The USSF Academy Plan by Robert Ziegler, Top Draw Soccer June 4, 2007

With the United State Soccer Federation board last week unanimously approving the motion to created an Academy level of youth soccer complete with development criteria and a national league, attention now turns to implementation, which is where so many of the questions connected with the concept lie.

(Editor’s Note: For an earlier story on USSF contemplating the Academy option, click USSF floats Academy idea to top clubs

For an editorial piece on a number of issues connected with the need to professionalize youth player development, click 95 Points about the need for an Academy system )

The program is being called the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Officially clubs were permitted beginning June 1 to apply for inclusion in the fall’s inaugural season, but of course the initiative is about much more than just a competitive league. A major challenge will be for clubs to field appropriate personnel and appropriate numbers to conduct a training program that really makes a difference in the quality of player produced by our youth system. Geographical spacing will be important, as well as oversight of the clubs’ execution of the program.

Some specific things that stand out regarding the implementation include:

• Academy teams will not be permitted to compete in State Cups, leagues or other tournament, with 4 designated exceptions (Easter week, Christmas/New Year’s Week, Nike Friendlies week and August (but August is mainly a rest period, barring a chance for teams to compete internationally – and then on a one-match-per-day guideline). Players will not be permitted to compete outside of their teams except for high school soccer or a national team.
• Academy team players will not participate in the U.S. Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program, but that program will continue.
• The minimum requirements training sessions are 3 per week, with a requirement of 1 rest day per week.
• 2 coaches from each member club will be included in a yearly Best Practices seminar, at the expense of US Soccer.
• US Soccer will assign referees for all Academy matches, and use the Academy as a platform for referee development.
• The Academy league will be split into 4 regional divisions, with a 30-38 match schedule played over 8 months and some kind of yearly national finals at the Home Depot Center in Carson.
• Academy teams will be fielded in the U16 and U18 age divisions, with 22-player rosters for each.
• Determination on which clubs/teams will comprise the up-to-80-team league/program will be made by national team coaches based on the “qualifications of the clubs.” The main qualification seems to be a positive assessment from national coaches, as well as previous history of developing top players.
• Fees paid to U.S. Soccer will include a $1 per player and $25 per coach fee. No team or club registration fees are required, but a $2,500 performance bond is mandated (these are typically instituted to ensure participants don’t become casual about their participation in matches). There is no stipulation concerning the clubs charging players to participate, meaning most probably will, at least for starters.
• Each player on a 22-man roster will be required to start at least 30 percent of the team’s matches.

The idea that such a league can be set up by this fall seems taxing even to the most ambitious observer, but U17 Men’s National Team coach John Hackworth, who was one of a handful of figures closely involved in the formation of the initiative, said response has been very strong already.

“The league competition being in place is actually one of the simplest parts of it. We have commitments from many big clubs and lots of people are very adamant that they want into this and they see it as the avenue going forward, which I’m glad about,” Hackworth said. How are going to make sure everything stays focused 100 percent on player development is one of the big challenges, to be hands-on with the clubs and set a framework from which they can work to really advance player development. It’ll mean a lot of changes and it’s hard to think that every single thing goes completely smoothly right away. But this is the right thing to do and I think in the end most of the good coaches in the country recognize that and want to help make it happen.”

While the USSF “Best Practices” coaching education curriculum will be a centerpiece of the program, how much direction the federation will actually give to the day-to-day training program of the clubs is another vital question.

We’re going to put a lot of manpower to it. We’re going to try and help coaches build a curriculum,” Hackworth said. “There are a lot of good coaches who have been in youth soccer for a long time but have been restricted in what they can accomplish because they’ve been training once or twice a week. Now they’ll be able to address areas of concern immediately in training, which is commonplace, just not in American youth soccer.

“We’re going to set up these workshops with all of the clubs involved in this and lay it out for them. We’ll show them in a calendar year, here’s what you need to do. It’s going to benefit not only the players, but coaches, administrators and referees. The shift is now toward the priority to educate. We’ll in some ways standardize the process of development,” he continued. “At the same time we won’t be telling coaches how to run their own sessions, but we want to give these coaches a framework to work within, and we’re going to be watchful. We’ll be positioned to see certainly a lot of matches and also training and to hold people accountable to do what they say they will when they ask to enter into the program. We understand not everybody is going to always bring the next prodigy to the surface, but we want to see the process begin and evidence that it is moving in a development-friendly direction that works for our young players to give them a better chance to succeed.”

A major question in the implementation process is how clubs might be able to tap into the financial incentives of the international transfer market. To the extent the European or South American models help inspire this initiative, there is a potential disconnect in that those clubs are able to profit from the sale of player contracts. Hackworth said some American clubs have already worked on a model by which they can do the same, but there are some questions regarding child labor laws’ effect on this aspect of the business plan.

“Some are going to try it and maybe for now, some won’t. The clubs have to figure out how to operate some things, and that’s ok. We want them to have that freedom because different marketplaces are well, different,” he said. “Just like some coaches have their own style. We don’t want to say you have to run your club this way, we’re saying to them ‘Here’s the best idea about player development and how to get it accomplished.’”

The transfer fee question relates to the strong likelihood that the new MLS youth teams are going to participate in the national league. Those players will be eligible to be retained by the MLS clubs at age 18, and signed to a professional contract. While Hackworth agreed that this could be an advantage to a pro team over its area youth club competitor (the Chicago Fire vs. Chicago Magic or Sockers FC for example), the track record of player development from the clubs will be another consideration. Ultimately competition will be a good thing.

Hackworth said stand-alone existing academies like Shattuck-St. Marys, Brad Friedel’s Premier Soccer Academy or IMG Academy in Bradenton, plus potential start-ups in other parts of the country, could very well become part of the program.

“I would think any existing academy programs would jump at this,” he said, noting that the U16 age group players at the Bradenton Residency program will be competing in the U18 division of the league.

Hackworth tread lightly when asked about the future of the Olympic Development Program. While Academy team players will not be permitted to participate in the program, he said he expects those teams to continue on at the state and regional level, but noted they may take on a somewhat different look at some point.

“If you are an elite player and under 18 or under 16 and have any kind of desire to develop skill, this program is what you want to be involved in. I don’t think you’ll see ODP go away or any other ID program, they’ll just shift,” he said. “Across the country, we’ve seen a lot of players and parents have a desire to get something more and to focus completely on player development. ODP is not a day to day development program, it’s about the identification and selection of players and it has served a huge purpose in youth soccer. I just think everyone will have to adjust and figure out how to manage things as they change. I don’t think see programs going away because of it. I just think more and more organizations will need to get in line with the kind of philosophy we’re talking about here.”

The material released by the Federation also emphasized that clubs participating in the Academy will conform their younger age group programs to the standards espoused in Best Practices.

“The idea ultimately is that clubs should run their entire club much more in line with player development principles,” Hackworth said. “So their U9, or U11 programs should be similar to how we set this up. It will be much different at the competitive level, but it will also be much different from what the competitive level looks like now. We can give these 9 year olds the opportunity to really enjoy the game, to learn it, and have it so they’re not worrying about winning some Halloween tournament and playing 4 full games in 48 hours or something ridiculous like that. So yes, we want to have a profound effect on the clubs’ philosophies on developing players, and that shift in focus will be huge if we are to move forward as a soccer nation.

“So if we’re committed to that we can look at the clubs and say ‘What are you doing with your teams at the youngest ages? Do you have a mini-academy? Are their coaches focused on individual technical development? Are you mixing large player pools instead of focusing on winning U9 and U11 Cups? It’s not rocket science, it’s really pretty simple. Right now that’s not what happens and that’s where we feel it’s right to have some hands on situations with people. We don’t want to see clubs say ‘Let’s just have winning teams until they are 14 and then we’ll turn it over to player development. Let’s focus on development all the way through, and remember that if you develop players as best as you can, you’re going to be successful on the field anyway.”

USSF Director of Coaching Education & Youth Development Bob Jenkins, who led the “Best Practices” effort, said Academy clubs should serve as satellites in the country, spurring the rest of youth soccer clubs to move in a similar direction, even as they continue competing in the current competitions such as State Cup.

USSF President Sunil Gulati was quoted in a Federation press release saying the move comes after “extensive review and discussion across the country.” Gulati formed a technical committee chaired by DC United executive Kevin Payne that examined a number of the issues related to player development in this country.

“After completing an extensive review and discussion across the country, we feel that it is the right time for U.S. Soccer to lead a change in the sport at the youth level,” Gulati said in the release. “We need to shift the focus of our young elite players from an ‘overburdened, game emphasis’ model to a ‘meaningful training and competition’ model. This will ultimately lead to more success and will allow players to develop to their full potential.”

Men’s National Team coach Bob Bradley also gave his support for the move.

"I'm very excited about the establishment of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy Program,” Bradley said in the press release. “It is very important for U.S. Soccer to work with our top clubs to ensure that our best young players are constantly being challenged in an environment that best promotes player development. With a tremendous amount of reach, this program will help focus training sessions and matches on the areas that are critical to elevating our young players' ability to compete at the elite levels of the sport."

The Women’s Game

Regarding girls soccer, the Federation announcement simply said a similar initiative will be explored.

The College Game

With college recruiting opportunities being in many ways the mother ship of status quo club soccer, Maryland Men’s head coach Sasho Cirovski made no bones about his endorsement of the move to the academy setup.

“For the good of the game, this is a welcome and long overdue concept. Youth soccer has become obsessed with winning and learning through games at the expense of development of fundamental techniques. The emphasis on training, combined with a periodization schedule that will allow players to train and play games mentally and physically at 100 percent, is exciting,” Cirovski said in the Federation press release. “It has become increasingly frustrating for all of my colleagues to watch ‘tired’ players, knowing that they are being paced in practices so that they can survive in the games. College coaches will be able to evaluate players in a consistent high quality competitive environment. In the long run, I believe that this will make our recruiting less costly and more efficient. This is something that all of us in college soccer welcome with open arms."