After 10 years, is U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy working?

ISI Photos-Robin Alam

Why some clubs are staying away

Still, some clubs and players opt to remain outside the Academy framework. One major issue: High school soccer.

The stereotype of high school teams being coached by math teachers who drew the short straw may be true in some places. But in other regions, the local high school coaches are also local club coaches and technical directors.

No wonder ex-U.S. international Eric Wynalda, at the end of one of his flame-throwing talks at the NSCAA Convention, received a rousing ovation from educated, experienced coaches when he said kids should be allowed to play high school soccer.

We allow the leagues that we sanction to have a great deal of autonomy to determine what makes the most sense.

- Kevin Payne, U.S. Club Soccer CEO

Several recent youth stars played high school soccer. Two highly touted players from the United States’ U-20 World Cup team, Jeremy Ebobisse and Gedion Zelalem, played on the same high school team, which seems almost unfair. Cristian Roldan, the Seattle midfielder just named to the U.S. men’s national team for the Gold Cup, is among those who have spurned the Academy to keep playing high school soccer.

With the NWSL still young and not overflowing with money, the lure of a women’s professional career may not be enough to bring top clubs and players into the girls DA. Sting Soccer, an accomplished Texas club, laid out in plain terms why it had decided to pass up an Academy spot:

“Enabling players to compete at the highest level in their club soccer environment, but also providing flexibility in scheduling to allow players to focus on academics, social events, multiple sports, high school soccer and other interests they may have. It is our focused goal to create strong young women that realize success both on and off the soccer field.”

Ryan Mooney, U.S. Soccer’s director of sport development, says the Academy isn’t for everyone: “The Academy is a voluntary program. Clubs decide to participate. Players decide if it’s right for them. For players that want to be world-class -- if their aspirations are elite, we think those (DA) clubs provide the best environment.”

And other options are plentiful. The DA playoffs are just one of several national tournaments. U.S. Youth Soccer has run national championships for generations, even as clubs have taken their teams elsewhere. U.S. Club Soccer and the affiliated ECNL have their own competitions.

It’s surely an unintended consequence, but the DA has accelerated the arms race among other clubs scrambling to join other elite leagues. These clubs now travel greater distances for league and tournament play, selling families on the notion that neighboring clubs aren’t good enough to give them the competition they need to develop or the marquee allure they need to attract college (or, more rarely, pro) scouts.

And a lot of the non-Academy clubs do indeed offer sound foundations. Like the DA, U.S. Club Soccer stresses coaching education -- specifically, an innovative program with La Liga.

“What we’re seeing is more and more competitive clubs are joining our platform because they believe that it affords them better flexibility and a better level of consistent competition with fewer requirements of what they must do, in terms of entering certain competitions and so forth,” said U.S. Club Soccer CEO Kevin Payne. “We allow the leagues that we sanction to have a great deal of autonomy to determine what makes the most sense.”

Having alternate pathways isn’t a bad thing. Some players work their way to MLS through obscure club and college play, just as Jamie Vardy made his way to Leicester City via Stocksbridge Park Steels, FC Halifax Town and Fleetwood Town.

And U.S. Soccer supplements the Academy with hundreds of annual “training centers” -- not permanent buildings, but programs that rotate through the country to identify and train players in and out of the Academy. That’s a small step toward replicating the much-hyped development revolution in Germany, which relies heavily on a national training and scouting network that finds players wherever they are, along with regional pyramids of clubs that stretch into near-infinity.

“(I)n the 90s, only about half of the players that were making their national team debut also belonged to the top teams in Germany when they were 15 or 16 years old,” the German federation claims. “The others were made up of regional top talents, but only became top-class players at a later stage in their development. It’s important to avoid focusing on just a small group of talents and thus discounting a large bulk of talented youngsters.”

The U.S. isn’t Germany. It’s bigger, and it doesn’t have several generations of people who grew up wanting to be soccer players and became soccer coaches.

But for all the criticism of the Development Academy, some of which has made the program adapt, the staff thinks they’re on the right track.

“We built a program in 2007 that has become the standard for elite competition,” Micklos said. “It’s something that is a positive, but we still think it could grow.”

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