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Feb 1, 2009

Development Academy is also an educational tool for coaches

Editor's note: This is Part 2 of a five-part series examining the structure and organization of the U.S. Soccer Federation and its youth programs. Coming in Part 3 on Thursday is a look at the coaching set-up of the Development Academy.

Soccer might be a players' game, but behind every great performer is a coach -- in many cases more than one -- who helped them get to the top. And while the primary goal of the U.S. Soccer Federation's Development Academy is to aid the players, it's also proving to be an important and much-needed educational tool for coaches.

In the first part of this series, I explained how a network of scouts, headed by Tony Lepore, watches every Development Academy game, the better to evaluate players and ultimately increase the player pool for the various U.S. national teams. But a second responsibility of the scouts is to evaluate, and in some cases challenge coaches on the in-game decisions they make. They also listen to the coaches' halftime and postgame talks, after which an analysis of the game takes place, the better to map out future practice sessions in which weaknesses can be addressed.

"We're reaching out to the coaches more, because those are the ones who reach most players directly," said U.S. U-20 head coach Thomas Rongen, who is among those who scout Development Academy games. "And although we do our scouting here, we're not in an everyday environment with the club, so it's hard to influence their coaching philosophy and their structure day-to-day, and we're trying to do that slowly as best as we can. That's going to take years, not weeks or months."

David Dir -- a former MLS head coach with Dallas, and now Rongen's assistant with the U-20s -- scouts games in the Dallas area, and he states that for the most part coaches have been receptive to his suggestions. He admitted, however, the process of questioning their decisions can create a bit of tension, at least initially.

"There's cautious intake, is the best way I can look at it," said Dir with a chuckle. "It's also a new concept, so a lot of these coaches aren't sure what to expect when a scout comes in and gives information. But usually they're very excited to get somebody that they know has been at different levels and get that information from that person. So I've found it a very positive experience so far."

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Another potential flashpoint is the scouts' assessment of players, because a coach's ego can often be wrapped up in how his best performers are perceived by others.

"The most difficult part for coaches that we run into is they don't really have an understanding of the difference between the [playing] levels," Dir said. "They're seeing consistently their level. A good example is a player that we brought into the last camp. Because at his level the speed is slower, he can look like his technical abilities are fantastic, but when you get him with players who are playing at the professional level, that's a huge jump.

"I had that problem when I started in MLS, judging an indoor player from a professional player, a player in college from a guy in the national pool from a guy overseas. It's really the same concept now, only at a much different level."

The feedback process does have its limitations. Each scout has his own biases regarding what kinds of players he prefers, although with different scouts watching games, the chances of the cream rising to the top are enhanced. There's also no rule that says coaches have to listen to the advice that is given, but Dave Costa, head coach of the Carmel United's U-18 team, is among those eager to receive any help they can get.

"It's like a lot of things; it's what you want to get out of it," Costa said. "I try to make a point of going up to [the scout] after the game to get feedback, in terms of what our team can be doing better, and also individual players that they are interested in, as far as what kind of information I can give those kids. But I always try to get that feedback."

While scouts can only make suggestions, a rule change that applies to Development Academy games is forcing coaches to rethink their approach to games, and that is the removal of free substitution. In the past, if a game wasn't going to a coach's liking, he or she could resort to substitutions as a way of getting better matchups on the field, breaking up the flow of the game or giving their best players a break. Not anymore. Coaches must write out their lineups with an eye toward their players lasting the entire game.

"Instead of being a 'joystick coach' -- a coach that can just maneuver his players around during the game -- the coach really has to spend time during the week now preparing his players, and then on Saturday he's got to let those guys play," said John Hackworth, the Academy's technical director. "The coach has limited time to make adjustments during the game, so it really makes him be a better coach during the week, and that's a great thing. It gives the players the game back a little more, rather than the coach making constant subs or changes, or coaching from the sideline."

The educational process doesn't end there. At the Development Academy's Winter Showcase, held in Lancaster, Calif., in December, seminars were held on Nike's SPARQ program, a fitness approach championed by Toronto FC strength and conditioning coach Paul Winsper. Advice is given on when and what kind of workouts should be utilized, whether for speed, strength or endurance. The rate at which players lose fluids was also monitored, giving coaches an idea about which players need to be most concerned with hydration.

Add it all up and you have what amounts to a finishing school for coaches, one in which their improvement as teachers of the game will hopefully be reflected in their players.

"U.S. Soccer has really put the structure in there to teach the players [and coaches] how to manage games, how to manage a season, and how to be incredibly professional in all the things we do," Costa said. "Whether it's our preparation, our training, our recovery, they make it so that all of the little things matter here."

In Part 3, we'll go into more detail about the genesis of the Development Academy and how the approach compares to other countries.

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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