Soccer in America is ever evolving, especially at the select level. Because relative to other nations, soccer exists in a nascent form in the US, coaches, organizations, and fans clamor for a better system to develop elite players and make the US men competitive in the world arena. On the women's side America has been quite successful, probably because women's soccer on the whole is new and since the US had already established equality in availability of sports for men and women was well-prepared to field women's soccer teams. Other countries were slower to emerge, so our visionary political philosophy served women's soccer well. But for the men, we have been playing catch-up to developmental systems which have existed for decades and work for the size and history of other world nations. So what has the US done to try and make our players, especially men, more competitive?
The granddaddy of modern elite soccer programs in America is the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program (US Youth Soccer ODP). It was formed in 1977 to identify and train elite players in order to create a national team to compete at the international level. In 1982 a girls program was added. The model for the program remains that each US Youth Soccer State Association has tryouts to identify players for a state team. These players are trained by local coaches. Under the model the US is divided into four regions, and once a year the state teams from each region met at a summer camp where regional and national coaches evaluate the players to select regional teams. These play domestically as well as have one or two international experiences. The national team pool is then drawn from the four regional teams and a number of players are selected to train year round at the National Team facilities in Bradenton, Fla. This model is established for five age groups beginning at approximately age 13. Every soccer player in the United States has access to an US Youth Soccer ODP soccer program through his or her US Youth Soccer State Association. College coaches use US Youth Soccer ODP as a measuring stick for a player's investment and success in soccer, so as a program it is recognized as a respected evaluator and developer of players.
However, the U.S. Men's National Team has had disappointing results at the top competitive levels of soccer and is presently 22nd
in the FIFA rankings. Meanwhile, the women, who played their first international game in 1985, have won two World Cups and three Olympic Gold medals and presently are number one in the FIFA rankings. Coaches have been seeking a better way to identify and develop top male soccer players in the U.S. in hopes of becoming more competitive in the international arena. To that end, several organizations have sponsored additional elite soccer opportunities for players. The basis for these changes has been that elite soccer players play too many games against far weaker competition, don't band together enough in elite teams, and don't have the proper training to achieve top level abilities. In order to address these weaknesses, several soccer organizations have offered their own identification and developmental programs. These include United Soccer Leagues (USL), US Club Soccer, US Soccer Federation (USSF), and even US Youth Soccer who oversees the US Youth Soccer ODP.
United Soccer Leagues which operates several competitive adult leagues for both men and women formed Super Y League (SYL) in 2003. Clubs could join this league and are registered through US Club Soccer rather than US Youth Soccer; thereby, allowing the clubs to create teams with players from several different clubs in the area. The idea was to form elite ""super"" teams at several age levels that would be the best players competing against other teams of the best players. The league operates in the summer, so that players can still fulfill their clubs' playing obligations, but offers them a different venue for competition, training, and US Youth Soccer ODP identification. USL got US Youth Soccer ODP approval to use SYL as an US Youth Soccer ODP identification tool. SYL holds a camp in the summer where invited, identified players attend and are assessed by US Youth Soccer ODP coaches. SYL also forms a national team of its own to compete internationally and give more players that experience. Additionally, they hold a national championship for U13 through U17 boys and girls teams.
US Club Soccer was founded in 2001 gaining sanctioning by the USSF as an official soccer organization. In 2004 it began an identification program for U13 boys called id2 by holding a national camp in the summer to which players are invited. Throughout the year, players are scouted by id2 scouts as they play with their clubs. In the spring identified players receive invitations to attend the camp. In 2006 a girls' component of the id2 camp was added. Players are evaluated for possible inclusion into the national team program. In addition US Club Soccer sponsors a National Cup competition for U12 – U17 boys and girls teams. This begins with regional play in the spring and mid-summer and culminates in the championship tournament in July.
Addressing the need for better competition for the top teams and players in the country, US Youth Soccer www.USYouthSoccer.org
began a Regional League for each of its four US Youth Soccer Regions. Teams that rank first at the end of the league competition receive an invitation to the US Youth Soccer Regional Championships, a part of the prestigious US Youth Soccer National Championship Series, just as the winners of the US Youth Soccer State Championships do. Identification of top players is a portion of the reasoning behind the Regional League, but more importantly the league was established to address the issue of top teams not being able to play top competition unless they went to tournaments. Now, teams can compete across state lines with teams in their region and thereby insure better competition. Some club teams opt to forego state league competition and only do regional league, although they risk not qualifying for US Youth Soccer State Championship. In addition US Youth Soccer formed the US Youth Soccer National League
for Under-15 through Under-17 Boys and Girls to again foster stronger competition with eight teams at each gender age. Teams are expected to compete in their respective Regional Leagues as well.
In each of these elite soccer programs, the opportunity to selection for the U.S. National Team pool remains relatively unchanged. Players can still participate in US Youth Soccer ODP, state league, regional league, SYL, US Youth Soccer National Championship Series, and as many of the programs as players have time and money to do.
However, the new USSF Development Academy took a radical departure from this model when it was formed in 2007. Clubs joining the Academy were prevented from participating in state league, regional league, US Youth Soccer National Championship Series, SYL, and US Club Soccer id2, and players were prohibited from participating in US Youth Soccer ODP. The philosophy was that players had been spread too thin with all the elite options. Players needed to have one central program whose purpose was to develop players under a single model using top coaches, top competition and top players to motivate and shape each player. National Team coaches attend showcases sponsored by the Academy a few times a year. The league is limited to a U-15/U-16 tier and a U-17/U-18 tier. There are 75 clubs involved in the Academy divided into four conferences with two divisions each (Central Conference has three divisions). Teams compete throughout the year, except during high school season. There is a prescribed amount of training sessions each club must provide weekly in addition to fitness training and testing. The hope is that with concentrated training, top competition and scouting in a game environment rather than in tryouts the National Team coaches will be able to locate better players more efficiently.
Players looking to move up to a more elite level of youth soccer now have several avenues. They aren't just bound by their clubs, which provides players in isolated areas the chance to have the same opportunity for identification as players in metropolitan areas. Limiting all of these options remains the three key factors of distance, time and money. Next week I want to address the strengths and weaknesses of these various options and why the US still has a ways to go to be competitive in the men's arena.