Monday, March 14, 2016
In 2007 United States Soccer Federation (USSF) began its Boys Development Academy (DA) with an eye towards improving the pool of players for the U.S. Men’s National Team (MNT). Clubs could join the DA but had to agree to several non-negotiable terms. At first the restrictions focused on competing development programs such as the United States Youth Soccer Association’s Olympic Development Program (ODP), Super Y League, etc. Within two years the USSF decided to also constrain players from participating in high school soccer. Over the past eight years the DA has come under fire for not significantly improving the men’s national soccer pool and for removing a “rite of passage” for players who couldn’t also experience the rush of competing for their hometown high school and whose soccer careers wouldn’t be continuing in college or with the MNT. The DA is also dependent on already existing clubs for membership, most of whom are in large metropolitan areas. Therefore players with skills who lived in rural areas without powerhouse teams were neglected under this system. This has always been an area of advantage of US Youth Soccer ODP; it created its own state-wide team from all areas of the organization’s 55 member State Associations. Training with ODP allowed all players the opportunity of identification for state, regional and national teams that was not available to them through DA and the ability to continue to play in high school.
Now the USSF has announced that in the fall 2017 it will launch its Girls Development Academy using the model it has for the Boy’s DA with few age groups. This has given rise to some serious debate within the soccer community. Presently the United States Women’s National Team (WNT) is ranked number one in the world and has strong showing at the youth international levels. Presently members are identified through US Youth Soccer ODP, US Youth Soccer National Championships Series and US Youth Soccer National League events in addition to programs from other organizations. Critics of the USSF plan cite the limited impact the Boy’s DA has had in improving the level of men’s soccer and the heavy restrictions placed on the member clubs’ players. US Youth Soccer does not limit a player’s opportunity to play in high school or other leagues. Many players want to participate in the community spirit that surrounds being on the high school team, especially since most American players will not play beyond that stage. No one wants to characterize the Girl’s DA as precipitating a turf war with existing programs despite looming restrictions against these programs.
However, despite the creation of the Boy’s DA and other competing organizations on the girl’s side, many adult and youth players who have found success on the national and international stage grew up playing US Youth Soccer. Of the 23 players named to the 2014 FIFA World Cup U.S. National Team, all 16 players who played youth soccer in the United States have a heavy US Youth Soccer experience. Omar Gonzalez won two US Youth Soccer National Championships, Michael Bradley competed in the 2002 National Championships and Deandre Yedlin, Alejandro Bedoya and Matt Besler competed in US Youth Soccer Regional Championships.
More recently, the top-three picks of the 2016 MLS Superdraft have US Youth Soccer ties as opposed to playing in the Boy’s DA. The first overall pick, Jack Harrison, won three US Youth Soccer Region I Championships and the 2014 US Youth Soccer National Championships with Manhattan SC PSG 96 (NY-E). Harrison also won the Golden Ball at the 2014 National Championships, given to the most valuable field player. Joshua Yaro, the second pick in the draft, played club soccer for Santa Barbara SC (CA-S) and represented Cal South at the 2011 US Youth Soccer ODP Championships. Yaro’s former college teammate and fellow Philadelphia Union draftee, Keegan Rosenberry, is a US Youth Soccer National League alum, and reached the finals of the 2011 National Championships with Penn Fusion (PA-E). Even Jordan Morris, who signed a record Homegrown Contract with Seattle Sounders, spent a majority of his youth career playing in US Youth Soccer events and programs. Morris’ Eastside FC (WA) first competed at the US Youth Soccer Region IV Championships in the Under-13 age group in 2008. Morris would go one to compete in five Region IV Championships that included earning a 2011 title. Eastside also claimed a 2011-12 National League title and twice finished third at the National Championships. Morris was awarded the Golden Ball at the National Championships in 2012.
On the girl’s side. All 23 players on the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Championship roster have US Youth Soccer ties, including nine players who have competed at the National Championships. Ali Krieger, Megan Rapinoe and Morgan Brian reached the finals, while Tobin Heath, Amy Rodriguez and Christen Press all claimed national titles. The World Cup Golden Ball and Golden Glove winners, Carli Lloyd and Hope Solo, both have multiple years of experience playing US Youth Soccer ODP, and Solo first transitioned from forward to keeper while playing ODP.
All 20 players on the U.S. squad that qualified to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil played US Youth Soccer ODP. Emily Sonnett, who was one of those 20 players, was the number one pick at the 2016 NWSL College Draft. Sonnett won a National League title, two Region III Championships and a National Championships with NASA (GA). Sonnett also was awarded the Golden Ball at the 2013 National Championships.
In this drive to improve a program which many would argue isn’t broken, the emphasis could be on who controls that exclusive syndicate. As soccer grows in popularity in the United States so too grows its economic power. The USSF as the FIFA sanctioned governing power in the United States has tremendous impact on how soccer clubs are regarded. When a club is deemed more elite than others in its area, that club and its coaches gain significant monetary leverage. They can charge more for fees, coaches can earn more and sponsorships are more likely to flow in their direction. Therefore, two factors come into play with this new Girl’s DA: improving the level of women’s soccer in America and maintaining or increasing financial benefits to the clubs involved. In a perfect world the latter wouldn’t even be a consideration, but clubs are dependent upon fees paid by members to keep their teams viable. Some might argue that money would be an incentive in strengthening a club’s development programs – the proverbial carrot.
Unfortunately all too often money doesn’t translate into stronger development but into stronger recruitment. Winning teams get prestige which rolls over to increased demand and higher fees. Development takes time, but finding strong players and bringing them to a club is faster and arguably more lucrative. Most clubs and umbrella organizations would take umbrage with the suggestion since everyone is touting development. Nevertheless history shows that we need to question if these development programs actually develop players or just develop winning records. The two don’t need to be mutually exclusive, it’s just that too often they are.
Over the last two decades, based on empirical data, one would say that the women’s program in the United States must be doing a better job of developing players than the men’s program. In the third most populous country of the world with 323 million people and a history of strong athletic achievement, we should be sitting on a gold mine of soccer talent ready for development.
However, we continue to languish proportionally on the world stage on the men’s side. We have achievements, no question, and we have turned out some impressive soccer talent. The problem is we aren’t doing it consistently and at a level commensurate with our size and abilities.
Why has the women’s side been so much more successful? One point might be that women’s soccer world-wide doesn’t match the overwhelming involvement of men’s soccer. Therefore the competition is more diluted. However, that argument fades away when looking at the top tier of women’s world soccer where the competition is not only fierce but well-funded. We can’t seem to find the right formula for developing men’s soccer.
This concern isn’t unique to the United States. Other large population countries such as China, Russia, Indonesia and India aren’t considered strong soccer competitors with China approaching the status of the United States, but are ultimately below countries such as England, Germany and the Netherlands. Experts say it is our very size which is hurting development. Compact countries can make their development programs easily available to all players, and their strong “ladder” of professional leagues makes it possible for a player to climb to elite status while earning a living doing so. This of course begs the question of why does Brazil, given its huge size, and our own women’s program competing with the same factors as our men’s program both succeed?
As soccer officials struggle with deciphering the puzzle they offer up possible solutions which can only be proven or disproven in the laboratory of real life. In the meantime, the women’s program seems to be a strong success without a lot of tweaking necessary to have it continue. Will a Girl’s DA improve the program even further? That will remain to be seen. If weakened, can it be corrected going forward?
I’ve watched the Boy’s DA with great interest since Robbie’s club joined in the inaugural season. It morphed over the three years he participated culminating in the high school restriction which he was glad he avoided. Luckily his club had high interest with college and MNT scouts so most of his games were well-attended by such. Regrettably several of his high school teammates were on a lesser regarded Boy’s DA team, which rarely saw coaches and scouts on the sidelines despite some strong and capable players. This was a condition which existed before the Boy’s DA despite promises that exposure would increase. I did not see any increased emphasis on development despite the charter we parents received outlining the advantages of being in the Boy’s DA. Our team was a winning team, and the emphasis remained on keeping them winning.
Nevertheless, I also recognize the need to find ways of developing players in the United States. Without the huge national fervor for the sport that infects other countries, we don’t entice players early enough and long enough to develop them the way they can in powerhouse nations. The women, on the other hand, have a strong history of role models coming from our own country. It’s a sport that girls can relate to almost exclusively because there aren’t many others with the exposure that soccer has earned. That may actually be the biggest reason that we can find, develop and retain female soccer players.
Hopefully all soccer powers can collaborate not only on a plan for a Girl’s DA going forward but on improving the Boy’s DA. While ODP isn’t perfect, it did address something the USSF still hasn’t be able to – the players who don’t live close to Boy’s DA teams. It’s true that in a development program “fairness” can’t be the driving factor. This isn’t the place for “participation” awards and equal playing time. There is an elitism when training the best players that can’t be avoided.
On the other hand, when a player joins a Boy’s DA club and forgoes high school soccer and rides the bench, it isn’t fair to him to be the support system for some elite player at his own expense. That was the advantage of US Youth Soccer ODP as they formed their own elite team where all the players were at a level that was possible to be recognized for advancement.
I do counsel parents to consider whether they want the prestige of their son being a member of a Boy’s DA team but not playing or playing in another league where they can also have the experience of playing high school.
The Boy’s DA isn’t the only pathway to college soccer and isn’t always the only pathway to the MNT. Especially if your child is not of the caliber to be considered for the MNT, then perhaps Boy’s DA isn’t the right place for him. Soon we may be coming to this same conundrum for girls.
While I applaud the continuing study into how to improve soccer in the United States, I also hope we don’t throw out a system which has been working in place of a system we hope will work.