Sunday, January 29, 2012
Recently Youth Soccer Insider ran an article about Bayern Munich's youth program. In many ways it is a typical youth program that we might find here in the United States. They run one youth team at each age level beginning with Under-8 and going up to U-17. They also field a U-19 and a U-23 team. Younger teams play 7 v 7 and rotate goal keepers. By U-12 they are playing 9 v 9 and at U-13 they play a full team of 11 v 11. The club differs in three important ways from most youth clubs in the United States. First, every player is scouted. You must receive an invitation to play for Bayern Munich. Second, they sponsor a residency program for players 15 and up. And third, and most significantly, they have a budget of $6.3 million.
When we bemoan the slow development of American players, we can look with envy at an overseas system which has for its youth budget nearly three times the salary budget for the Chicago Fire. The Bayern Munich money allows for professional scouts for each age level, for top coaching, for first-class facilities, for trainers, for travel and for marketing. While Bayern Munich stands in first place in Germany in its youth program, other clubs there and throughout Europe have similar budgets and systems. The top youth program in Europe is Barcelona. My son, Robbie, had the privilege of visiting their facilities and playing against their youth team. I think he is still wiping the saliva from his lips. His team was at U-15 ranked number one in his age group in the United States and they played the U-13 Barcelona team losing 5-2. As Robbie put it, "Those guys really knew soccer."
Some European clubs begin their residency programs at a very young age, with every club having a residency program so that they can scout in a larger range. But for the most part, youth players are no different than their American counterparts. They go to school, and then they travel to the club to train in the afternoons and evenings, playing games on the weekends. However, they train every day. Most American clubs don't. Additionally, these players are training with professional coaches with credentials that include coaching major teams, Olympic and World Cup wins, and long professional careers.
In the United States, most youth clubs are not allowed to scout players in order to maintain some equity in league play. The difference is with the USSF Development Academy which specifically encourages scouting. Each MLS team has a Development team attached to it which the MLS supports. Other clubs have made agreements with overseas teams to help support their Development teams in an effort to defray costs, provide possible players for overseas play and to market the teams in the United States. Nevertheless, the lack of residency programs hinders the ability of teams to scout too far from their home base. Robbie, for example, played for the Chicago Magic, a 240-mile round trip for us to make to practices and home games. We did that three days a week for practice and up to two additional days for games. Some of his friends played for the Chicago Fire Academy team and made a 200 mile round trip with the same conditions. Without the personal means to do this type of travel it wouldn't matter how good a player was. He couldn't play for either team. This is only one example of how geography plays into the situation. For many excellent players the nearest Academy team will be four or five states away. Germany is about the size of Montana, so teams have the luxury of scouting all over the territory without uprooting these players for huge distances. With the high speed trains, families can stay connected easily. Not so in America.
But the most telling aspect of player development that the article highlights is the amazing budget no youth program in America enjoys. For the Development Academy the USSF has approximately $5.9 million budgeted for April 2012 through March 2013. That's for the entire United States. It is supplemented by the participating clubs and, more importantly, by dues individual players pay. It's difficult to compete internationally when the money gap is so huge. Without the powerhouse of professional soccer that the rest of the world enjoys, America will continue to be behind in the ability to finance top youth development. A big part of that development involves scouting top players which is expensive. Traveling to tournaments, league games and championship series in a country as huge as the U.S. comes with a steep price tag. Add to that the cost of hiring top professional scouts and you can quickly break the bank.
The entire process of scouting players as young as age 7 creates a culture that is somewhat repugnant to most Americans. This is the land of equality, and we don't like to see someone getting a leg up or a team becoming remarkably strong because of scouting. We may need to change our thinking in order to develop our youth program in a competitive way. But all that possible success comes with a huge emotional cost to our youth players. As Werner Kern, the director of Bayern Munich's youth program, puts it, "each year, if we find better players, then the worst players must leave. We help them find new clubs." This could become the norm for top players throughout the United States. As players grow, or possibly don't grow, their status with the professional youth programs will change. Both parents and players have to be able to stand the pressure cooker existence those parameters create. However, it should be noted that even in Germany, the majority of youth players do play for fun. Only a handful of youth take that journey that could lead to a professional contract.
Even as we try to narrow the gap between the countries with money for youth development and our own programs, we need to remember that any youth activity should begin with joy and enthusiasm. No sport should be started with an eye towards turning pro. That's pressure no one needs and creates the wrong kind of atmosphere at games with parents filled with dreams of glory pushing their children to succeed. However, for some players with the skills, drive and passion, having a stronger youth development system could afford them the opportunity to showcase and train their talent. It would also give the United States the chance to broaden its pool of available talent which is the best way to ensure the top talent on our national teams. With more money we could train more often and longer, we could train players regardless of their financial status and we could find talent anywhere the U.S. has youth teams. But our system won't be there until soccer becomes a more integral part of the professional sports world. So besides playing youth soccer, we need to also support our MLS teams and build them into the powerhouses that teams around the world have become.