Monday, February 16, 2009
Last week I covered several of the primary opportunities in elite youth soccer which are used by National Team coaches to identify and develop players in order to make the US competitive in the world arena. Presently women enjoy great success at the highest levels of international soccer, but men falter remaining in the second tier of international play. So most newly developed identification and development programs target boys.
The United States faces three roadblocks to success not faced by most other nations in the world. 1. Our sheer size and numbers make it difficult to create a consistent, widespread identification and development program.
2. We don't have the broad interest and fan base which leads to the creation of numerous professional clubs which can sponsor the development of young players.
3. NCAA rules prohibit the types of programs used in other countries throughout the world.
Given these major roadblocks, which of the present identification and development programs best address and overcome these problems and what changes could programs implement to directly engage the problems?
US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program (US Youth Soccer ODP) provides opportunities in every state for players to participate in an identification and development program. It remains the only organization which has a program in every state. However, it has its difficulties. Most state associations attempt to hold tryouts in several areas in the state to allow players who are a great distance from major metropolitan areas the chance to tryout without traveling a great distance. In reality, the availability of large training facilities, the concentration of top coaches, and the numbers of players coming from cities means that as the program continues during the year, it becomes centered in the cities. For states with long periods of inclement weather, the absence of indoor practice facilities in rural areas makes it very difficult to conduct training for the convenience of players from those areas. In addition, because the program runs in tandem with club and high school seasons, US Youth Soccer ODP can't expect concentrated, long-term training for its selected players. Finally, as with every program, cost becomes a factor. With so many elite programs available, parents have to budget which one they select because paying for each of these programs becomes impossible even for those with strong incomes. Nevertheless, US Youth Soccer ODP remains a fairly reasonable cost and definitely an available program across the United States.
Super Y League (SYL) provides players the opportunity to train, play, and possibly be identified during the "off" season of soccer, the summer. It also provides players from more rural areas the opportunity to play with top players throughout the state during a time that travel is both safer and more convenient. Since SYL allows players from many clubs to come together and play, it does offer a venue for top competition. The main difficulty with SYL is that it only runs for the summer. Teams do try to train in the spring, but usually can't get the entire team together until after US Youth Soccer State Championships because of club commitments. The very best players usually play on a team that will compete in their State Championship, and perhaps move on to US Youth Soccer Regional and National Championship, so those players are available sporadically. Identification depends on the coaches of every team noting and selecting players from rival teams they play as well as coaches selecting their own players. Since rival coaches may only see a player in one game and since home coaches may have favorites not based on careful analysis, the selection of players for SYL National Camp doesn't always identify the best. Again, cost is a factor as is travel. SYL franchises usually go to clubs in the metropolitan areas.
US Club Soccer's id2 program and its own national championship does provide for players at U13 to attend a national camp and to experience that level of training and scrutiny. Again club coaches help in the identification of players to attend the camps. The national championship contest provides tournaments where players can be scouted, but the emphasis remains on the younger player. Cost is less of a factor since most of the program is part of a club's activities and therefore part of the original dues. National camp will have an additional expense. If players are not a member of a US Club Soccer team, then they will usually not be part of the identification process, so it has a limited scope. However US Youth Soccer ODP offers a national camp for the youngest players in US Youth Soccer ODP where players are selected in the regional camps. State teams are always double the size at the youngest ages, fielding a younger and an older team, affording more players the opportunity to attend regional camp and be identified for national camp.
The US Soccer Development Academy has sought to concentrate the qualities of the preceding programs at the club level. This program concentrates on the older youth player looking for prospects for the U-17 and up U.S. Men's National Teams and the National Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla. Encompassing 22 states and the District of Columbia and approximately 1800 players at each of the two age levels, the Academy stands as the most elite of the programs. Its purpose is to identify National Team prospects. Since the total number of players in residency maxes out at about 40-50 players, most of whom had been previously identified through US Youth Soccer ODP, it leaves little room for new additions. Therefore the program also seeks to improve on the training of players at the top level and has recently done a better job of getting them seen by college coaches. However, because of its limited national scope, joining an Academy team remains the privilege of those in metropolitan areas in a limited number of states. Most represented states have only one or two teams in the Academy with the exception of Texas and California which have their own divisions within the Academy. Travel is a huge component of the system, so it is an expensive prospect for most players.
So which programs address the first problem of identifying and training top soccer players? US Youth Soccer ODP remains the only program with a set system in every state. Presently most players on the national teams and in residency have been identified through US Youth Soccer ODP, even if they are presently in other programs. Therefore it is the most accessible to the most players.
The second problem is that the US doesn't have the history or broad fan base for soccer that other world nations have. The Academy has attempted to mimic some of the international training model by having youth teams in the Academy which are sponsored and attached to MLS teams. Unfortunately with only 15 MLS teams they don't even cover 1/3 of the states. Even if you add the 11 United Soccer League 1st Division teams, it doesn't cover quite ½ of the states. With a population of 304 million, the United States has one upper-echelon professional club for every 11.6 million residents. Just as a comparison, England's Premier League has 20 clubs and its Football League Champion Division has 24 clubs. With a population of 51 million it has a professional club for nearly every 1 million residents. England has nine levels of professional soccer with nearly 200 professional or semi-professional teams which stretch over the entire country so that there is a soccer venue available for every 250,000 residents. Even with all our USL and PDL teams, we can just manage 103 professional or semi-professional teams for a total of one team for every 3 million residents. Since players are attached to an adult club team when young and developed by the team for years at no cost to the player, the system works in England because so many youth players can participate.
This brings us to the final roadblock, the NCAA rules. In Europe and South America, youth players have an economic value for the professional teams they represent. Here in America, NCAA rules preclude a player from receiving financial benefit for their talents if they want to play college sports. Since the opportunity to be attached to a professional club still hasn't reached the level of availability in other countries and since professional positions lag far behind those of other countries, the real opportunity for most of our best soccer players to continue playing after high school remains college. For the 50 or so lucky players to be drafted into the MLS, have a position on the National Team, or be placed in residency at Bradenton, college isn't as important an avenue. But that is barely a drop in the huge reservoir of capable, excellent soccer players in America. Any system that seeks to develop players needs to recognize that the majority of elite soccer players in the US will move on to college play, not professional play. Until we have the broad numbers of teams per capita that other countries in the world harbor, we will be at a disadvantage to ask our top players to ignore college. Elite training programs in the United States need to foster the scouting opportunities for these players to be seen by college coaches. We do the youth of our country a disadvantage if we gather them all up to provide only the competition and venue for a few to be identified for national team inclusion. While we seek to be competitive in the world arena, we need to work to increase the appreciation and fever for soccer by fans, so that we can build the broad base of professional clubs needed to nurture and train our players. Once several thousand players can join training programs which provide development daily in a strongly competitive environment with top professional coaches, we will continue to lag behind those countries which have that advantage. Once players have a greater pool of opportunities to play soccer beyond high school other than at college, we will see players taking the risk to forego the college track and seek long-term, exclusive training with a professional club's youth program.
Having said all this, we do have an advantage over many other countries, and that is our huge population and our overall love of sports. We should ultimately end up with an overabundance of top players to join the national teams. For right now, coaches have to see deep into the future with players they select at a young age to join the national teams and the residency program since the number is limited. Given how youth can evolve over the course of their growth, it's difficult to predict who will maintain their size, speed, and agility over the years. But with a giant pool of players trained 40-60 hours a week throughout the US, we can begin to locate and select players who have the experience to compete against our international rivals.