Gerry McKeown, who grew up in "Soccertown USA" Kearny, New Jerse,y and has spent 22 years coaching at New Jersey youth club Players Development Academy (PDA), can always offer a unique perspective on the American youth soccer landscape.
One major development in the youth soccer space in recent years is the rise of MLS Next, a boys national league across six age groups that launched in 2020 in the wake of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy ceasing.
“The first thing to be said is that [MLS Next] is excellent,” says McKeown, who serves as PDA's Boys Executive Director of Coaching. “But I think the amateur clubs draw a little bit of a disadvantage at times and perhaps need more of a voice.”
More on that dynamic later.
McKeown is also the boys director of id2, the U.S. Club Soccer scouting program whose selections have included players such as Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Timothy Weah.
But the find he’s most proud of? Sam Vines, the 24-year-old Royal Antwerp defender who has excelled in Belgium’s first division and started for the USA during its 2021 Gold Cup title win. McKeown picked Vines for national selection in the id2 international tour event in 2013.
“I don't know if anyone would have picked him when he was 13 because he was a tiny little guy playing as a left back,” says McKeown. “The risk we took bringing him on the trip, because of, who plays a left back who's four-foot high?”
SOCCER AMERICA: MLS Next will be entering its fourth season next fall. How do you evaluate its success so far?
GERRY McKEOWN: The first thing to be said is that the league is excellent. But I think the amateur clubs draw a little bit of a disadvantage at times. For example, we work really hard to put programming in for our kids so that by the time they leave us, they've had a lot of really challenging games and feel really good about where they are.
But we don't have U-19 games [vs. MLS clubs]. That's our first team. Why shouldn't all of the MLS teams be made to have U-19 teams?
SA: Many MLS teams don’t field U-19 teams because they figure their promising players of that age have moved on to the adult level, such as MLS Next or UPSL. Why is that a problem for the amateur club?
GERRY McKEOWN: No. 1, [amateur clubs] are holding up the league everywhere else, and yet MLS teams can pick and choose what age groups they want to participate in.
And what about the kids MLS teams have in their program? The bottom line is that MLS is a professional league, but the focus in youth soccer is 98% of these kids are going to college. So is it even fair to their own kids? Are kids expendable?
SA: Go on ...
GERRY McKEOWN: MLS academies have kids who come through their program and then at 17, if they're not good enough to play USL League One, Two, or whatever else they're putting those kids in, they don't have a home. And they're still involved in the college placement process.
It's unfair to the kids, it's unfair to the amateur clubs, I feel. They go to other clubs, but it's disruptive for the kid.
SA: In MLS Next’s U-19 standings, there are some MLS clubs or MLS-affiliate clubs peppered across eight divisions that are made up mostly of amateur clubs. In the U-17 division, every MLS club is represented, which makes sense, because U-17 is the critical age in player development for MLS academies to focus on.
GERRY McKEOWN: It comes down to budgets, right? Their programs are expensive. I understand that. I still think it's unfair to both their kids and to our league. We want to play them at U-19.
MLS academies still have the opportunity to place kids in really good schools, and I think there's real value in that. A bulk of recruiting is done at U-17, but you can't overlook late bloomers.
SA: The goals of an MLS academy and an amateur club’s academy might be different.
GERRY McKEOWN: They're looking for kids who can play in their first team, for sure. And I understand that. I'll say this: If we have a kid at 16 who has potential to be a pro, we give him to them.
SA: Like how Daniel Edelman joined New York Red Bulls academy from PDA when he was 16 years old?
GERRY McKEOWN: That was the right thing for the kid. He needed a bigger challenge. Even those U-19 games aren't good enough for him. He needs something more. We can't provide that, so he needs to move on.
SA: Do you think more MLS clubs will start more U-19 teams, given the budget crunches during the pandemic?
GERRY McKEOWN: A lot of people used Covid as an excuse to cut costs. The airlines — everyone did it. I don't know if that's so valid anymore. And look, at the end of the day, I realize that they're spending millions of dollars on their program. Millions. Our model is different in that it's pay-for-play — which we'd like to get rid of.
SA: Has having MLS Next in your program attracted more players to your club, at the young or older levels?
GERRY MCKEOWN: There's been a movement at the youngest ages to stay more local. Which I don't disagree with. I can fully understand that. There's an age when it becomes critical. We haven't seen an impact at the younger ages but we have seen an impact in the participating ages.
SA: Your U-17 MLS Next team is one of the best U-17 teams in the country. It was one of 64 teams to qualify for the 2023 MLS Next Flex tournament. At that event in May, it won its group, winning three out of three gams to qualify for the MLS Next Cup playoffs. What is it about that team that makes it special?
GERRY McKEOWN: If you would have asked me in August if this team would win the league and win MLS Flex, I would probably have doubts. Because they were fragile mentally, a little bit, they weren't sure how to win games, they turned a lot of wins into ties — by the end of the season they seemed to have matured as a group and have done really well.
It's two pieces: one is, the coaching has been very positive. The kids have been good about doing their homework, taking lessons from things that don't go so well and maybe rectifying that. Film work has helped them a lot. And I have to say, Tyler Stakiwicz [U-17 head coach and PDA Boys Academy Director] is exceptional at developing young players. He's done a great job.
SA: What are things that he does well as a coach?
GERRY McKEOWN: For the club, in the 22 years I've been there, every single dilemma or question or inquiry starts with, 'What's best for the player?' Then, 'What's best for the team?' 'What's best for the club?' 'What's best for the game?'
Tyler has a very unique way of being patient. Tyler has a very good way about expressing to all of them, every game, that the result is not critical, but the performance is. If you're going to work five days a week to be playing in a match — you don't always win and soccer's a funny game and he always illustrates that. Some days, it's not fair.
He wants them to work in a group, transition both ways, be honest and to hold each other accountable.
SA: One of the biggest issues for youth soccer clubs is pay-to-play, the high cost of elite youth soccer. Have you found a way around that barrier?
GERRY McKEOWN: From the beginning, we wanted our club to be free for the players. We've never found a way to do that. Our expenditures are too high, and to compete for coaches in our market, you have to pay good salaries. If you don't, they're going to go down the road and could probably coach one team at a suburban club and make as much as they do here doing a team-and-a-half. We always fight that.
We thought maybe at one point we'd be able to get corporate sponsorship — we haven't made that happen. Some other clubs around the country do a really good job with that. They're in hot markets, in tech areas, and are able to do it.
Before I leave this job, that's something I would really love to happen.
SA: What is the new project with PDA called Urban Initiative about?
GERRY McKEOWN: Recently we began building futsal courts in urban areas that surround our facilities. Urban Initiative, it's a program I came up with during Covid thinking about what we're doing.
SA: What the club is doing? What do you mean?
GERRY McKEOWN: The majority of the kids who are doing pay-for-play are going to college anyway. Now, with our club, they might go to a different college. Some of them might get scholarships. But we could really impact some of these kids' lives if we get a kid from New Brunswick who would be the first one in his family to go to college.
That's what we're looking to do. Make the game more socioeconomically diverse. We're relatively diverse as it is, but there's not a lot of poor kids other than the ones who are on scholarship now.
SA: Without a scholarship, PDA club soccer isn't cheap is it?
GERRY McKEOWN: Not at all, and when you start adding travel it's bad. I would say to all of the leagues, not just the MLS, be careful of venue selection. Can we regionalize things, and do the final at a fancy venue? The cost is overwhelming. It's a lot for kids and for families.
SA: The critical piece of youth development, as you said, is performance over result. Is it hard to stay true to that tenet when families are spending so much time and money on the sport?
GERRY McKEOWN: If you get the technical stuff right, if a team's foundation is good, you will win enough games. Are there games you lose at 14, 15, 16 because you're so committed to building out of the back? Of course. And you get backlash on that: "Why is a goalkeeper passing to our center back?" "Why don't we just play it out?" I think we're lucky enough in that we win enough games for a lot of years that that hasn't really become an issue.
SA: Ten years ago, in an interview with Mike Woitalla, he asked you about the success of U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy, and you said we would know 10 years from now. Well, here we are. What do you think?
GERRY McKEOWN: The academy structure, that I'll say has continued with MLS Next, has helped the game immensely in terms of accountability for coaching and raising the standards of club play.
Let's just talk about fields: Before, you may go to an opponent that's 50 yards by 100. If you're trying to play possession, out of the back soccer, that's a difficult place to play. It's a huge advantage for that team.
A bigger change than that is the change in coaching and licensing. I know that in the Northeast there was a lot of fraudulent activity: coaches said they 'played' on their national team from wherever they came from, and played at Leeds United or Newcastle as a boy — all this stuff — and they'd get a following.
It would travel by word of mouth and marketing and they'd have a bunch of kids around and weren't necessarily doing the right things other than making a lot of money.
The academy system has weeded a lot of that out, which is really healthy. They went to a better environment that wasn't just an accent, for lack of a better way to put it.
SA: What're your thoughts on high school soccer for kids at your club?
GERRY McKEOWN: I have mixed feelings with it. We have kids who play high school — mostly private school kids who are getting their tuition paid for.
For kids who want to play in public schools, it's not as easy. But I would say a lot of guys improve differently when they play high school. Simply because they have a bigger role in their team. For us they might be a right back. For their high school team, they might be in central midfield; they're a leader, making a big impact in games — I can't say that that's bad for them. There's a lot to be said for that.
The other component would be socially. Our kids are training five nights a week, busting their rear ends, and they're really talented guys, and nobody in their hometown would know. Nobody.
Playing in front of crowds, people who care, their families, there's a real trepidation going into the game: 'We better win for this, or that.' Socially, I think it's huge.
SA: The fear of embarrassment from your classmates might be a good thing?
GERRY MCKEOWN: Your classmates, or what about the next town over? I grew up in Kearny, New Jersey, and we still fight with guys from Harrison. It's a big deal.
SA: Kearny, New Jersey, has an impressive list of American stars who call it home. What was your generation?
GERRY McKEOWN: I'm older than the John Harkes, Tony Meola, Tab Ramos group. In fact, I coached Tony in high school. I had just finished college, was knocking around, and was an assistant coach at Kearny High. He was a freshman and didn't play in goal. He played up front. We had another guy who was a good goalie [Sal Rosamilia] and believe it or not, Tony was a really talented striker.
For the Carolina Lightnin’ [American Soccer League, 1981-82], at one point we played with four guys from Kearny: myself, Steve McLean [a member of the U.S. team at the 1981 FIFA World Youth Championship], Santiago Formoso [seven U.S. caps, New York Cosmos defender] and Hugh O'Neill [played in NASL, ASL].
SA: What makes Kearny a special soccer place for you?
GERRY McKEOWN: The reason I'm building these futsal courts is because that's exactly how we grew up. We took over roller hockey rinks that were fenced in with fence goals. We'd go and play. Every day.
And in the summer it was upwards of 40 people, five-a-side, winner stays on. There's no better coaching you can get than peer accountability. If you go off and have to wait six more games to go back on, that was a problem. If you gave the ball away and they scored, boy.
SA: How else do you think free play makes a better athlete?
GERRY McKEOWN: It's so similar to basketball when people say, 'Who do you think coached Michael Jordan? Who taught him these moves?' Nobody. He had the freedom to do it on the street and on the courts.
We don't get enough of that. Everything our kids do now is so sanitized. Every time they play, there's a coach, there's a million cones — the more cones, the better the session, right? They have pinnies, everything's perfect and in the same kit, and it's just different. I often wonder, if I were late for training, would anything go on? Could they get a game together?
SA: How can people who work in youth soccer better provide the free play environment?
GERRY McKEOWN: I think kids staying local is good. If we could provide a futsal court in every neighborhood — you could call 10 guys, then you've got a game. You don't need a ref, you don't need anything; you go and you play and you figure it out.
SA: Your time as director of U.S. Club Soccer's id2 and the players it's helped identify?
GERRY McKEOWN: Some I'm more proud of than others, right? I mean, all of them I'm proud of, but my favorite story would be Sam Vines. I don't know if anyone would have picked him when he was 13 because he was a tiny little guy playing as a left back.
The risk we took bringing him on the trip, because of, who plays a left back who's 4-foot high? I think he got the most out of what he had as a kid. I think he overachieved and I think he's brilliant.
Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams — that's easy, everyone picked them.