Monday, March 03, 2008
When I was little, the one chore my brothers and I used to fight over getting to do was pouring the milk for meals. Why? Because this was the old days of glass bottles and whole milk with the cream risen to the top. Whoever poured the milk could assure that he or she got all the cream, leaving everyone else with skimmed milk. Eventually my mother got wise and she would shake up the milk before handing it to one of us to pour. So we would get even wiser and stall pouring it until the cream or most of it rose again to the top. It was all about the cream!
Last year the United States Soccer Federation (U.S. Soccer), the main soccer governing body in America, sanctioned a new youth program called the U.S.S.F. Development Academy (Academy) for boys. The push for this program came from several national team and elite club coaches who felt that the present structure of youth soccer was not serving the identification and development of top youth players in this country. The United States, despite some strong success in both the women's and men's program, has lagged behind European and South American programs. These founding coaches felt that having just one residential developmental academy in Bradenton, Florida was too narrow a pool of players from which to draw for the national team. Most of those residency players had been identified through the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program and its 55 state associations divided into four regions. The Academy signed up 64 clubs throughout the United States to participate at ages U16 and U18. The clubs were divided geographically into eight conferences with eight teams each. Rosters had to have a minimum of 22 players with no maximum, but all players had to start at least 30% of the games, therefore rosters much larger than 27 players wouldn't practically work. Competition began in fall 2007 with the bulk of the games scheduled in 2008.
The Academy emphasizes strong, consistent training and equally strong competition between its member clubs. It mandates a minimum of three days a week but no more than six days a week for training. Games cannot be more than one a day or two a week. Competition is conducted among geographical conferences but they can extend as far as a thousand miles and competition between conferences can go equally afar, so travel is a large component of the program. In addition the Academy mandates that members may not participate in any other programs including tournaments, Olympic Development Program, Super Y League, State Leagues, and State, Regional, and National Championships. There are a few exceptions for tournaments over winter and spring school breaks. In the place of college showcases, the Academy offers their exclusive fall, winter, spring, and summer showcases for member clubs. Additionally, the Academy offers player profiles on every single member player that college coaches can access and DVDs of any showcase games coaches might want to see.
While the intent of the program seems admirable on face value, the construction is top down. In other words, the real purpose of the Academy seems to be to locate additional prospects for the national team. Otherwise, if the training system was so broken why didn't the Academy begin with U-13 and U-14 players where it could nip this inadequate development in the bud? There are approximately 1800 players on rosters in the Academy at each age level. Out of that number perhaps as many as 50 or as few as one will be identified as National Team material. What will be the benefit for the remaining players? If it is training, I have to wonder what have these top 64 clubs in America been doing up to this point? I would imagine conducting top level training for their players, otherwise how could they win tournaments, state, regional or national championships, and leagues, and how could they contribute players to the national program? Since the exact same coaches are conducting the training as before, then where is the major shift in developing players? If the benefit to players is exposure, most of these clubs have on their rosters six or more state, regional, and national Olympic Development Program players and the teams already qualify to attend the most prestigious tournaments and showcases. If it is locating that player who is isolated, these clubs would already attract that player if he was willing to travel far enough for the training. The set up of the Academy actually makes this elite level less accessible since the Academy only covers 22 states. In the meantime, US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program offers opportunities in all states for players to be discovered. If it is providing college coaches with the material and opportunities to see and judge these players, that already existed through both the clubs themselves and the showcase tournaments they attended.
I want to examine each of these aspects more closely:
Membership in the Academy required application and acceptance by the Academy board. Most of the member clubs are naturally in large urban areas as these are the clubs with the most top players, the highest licensed coaches, and the facilities and tradition to run the practices the Academy expects. Therefore, despite the Academy's goal to increase the ability to find and train hidden soccer talent, the set-up of the program precludes discovering players far removed from urban centers. In addition, only twenty-two states and the District of Columbia are represented in the 64 teams of the Academy. California has ten teams, New York has five, Illinois, Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio have four each, New Jersey, Colorado, and Virginia have three each, with the remaining thirteen states and D.C. with two or one team each. The eastern seaboard and the west coast are well represented and the states bordering the Great Lakes have a fair share, but in the middle of America there is nothing. If a talented soccer player lived in Lincoln, Nebraska, his nearest opportunity to participate in the Academy would be Colorado or Missouri.
The Academy set-up restricts competition to U-16 and U-18 teams for this year at least. Most U-18 players of talent will have already committed to colleges by the time games begin in earnest. These players don't want to spend their money traveling to play games. They want to save their money for college, train, maybe get a final opportunity to win a state, regional, or national championship, and look forward to graduation and college. As a result many clubs didn't have enough U-18 players who would participate. In order to fulfill their obligation, these clubs had to include their U-17 players on the U-18 roster. While the Academy encourages players to play up at their ability level, the difficulty with this situation is that most U-17 players are anxious to participate in the top college showcases in order for college coaches to see them play. They want to invest their travel dollars in the opportunities that showcases offer them. So clubs ended up having to require that their U-17 players participate in the Academy in order to assure a roster. Few U-17 players knew before they tried out for a team that they would be required to be a part of the Academy. They thought they had a year to wait. This has lead to some very hard feelings.
"The focus of the Academy is player development. Academies provide players with the best possible opportunity to achieve their utmost potential as elite soccer players." Since the argument for formation of the Academy was that training was haphazard, why have the Academy start with U-18, the one group most corrupted by the broken training system and the one group least likely to improve or even want to participate? The answer could be that the national team coaches aren't interested in swelling the ranks of the national team pool with younger players. This means that gifted younger players will continue their development under a broken system until they are old enough to begin the Academy training. Of course that would only be if they are lucky enough to live within one of the 22 states with an Academy team and/or within a couple hours of an Academy team. Additionally training continues to be with the same club coaches all these players had prior to the formation of the Academy. The Academy will offer courses to the coaches at the national team training camp, so coaches can be learning new techniques for training their players but with little follow-up in the implementation of the techniques once they return to their club teams. Some of these club coaches do have their A licenses, but most have C or B licenses, so the level of their coaching education could be best improved by working towards a higher license, a process already in place prior to the Academy and run by coaches from the national team program. In the meantime, training and development will move along the same pathways they have up to this point. Teams not in warm climates are further restricted by the availability of indoor facilities during the winter and early spring. That means that training and development will have the same barriers as before the formation of the Academy. Nevertheless, the Academy states that elite players will have "increased connection to U.S. National Team program through enhanced scouting by National Team coaches." Again, how many players does this practically impact? While it benefits the National Team program, it realistically does little for the majority of players.
4. College Showcases
The Academy did respond to restrictions on tournament play by creating four college showcase opportunities for Academy member clubs. The second was this month in Frisco, Texas at Pizza Hut Park. It did not work out well for two main reasons. First, the rules of the Academy do not allow for free substitutions. While this may work for conference games, it doesn't work for showcases where all players should have an equal opportunity to be seen. Without the ability to sub freely, coaches ended up having to keep players in the game while other good, college material players sat on the bench not being seen by the college coaches. Second, this sub rule was further complicated by having the showcase games count towards the conference championships. Since the Academy offers the carrot of a championship tournament at the Home Depot Center, coaches were loathe to sub out players should they risk losing that opportunity for their club. Therefore, college coaches were invited to attend games by players who either never got enough playing time to be judged or never got playing time at all while the coach was present. I spoke to a dozen college coaches who had complaints about this process because they had spent a portion of their recruiting budget and hadn't gotten to see one third to one half the players they thought they would. In addition the Academy restriction about only playing two games in a week means that clubs played only two games in a two day showcase. Since most college showcases provide three games for every club, this gives coaches more opportunities to swing by a particular club team during a three day tournament and more opportunity for players to get the playing time to be seen. During the Frisco showcase several games were held later in the afternoon on the second day, yet coaches had left for flights home by midday. Therefore, players who were promised that they would play most of the game on the second day ended up missing out. A three day/three game schedule would provide so many more opportunities to be scouted.
The restrictions on Academy players to forgo all other soccer programs, leagues, and tournaments means that even players at this cream level of soccer will end up missing out on opportunities. While coaches are watching players from teams outside of the Academy compete at the top showcases and having the chance to see them player two or three times at those showcases, players in the Academy are sitting on the bench at Academy showcases for entire games. The benefit of being in one of the top programs and being amongst the top players quickly becomes a yoke preventing many players from achieving the future success they are capable of pursuing. I can't help but feel that the restrictions were more for the benefit of the Academy than for the benefit of the players who they felt might be overtraining or overplaying. By restricting clubs and players from participating in other programs, the Academy can carve out a very nice monopoly on the elite soccer scene.
6. Growing Pains
While the Academy may prove to be the right direction for youth soccer once many of the problems are addressed, it seems that the vision is top down looking only at the crème de la crème and throwing out the rest of the cream with the milk. The frustration becomes that this year's participants are guinea pigs in an unproven format. While U.S. Soccer works to get it all right, a significant year for the U-17 players hobbles along. The vast majority of the players in the Academy have no hope of making the National Team. Therefore, under this top down model, their purpose seems to be to provide teams on which or against which the handful of prospective national players can play. The Academy needs to figure out quickly what it is going to do for the majority of the players whose goal is to make a good college team. Since the Academy prevents these players from participating in the primary college showcases in the country, it needs to step up and reformat the college showcases it does hold. That one correction would go a long way towards resolving the frustration of players, parents, and coaches who are hamstrung by the Academy policies.
I ask again: What is the Academy providing for the soccer player that the player didn't already get with his club team? These member clubs were already the top clubs in America and as such provided training, exposure, and opportunity to their players before the Academy. What they didn't do was gather in places where national team coaches had the opportunity to see the players in a comparative environment. That certainly serves the top level of national soccer, but again doesn't answer what the Academy does differently for the majority of the players. I will admit that the conference competition under the Academy is stronger than Robbie's club faced in league and in Super Y, but his team sought out competition in other venues to provide that higher level such as Dallas Cup or other elite tournaments. In addition, the Academy needs to figure out how elite it can afford to be. With the Academy devoid of teams from 28 states, national coaches still have to rely on programs like Super Y League and US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program to identify players in these states. If the United States wants to build a strong national program, it won't be able to do it on the back of just 22 states. If the present membership of teams remains the same, then the program is ignoring a raft of excellent players. If the membership expands, the Academy risks diluting the program with weaker clubs. I think it is telling that the quotation page for support of the program from coaches only contains one coach from outside the U.S. Soccer Developmental program. If the emphasis is on development, than the program should have begun with the younger players who can still be molded; not those who have already learned for years under what these coaches argue is a lousy system.
While I want to embrace this Academy, I can't. I try to find justification for such a shake-up in new advantages for the players, but I don't see it. The founders of the Academy state that with so many disparate and competing programs, players were being pulled in too many directions. Their training was suffering by being too much or too little and the clubs' focus on playing games across the boards of these various soccer programs resulted in players being over-stressed mentally and physically. The only serious conflict I ever saw for a player's time and skills was between club practices and Olympic Development practices which occurred on a parallel schedule. Most clubs would release their ODP players to participate in those practices knowing that players were getting coaching from top level coaches. Otherwise all other programs dovetailed into one another nicely. Economics usually have provided the best restraint on overdoing. There are only so many travel dates a family can afford. Since the clubs I have observed and spoken to have the same coaches, the same training facilities, the same training schedule, I can't really figure out what the Academy adds to this. Perhaps I am missing something in my research, my observations, and my interviews. What I come across is no understanding of what has changed in terms of training and a lot of frustration for how this Academy has negatively impacted the college recruiting process for member players. Perhaps some adjustments can be made in the coming months to improve that situation. Since the impetus for beginning the Academy was to improve the development of players and the identification of players, it seems more reasonable to me that it would have begun with the younger ages, rather than older players who have already been seen dozens of times through ODP and are approaching the end of their club training time. For now, I feel tremendous frustration with and restriction from the Academy without any evident payoff for the change. If many players are to be guinea pigs to afford a few players the chance to go national, it's a dangerous option without a reward in the important scouting years of their soccer lives.