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Jun 22, 2008

Friedel's youth academy unique in the U.S.

Brad Friedel's Premier Soccer Academy is the kind of program that makes a soccer parent do a double take. The kind of program that is followed up quickly with a "What's the catch?" The kind of program that Americans have a hard time comprehending, even though clubs like his are relatively commonplace in other parts of the world.

And it has nothing to do with the state-of-the-art facility (which cost roughly $10 million and is located 30 miles outside of Cleveland) or the impressive roster of coaches Friedel, goalkeeper for the English Premier League's Blackburn Rovers, has culled from across the globe. What comes as such a shock is the sticker price parents will pay for their children to take part in the residency program that is at the crux of PSA. The grand total for room and board at this year-round program that aims to seek out and develop the next generation of elite youth players? Absolutely nothing.

"The main people I did this for were people like myself," Friedel said. "I grew up in Northeast Ohio and played [on a club team] and I was unable to play in at least a third of the events, maybe more, because I couldn't afford all of them."

That stuck with Friedel as he ascended through the American soccer system -- attending UCLA and playing on the U.S. national team and in the MLS -- and established himself overseas. And it's why, in an era of often astronomical youth soccer fees, not to mention travel costs, Friedel has opened a school where the best kids get to play, period.

"That's one of the missions behind Premier Soccer Academies. If your talent is good enough, then it will get you through the door, and from there, you have to start performing to maintain your spot," PSA director of scouting Desmond Armstrong said. "When we come to these players and these families, the first thing they ask, outside of who are you, is how much does it cost, because the typical model for the elite programs is you have to pay top dollar to get through the door.

"[When we tell parents it is of no cost to them], they're kind of taken aback. Well, actually, they're really taken aback."

PSA chief operating officer Craig Umland estimates the cost of the residential program is approximately $35,000 a year per student, which is supported by camps, clinics and tournaments hosted at or affiliated with PSA as well as through grants and sponsorships. Unlike a number of other high level youth programs, the academy is a non-profit organization.

"The game of youth soccer has gotten to a point where there are people in this business for many of the wrong reasons, and it's not to develop talent -- it's to make money," Umland said." Brad wanted to be very clear about this. This isn't about Brad making money. This is about Brad giving back to a game that gave him so much. ... There's a lot of good things happening in youth soccer, but there's a lot of things that can be improved upon."

The closest American equivalent to PSA is the IMG academy in Bradenton, which differs in a number of ways, those involved with PSA are quick to point out.

"The difference here is that we have players coming from all over the world as opposed to just Americans," Armstrong said. "So the American player is going to have the encounter of different styles and interpretations of the game, different cultural backgrounds, and thus from there, be better prepared to play when they go into that professional arena with players coming from all over competing for that spot."

And that's not to say there's a right or a wrong (and the point of this piece is certainly not to delve into a love Bradenton vs. hate it debate). PSA has a stronger international component with its scholarship players as Armstrong has worked to create a truly global group. Eight players from the program's inaugural class come from outside the United States -- more specifically from Latin America and Africa.

The international aspect was almost as important to Friedel as the cost element.

"The best thing that's ever happened to me in my life, apart from my wife and kids, obviously, is that I've been lucky enough to visit and live in foreign countries and learn about other cultures and meet people from various parts of the globe," the goalkeeper said. "You can read all you want about people and watch all the TV programs on other places you want, but you can't respect a culture unless you are living it. I want all of our kids coming into our program to integrate with one another and take in each other's culture."

Creating a positive atmosphere that incorporates aspects such as cultural exchange, as well as education, is just as important as the soccer training, PSA's directors say. (However, one can't be blamed for believing the non-soccer stuff probably ranks just a little bit below the sport component, considering that is, after all, the real reason for the program.) But the point is, those behind the academy realize the kids they're recruiting -- some as young as 12 -- aren't all necessarily going to be professional players. The real goal, Friedel maintains, is to develop players "to their full potential, whether it's playing at a D-III college or for Real Madrid."

From Friedel, it doesn't just come across as lip service, which is almost as refreshing to hear from someone involved in today's youth soccer scene as the words, "No cost."

Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.

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