item ditto. 

    The converse is that ATHLETIC types don't do well in ballhandling, quick foot movement and smart play because these types rely upon their physicality more than anything else. Like Cruyff states, 'the faster the player the dumber. Cruyff sees speed measured as something you have between the ears, quick ballhandling skills, and smarts.

    A midfielder's job is fast ball movement to aid the front line, not FAST RUNNING or being athletic. The players I mentioned avoided duels for that is not their strength.  Fast ball movement and good passing to their teammates in a manner that places the receiver of their passes in position of not having to fights duels unlike what you see in the MLS.

    These players I mentioned that you called great became that way, much later. Busquets was a joke in the beginning and took a while for him to learn that position. Xavi who had been playing all along for Barcelona didn't become a household name until Messi came and played in front of him; Ineista Idem ditto. And Messi, likewise, evolved playing for Barcelona, unlike when he played for the Argentinian National Team where his tenure was basically a 'disappointment...

    "If you play at that level, you can run, plain and simple". You mean if you don't play at that level you can't run? It is not about running but about ball movement for you can't outrun the ball which is somehow not understood in the American soccer culture for continue the Neanderthal approach...



  6. cony konstin, September 10, 2020 at 11:25 a.m.

    We need a soccer Revolution in the USA. We need 600,000 futsal courts so kids can play king of the court, 24/7/365, for free and no adult interference. We need a Rucker’s Park soccer environment. We need to create Courts of Dreams. You build them. They will come


  7. Philip Carragher, September 11, 2020 at 7:24 a.m.

    When I coach kids here in the suburbs, the passing/positional system I insist upon takes a bit of time for the team to learn, especially if its a boys team and its most difficult for the really fast players to grasp. First order of business: slow down. The speedy types are used to dominating by pushing the ball into open spaces and getting there before everyone else does, but that is frowned upon in my system. That player not only becomes exhausted quickly, but also becomes isolated from teammates. A player with the ball needs support. The players who invariably catch on to the system the soonest are the slower players who don't have the easy option of using horsepower to keep possession. The beauty of Cony's advise for learning my system is that futsal's smaller spaces limit the speed advantage and forces players to learn the cognitive and physical agilities necessary for the next level. The game itself is the teacher.

  8. frank schoon replied, September 11, 2020 at 9:21 a.m.

    Philip, that is why 'street soccer' in my days in Holland was perfect learn positioning, shielding, skill in small spaces and no running for who wants to run on concrete and fall....It was the perfect system and still is.  Whenever, I give a clinic I ask the coach to make sure we have a basketball court or the parking lot for I want half the practice on concrete to play on....

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