Tuesday, March 17, 2015
We’ve all done it — rushed to the league website or the tournament boards to see where our kids’ team stands. The all-important ranking determines any number of things: status, ability to advance, pride, future recruitment, and club affiliation. Under our developmental system we still depend on standings because so much else depends on it. The result is that clubs end up focusing on team strength often at the expense of individual player development. No one wants to admit it, because clubs sell their product on the basis of developing your child to his or her next level. However, clubs need to recruit players to pay the fees that keep the club running and that recruitment often depends on how well the team is doing. Organizations do tout their success stories — which players went on to play at college or even the professional level, but the real attraction is where the club stands in comparison to the records of other clubs.
It’s a system that used to exist in England. Kids were coached on either community or school teams until they were 15, mostly by volunteer coaches or teachers. Those teams competed for the best players by advertising their standings. There was supplementary training available to good young players at Centers of Excellence run by the various professional clubs of the English Premier League (EPL). Outside of the Centers, youth played a tremendous number of games, tournaments, and friendlies fueled by membership on both club and school teams. At age 15, players could be “owned” by professional teams meaning that they signed contracts with the youth programs of EPL clubs. They then were trained by the club’s staff at no cost to the player with an eye towards these players developing into viable professional players. This old system parallels to some extent the American system, where players register on both club and school teams playing up to four games a week. Some players can join United States Soccer Federation (USSF) Developmental Academy teams at U13/14, although the primary emphasis is on U15–U18. They are excluded from joining high school teams. The remaining majority of players are trained by clubs and schools.
In 1990, the youth program in England underwent a significant change. The professional coaches and national team sponsors felt that England was falling behind on the international level and needed a stronger development program. They also recognized that such a program needed a financial incentive for the EPL teams to agree. Additionally they understood that they needed to make as serious an effort in developing female players as they did male players. Although females were not yet attracting the crowds and therefore the payrolls of male professionals, they were becoming an important part of international soccer.
The Football Association (FA) mandated a Premiership Academy system for the EPL. The clubs had to abide by a strict set of guidelines closely monitored by the FA. Foremost, the Academies had to be fully funded by the clubs, meaning no costs to the player and his family. Unfortunately, no such provision was made for female players, so steps still need to improve there. A few professional clubs do run a fully funded development program for girls (led by Arsenal), but many still require the players to pay for kits, travel, and facility fees. In return for their financial support, clubs own the players they train. This means that on a smaller scale than with their professional players clubs can trade their youth players for a fee. The cost of running an Academy is around $3 million. If the Academies can produce one excellent player a year for the professional level, they can end up covering all their costs with a single “sale” since the average value of an EPL player is $5 million. This financial incentive means that clubs are motivated to focus on the individual player, rather than an entire team’s success. In fact, clubs are prohibited from playing more than 30 games a year, and these are all friendlies. There are no standings, instead the team’s position in the EPL is measured by the success of the professional team over which none of the youth players or coaches have control. Instead the focus is on individual development beginning as early as age 8. Clubs are mandated to not just teach techniques, skills, and tactics. They must also teach players how to be players off the pitch with lessons in nutrition, character, hygiene and social skills. The FA knows that not every child who enters the program will turn professional, but all will eventually be citizens.
Players are signed for a season, which runs September through August, and they cannot leave the team until the end of that season. Clubs are allowed to sign up to 30 players at each age level, but usually only sign half that number. Players U-9 through U-12 have one-year contracts and at the end of each year the club decides whether to retain or release the player. Another club can sign the player at this time but must agree to a transfer fee to be paid to the original club to help defray the costs the original club invested in the player. At U-13 the situation becomes more serious. Players are signed for two year or four year contracts giving both the player and the training club stability. At U17/18 players have to either make the transition to being on the professional team or leave. They sign an apprenticeship contract. Finally at U-19 they can become full-fledge professional players who may be sold to other clubs at the will of the clubs and approval of the FA. Since even a novice EPL player can be worth $3 - $5 million, clubs have a significant financial investment in creating top players.
Training focuses on a strict philosophy of development. The policy is extensive and clearly outlined for the clubs (www.premierleague.com/content/dam/premierleague/site-content/News/publications/other/youth-development-rules-2013-2014.pdf). Games are not the important center of training nor are wins. In fact, players younger than U-13 can only play one game a week (capped at 30 games) and those must be on the weekends. Players can only play for the Academy (so no school teams), and they are guaranteed at least 24 games a season. Matches are used for players to practice making their own decisions based on the training they received during the week. Coaches primarily focus on team tactics and positioning during games, but may even leave that to the players, choosing instead to offer instruction during game breaks or after the game. The idea is to help the player have confidence in his or her choices and to depend on teammates. During the week, practices focus on skills repetition. Players may spend an entire practice on first touch or dribbling techniques. Developing good habits in practices is the goal that is done in three phases: Foundation Phase, Youth Development Phase, and Professional Development Phase. There must be at least one coach at each level with a UEFA A level license, and the number of coaches at each level is strictly controlled. Players U-9 through U-11 are at the Foundation level and play 8v8, players U-12 – U-16 are at the Youth Phase and play 11v11, and all other players are Professional Phase.
The overall guiding force in these changes was to develop players who exhibit creativity and confidence. Therefore, players are encouraged to find their own style based on the strong, repetitive training they received before U-12 in skills, techniques, and tactics and their refinement in later years. The FA is hoping to gain strong, breakout players who take their training to a higher level with their own signature talents. By attaching a financial component to the development they are hoping to ensure that clubs will nurture that creativity, individuality, and talent to create world-class players. The club will only need one or two significant players a season to off-set the costs of their youth program. So far the EPL has been a happy supporter of the Academies having seen some robust results. On their website they promote their Youth Academy with stories and video highlights of training. Fans are delighted to see these budding players as they develop into the stars of tomorrow (www.premierleague.com/content/premierleague/en-gb/youth.html).
The girls program begins with training at the Centers of Excellence through U-15 and continuing to play with their clubs and schools, but they can be signed with club teams at U-16. There are no professional women’s teams in England, so most strong female soccer players aspire to play for U.S. colleges (yes, just like in “Bend It Like Beckham”). Therefore local school and club teams are heavily scouted by American recruiters since they recognize the strong coaching these players receive in England. Players at the Centers only train, and don’t play games. Once signed, the Academy teams only compete in friendlies and therefore don’t keep standings.
Unlike here in America where parents are heavily involved in their children’s training and games, Academy parents are often excluded from watching either. They have to sign a detailed code of conduct agreement and can jeopardize their child’s future if they break any aspect of the code. Parents receive regular progress reports on their players, but they cannot engage with the coaches. Clubs stress that a parent’s job is to keep their child focused on training and provide support so a child can accept being released by the club. Even those who are selected for the Academy have an infinitesimal chance to go professional. Coaches make that abundantly clear from day one to both parents and players. Since those chosen for the Academy are all strong players it will often be their mental approach to the game that will be the difference between being retained and being released. Therefore, it is the parents’ job to provide an environment that nurtures the proper mental approach to the game which includes being realistic about abilities and not over-inflating their egos.
Unfortunately here in the U.S. such a system will be difficult, as the nation is divided into four regions used for national competitions. The first difficulty comes with the size of our country and the limited number of MSL teams so that we can’t run the same type of Academy as the EPL does. While all MSL teams do have an Academy team, in order to geographically provide opportunities to more players, the Academy depends on club teams for numbers. A quick look at the map provided on the website indicates how much of the U.S. isn’t covered by any Academy program. In fact, other than Colorado and one team in Kansas, the plains states are totally devoid of Academy possibilities. Additionally, on the website there is a tab for “standings,” which I think is the second major problem for our Academy system. The local club teams associated with the Academy need to sell themselves to parents and kids considering teams they want to try for. The clubs’ financial well-being depends on recruiting large numbers of paying players, and the major selling point for families is being in a winning program. Academy teams compete for players in major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Denver and the non-professional Academy teams need to attract players to all their teams, not just the Academy ones. With an emphasis on wins, there naturally comes an emphasis on games, which by definition means teams have to be successful. Clubs can’t afford matches to be solely a training opportunity because their standings advertise their status to potential players. The third major roadblock will always be college recruiting. Youth players want to play at that level, preferably at NCAA Division I, and to get there they must be seen by college coaches. That means attending the top-rated tournaments in the country which approve team applications based on their competitive resumes. Academy teams usually get selected, but even then their status can restrict the number of college coaches willing to spend their limited time watching a weak team’s matches. Finally the role of parents in the “development” of their players will always be an impediment. In the name of good intentions parents often over-manage their children’s soccer lives including making demands of clubs and coaches, holding their child out to the top “bidder” (i.e. getting club scholarships even though they afford the fees), putting them in multiple playing situations, and moving their child from club to club in pursuit of top billing. So players often are on winning teams, but miss out on real development. Just watch some of the top youth players now at the college level who still don’t have first touches.
The US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program is a good option for players in all states. Each state has an ODP team for which players can try out by contacting their state association. Players train a few times a month and play friendlies. There is then a selection process for the state team, which goes to regional ODP tournaments, and players are identified for possible selection to the national youth teams for both boys and girls. The primary limitation of ODP is the distance players must travel for training, which further limits the training opportunities. But players are exposed to top level coaching and to college coaches.
Until professional soccer expands further in the United States we will face an imperfect developmental system. Nevertheless, my hope is that the clubs will move to a model of training and games that mimics the EPL Academy, i.e. only play friendlies and limit the friendlies. Exposure to college coaches can be arranged by holding regional friendly events at U-15 and above that become showcases for the players without needing to have standings or declare tournament champions. Additionally clubs should do more to limit the “coaching” input of parents. West Ham is considered the top Academy in England and has the most restrictive parent contract (soccernation.com/tony-carr-west-ham-united-academys-director-on-youth-soccer-in-america--cms-3374). Coach Tony Carr is leaving the academy, but has built a strong model. Many Academies offer American youth players the opportunity to train in England over the summer and offer EPL Academy training at summer camps in the States. This might be the best solution right now for bringing U.S. youth players into a stronger development model.