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Jan 29, 2009

U.S. Soccer overhauls its youth programs

Editor's note: This is Part 1 of a five-part series examining the structure and organization of the U.S. Soccer Federation and its youth programs. Coming in Part 2 on Sunday is a look at the coaching set-up of the Development Academy.

After watching his U.S. U-17 side lose 3-0 to Brazil in a December exhibition game, head coach Wilmer Cabrera was a man of mixed emotions. On the plus side, his team had just been exposed by the South Americans, giving him plenty of information on his team's weaknesses. The negative was, well, his team had been exposed, especially in the technical areas of the game.

"Today, I think [Brazil] realized we weren't too comfortable with the ball," said Cabrera. "And if you're not comfortable with the ball against the top teams, they're going to punish you. When we have the ball, we need to have more personality, and relieve that kind of nervousness and just play."

A conversation that same weekend with Cabrera's U-20 colleague, Thomas Rongen, revealed similar worries about his own side. The only difference was that his concerns weren't limited to the team's passing, trapping and dribbling.

"Tactically, most foreign teams are a little more astute than us," said Rongen. "Physically, you talk about American athletes being very good athletes, but I don't think that is necessarily soccer-related. I look at us against Portugal and France, and initially you think, 'We're as big and as fast as them.' But in specific, soccer-related physical components relating to positions, their center backs are a little more cunning, use their bodies better. Their forwards, they know exactly how to peel away from a defender by using their bodies and separating themselves. We're still a little naive in that way."

Such assessments, even as the U.S. slowly makes progress on the world stage, normally wouldn't bode well for the future of the senior side. After all, these are concerns that have long plagued the U.S. program from top to bottom. Yet there is reason for hope, and it has everything to do with what else was going on that same weekend in the southern California town of Lancaster, namely, the Winter Showcase for the U.S. Soccer Federation's Development Academy.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Mexico
Feb. 11
Columbus Crew Stadium; Columbus, Ohio
7 p.m. ET, ESPN2 HD

Now in its second season, the Development Academy represents the USSF's latest stab at a comprehensive player development program, using 75 clubs from across the nation to field boys' teams at the U-16 and U-18 levels. The academy's league is broken up into regional conferences with the top three teams, and possibly a fourth, progressing to the national playoffs. A network of scouts, headed by Tony Lepore, also views every academy game, with their player evaluations eventually reaching the staffs of the various U.S. national teams.

By itself, such a setup isn't that revolutionary. The United Soccer League has had a similar system in place since 2002 with its Super Y-League, and its games are also scouted by USSF coaches. But the academy goes well beyond just creating a national youth league. It also aims to correct many of the ills that have plagued youth soccer in this country for decades.

The temptation, of course, is to think that if only American youths played more small-sided games or more street soccer, then the problems relating to technical ability would be solved. But there are deeper issues involved, among them a compressed calendar packed with meaningless games that have not only proved a fertile breeding ground for bad habits, but cut significantly into practice time.

A USSF survey in 2005 of the U-15 national team player pool found that the players were participating in upwards of 100 games per year, only 10 percent of which they found challenging. In some cases, the players participated in more games than practices. For U.S. men's national team assistant John Hackworth, who also doubles as the Development Academy's technical director, this was something that had to change if player development in the U.S was to move forward.

"On the national staff, we would talk about some habits, or talk about reactions, and where those habits and reactions get instilled," said Hackworth. "They get instilled in young players when the game doesn't really meet the demands. What it basically means is that we needed to have these players not only play less games, but we needed them to play meaningful games, so the competition would hold them accountable, and make them play out of their comfort zone."

To that end, the USSF insists that academy teams have a minimum practice to game ratio of 3-to-1, the better to hone skills and address weaknesses in a non-game setting. Playing multiple games in a day, a staple of youth tournaments across the country, is prohibited. Having players participate in outside competitions, like a State Cup or the Olympic Development Program (ODP), is also forbidden.

"What we wanted to try and do was say, 'Look, the training is where you do all your work, and the games should make you play at a level that is consistent, and not allow some of those opportunities for you not to play your best,'" said Hackworth. "The reason for [the ban] is the demands we have put on these players. It's not like it's an easier system. In fact, it's the reverse. We recommend four or five [sessions] a week, which is a major change for most of those clubs. Spreading the calendar out, so that it's a 9-10 month competitive program; there isn't any time for outside competition."

Another change that's bound to test players is the abandonment of free substitution in academy games. Whereas before, players could be shuttled in and out with regularity, players can't re-enter a game once they've been replaced, and substitutions are limited to seven per match. This means that players must now fight through parts of the game where fatigue or a period of poor play might have been reason to take them out.

"We still find players that have a very tough time getting through 90 minutes at the highest level because their bodies, physically and emotionally, are not accustomed to that," said Rongen. "So [no re-entry] has been a great change, obviously, and a change we're trying to push more and more."

Dieter Ficken, coach of the U-16 side for Queens, N.Y-based Blau Weiss Gottschee, is even more enthusiastic about the change in the substitution rule, calling it "heaven-sent."

"There's no mercy rule in this game anymore," added Ficken. "It's over. Produce or you're off the field, and that's what the international game is all about."

Creating this training environment, while also competing against the best players in the country, has resulted in near-universal praise from players and coaches, especially for teams located away from traditional soccer hotbeds. Carmel United, a club based just outside of Indianapolis, surprised everyone by claiming the academy's U-16 crown last year. For Harrison Petts, a forward with that team and now a member of its U-18 side, the opportunity to play against top-level opponents has given him and his teammates a significant boost.

"Especially for us in Indiana, you're not going to find too many great teams," said Petts. "There is usually one powerhouse, and then in State Cup, you would get one good game and that doesn't really prepare you to go into regionals. ... That's part of the reason why Indiana teams hadn't really been successful to this point. But now that we're in the academy, we're getting good games and good training day in and day out, and it really shows in the quality of our play."

Yet those connected with traditional powers are just as enthusiastic. For Ficken, the Development Academy is "probably the best idea since I've been involved in the game of soccer."

Ficken is in a position to know. He was a youth player in the U.S. during the 1960s and has been a youth coach for more than three decades. Ficken said he has seen improvement in his players "overnight," and this was just minutes after watching his side fall 2-0 to their counterparts from the Chicago Fire.

"Today's game was, for want of a better word, a culture shock," said Ficken. "We met a Chicago Fire team that played modern, collective soccer, that was one- or two-touch, at a level and a speed that we've never experienced or seen in the New York high school environment that our kids come from. ... The whole idea is to prepare our kids to play at a speed conducive to beating international opponents."

When all of these aspects are considered, the Development Academy represents a major step forward compared to prior player development efforts, including the much-maligned ODP, which was one of the primary mechanisms for identifying potential youth national team players.

Prior to the Academy's introduction in 2007, elite players were forced to play for a hodgepodge of teams that included their local club side as well as a smattering of district, state and regional ODP teams. To find competitive games, teams often had to travel to far-away tournaments or head overseas. In addition to the costs being prohibitive (a topic that will be covered in greater detail later in this series), the ODP selection process was fraught with accusations that participating coaches favored players they were already familiar with. It was also implied that such partiality had the result of shutting out players from minority communities.

Of course, the player evaluation process is by its very nature subjective, and there always will be biases of some sort. But academy players now can be seen playing for their home clubs by numerous USSF scouts, and with greater frequency, instead of with thrown-together teams that often characterized ODP sides. This not only has the effect of casting a wider net, but it adds a greater level of objectivity to the process, increasing the odds of catching players at their best.

"What I'm trying to do is have a much simpler process for the players, the parents and the coaches," said Hackworth. "To have a place where [the players] could truly develop to the best of their ability and not have to go to these different organizations, or wear four different jerseys over the course of the year. They wear one jersey, they play for one club, and now they have every opportunity to reach the level they are capable of playing."

Granted, the academy is a long-term effort, the benefits of which won't be fully realized for several years, and the proof will come in seeing its players excel with the senior side. But already there are signs that the program is increasing the pool of potential national team players. Cabrera used last year's Development Academy to identify 18 players now with the U-17s, including last year's U-16 Development Academy MVP, Soony Saad of Michigan-based Vardar SC. Rongen has also tested the academy pool, having brought in 20 academy products to camp in the last year, although none have been able to stick yet.

"The U-20s, the jump right now is still a little bit too steep for most [academy] players," said Rongen. "But it's better than it has been in the past where I had to rely solely on the U-17 or U-18 national teams to bring players up to the next level. But eventually we will create the really exceptional player out of the Development Academy, I'm convinced of that."

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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