National Academy developmental concept, league, being discussed by USSF, club directors by Robert Ziegler, Top Draw Soccer April 4, 2007

First in a series of articles about possible changes in our youth development system and our competitive format

It’s not a proposal, it’s just a concept.

It’s just some ideas … and an ideal.

But it is beginning to be a major topic of conversation in the world of elite youth soccer in this country.

Top Drawer Soccer has learned that U.S. Soccer has discussed with a number of leading clubs the concept of an Academy level in elite youth soccer, with 60 to 80 clubs forming teams that would meet USSF criteria for training, competition and other areas, with participants competing against one another and eschewing many if not all the competitions club teams typically engage in.

USSF personnel have been floating the concept to leadership of various clubs, including a presentation made at the Nike Club Summit in Beaverton, Oregon at the end of March. Nothing has been presented as of yet to the USSF Board of Directors as feedback from the club was desired first.

In talking with leadership from nearly a dozen elite youth clubs, it is apparent that the ideas presented have drawn some interest from the clubs, but also a lot of questions about details, timelines and implementation, particularly regarding how such changes would affect the financial status of the participating clubs.

“It’s clear that the dynamics around the country are changing,” one coaching director said. “It’s hard to see how pay-to-play can survive at the highest levels. But they will have to show us how this can work for us financially, because this is our livelihood.”

“It’s great that US Soccer is taking a more active role in developing the elite player,” another coach commented. “From that perspective it’s a great idea, but from an execution standpoint there are a lot of questions that need to be answered.”

No coaching directors contacted were willing to speak for attribution about the ideas. USSF Secretary-General Dan Flynn, Deputy Executive Director Jay Berhalter and Interim U.S. Men’s National Team coach Bob Bradley addressed the group in Oregon, but were not available for comment

U17 Men’s National Team coach John Hackworth was permitted to speak briefly with TDS about the concept. Hackworth said the heartbeat of the proposal is the need to improve elite player development nationally.

“Players will improve through quality and quantity of training sessions, relative to matches played. Therefore we need more training combined with meaningful matches at an appropriate competitive level,” Hackworth said. “We need to make more of our matches meaningful matches. We need a break for the players. We don’t need a format where players play 3 matches in 30 hours. The goal should be to train at a high level consistently to prepare yourself, then to be able to apply your skills at a 100 percent level per match. We don’t do these things now.”

Hackworth said the reforms suggested in the plan would help bring American player development standards in line with leading soccer nations, but in an American context.

“This is not a new concept. All over the world , any club that has a major youth program, will train 5 days a week and play a game on the weekend. Their competition is set up to actually be competitive, where the teams are playing opponents of a similar level and a like-minded commitment. You see this in England, Argentina, Germany, pretty much everywhere but here. These leagues are set up to develop players, not to win. The Middlesbrough (English Premiership club) youth coaches were here last week and they told us they never look at results, ever. It’s not that they don’t want competition. They do want it and they want it to be as tough as possible, but they don’t sacrifice player development for results.”

Hackworth declined to get into specifics of the plan, noting that its formulation is still in progress as the input of the club coaches and others is considered.

From club personnel on hand at the Oregon presentation, some following ingredients of a framework were gleaned:

1. 60 to 80 clubs participating
2. Participants agree to establish a training-to-match ratio of approximately 5-to-1 as a weekly norm for an academy layer team.
3. Participants subscribe to a USSF-driven curriculum on proper player development methods and programs.
4. Academy teams would compete in a national league, with play in regional divisions, with an approximately 30-match schedule and possibly a national final of some sort.
5. Participating teams would not play in most or any other club competitions, including U.S. Youth Soccer’s National Championship Series, the Super Y-League, U.S. Club Soccer National Cup and other club tournaments.
6. Academy layer teams would be free of charge to players.
7. Age groups would include U15 and U17 players.

Coaches contacted have generally agreed with the principles raised.

“A lot of the ideas are easy to agree with,” one club coach said. “Yes, there are too many games. Yes, there should be more training sessions per match. But there wasn’t much on how we would actually do this. They’ve got a concept and I guess they were looking for feedback from people in the room and then they were going to go through that and discuss it with their board.”

Coaches raised a consistent pattern of questions including:

1. What will the criteria be by which participants in the Academy level are determined?
2. Who will ultimately decide which clubs get in and which clubs don’t?
3. What will a coordinated training and match calendar look like?
4. If approved by the USSF Board, what will the timetable be for implementation?
5. How will said schedule mesh with the clubs’ need to get players sufficient exposure before college coaches? Can some current competitions still be integrated with the league schedule without passing a maximum-match threshold?
6. Will one size fit all in terms of geography? Clubs in some areas of the country, such as North Texas and Southern California, feel there is no need to upgrade the quality of competition available locally. Can such clubs participate in a modified way?
7. What financial assistance will be forthcoming for the clubs to make up for lost revenue from the establishment of a free top level?

One coach noted that the last question reflects far more than just a knee-jerk turf-protection mentality.

“They say we need to do this for the sake of player development,” the coach said. “Well there’s no doubt we can improve in a lot of areas, but our biggest challenges have to do with resources or lack of resources. We need more coaches, better coaches and better facilities. If they want to help they should help us with that.”

All coaches contacted said no reference to financial assistance was made by any of the USSF personnel.

Opposition to the concept from at least some of the current organizational, developmental and competitive entities in elite youth soccer seems likely.

Hackworth said the focus of deliberation and decision-making needs to be on the players themselves.

“You take these players we have with a high level of commitment, both from the player and the family, and you need to give them freedom to become a better player,” he said. “Right now so many of our youth players, outside of the 40 guys in residency, don’t have a lot of choices about how many games they play or what their training schedule is like. They don’t have those choices because in our current business setup the best players have to play in all those competitions. We take our best and put them in something that almost anyone would agree is crazy if we’re trying to focus on making players better and getting better as a soccer nation. In this business setup the clubs have to be successful on the field in these competitions that are not tailored to make them better players, so it’s a vicious cycle. We need to give the greatest number of kids the best chance to succeed, and not just while they are the in program but afterward. We have to get better and we have to evolve.”

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Top Drawer Soccer will issue an editorial covering the concept and questions raised shortly.