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Feb 5, 2009

USSF models youth development on a mix of foreign concepts

Editor's note: This is Part 3 of a five-part series examining the structure and organization of the U.S. Soccer Federation and its youth programs. Coming in Part 4 is a look at the costs associated with the Development Academy.

It's tempting to think the U.S. Soccer Federation's Development Academy was born out of the early elimination of the men's national team at the 2006 World Cup. The reality is that the USSF has been working for years to find ways to bridge the obvious gap between U.S. players and many of their foreign counterparts.

In 1999, the USSF began the residency program in Bradenton, Fla., for the U-17 national team, and while the program has qualified for every U-17 World Cup -- and turned out some excellent players, including Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley -- it's clear that its impact was focused on too small a group to impact player development in a country as large as the United States.

The Olympic Development Program (ODP), while more expansive than the residency program, was also viewed as not casting a wide enough net, and it didn't really address how players were developed in this country.

So in 2005, the USSF decided it needed to take a fresh approach.

"We said, 'Look, we don't think we're good enough right now,'" said current U.S. men's assistant John Hackworth. "How can we increase our player pool? How can we, long-term, have a profound effect on player development in this country, because we feel like on the men's side of the game, from the youth to the full national team, we're not good enough."

A task force set up by USSF President Sunil Gulati, and chaired by D.C. United President and CEO Kevin Payne, embarked on a study of how other countries from across the soccer spectrum approached player development. It included many of the usual suspects like Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Holland and France.

"What we did in general is we studied the basic concepts that these nations were already implementing in their player development program," Hackworth said. "Each had their own little twist on it, and each had their own challenges."

"What we find in the U.S. is that we have a different set of unique challenges, not only in terms of geography, but in our culture, some of the values that we as a nation have. We couldn't take just one model and say, 'OK, we're going to copy the France model,' because it wouldn't really work here."

Indeed, the French model involves elite players, from the U-10 age group on up, traveling to one of nine regional centers to train during the week, with the best players going to the national training center in Clarefontaine. The players then return to their clubs to play games on the weekend.

While this sounds good in practice, in a country the size of the U.S. such an approach would be impractical. The cost of duplicating the U-17 residency program eight times (or more) all over the country would be prohibitive.

In South American countries like Brazil and Argentina, the responsibility for player development is placed even more on professional clubs. Players become affiliated with these organizations starting at around age 10. After several years in this environment, and after the player ranks have been culled numerous times, the best are identified to form the basis of their youth national teams.

While this decentralized approach is in large part what was eventually adopted by the USSF with their Development Academy, it's by no means a carbon copy. In Brazil and Argentina, some players emerge from crushing poverty, meaning issues like a player's nutrition and their education ultimately become the responsibility of the club. Those factors aren't issues in this country.

The clubs' motivations aren't entirely altruistic, either. Youth players are a massive source of potential revenue, in that once a player signs a professional contract, they may eventually be sold to a bigger club, be it domestic or overseas.

Such a profit motive doesn't exist in the U.S., at least to the same degree. This is due to the tortured history the professional game has endured here, one where soccer at the highest level barely existed beyond semi-professional status for much of the 20th century. With few professional opportunities available, youth soccer has been the primary driver of the game in this country. This has led to some idiosyncrasies in terms of how players have been developed, which in Payne's view have become deeply ingrained, and problematic.

One issue is that kids rarely play soccer outside of a structured setting, meaning the kind of improvisation and experimentation that players develop organically in other countries is tougher to come by in the United States. But that is a cultural obstacle too large for the USSF to influence with one program. For Payne, the focus was placed on problems that were no less significant, but could be more easily solved.

"I think the biggest thing we found, something that was very consistent [across countries], was that we had the ratio of training time to game time exactly reversed," Payne said. "In those countries that are so good at developing great players, for every hour of playing time, they sometimes have five or more hours of training time. We were doing the opposite."

Payne's statements are borne out by a recent UEFA study, shown to ESPNsoccernet, that examined the amount of practice and game time at some of the biggest clubs in the world. At places like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Ajax and Bayern Munich, even at the earliest age groups, the practice-to-game ratio was a minimum of 6-to-1. The number of games at the oldest age groups was no more than 40 in a given year, with younger players maxing out at 25. Contrast this with the 80-100 games Americans were playing in the same span and it's clear where the U.S. system was falling short.

Another impediment is Americans' tendency, in all sports, to look at won-loss records as a way of measuring success at even the youngest levels of youth sports, rather than looking at whether players are developing the proper techniques. This emphasis on results encourages coaches to rely on athleticism to win games, or to be content with playing ugly soccer.

That's not the case in other countries. By point of example, Payne related the story of how a youth team from Brazilian club Atletico Mineiro was dominating its league. But rather than being enthusiastic, the club's directors became suspicious.

"[Atletico Mineiro] sent their technical director out to watch that team play to make sure the coach wasn't taking shortcuts in development simply to win games," Payne said.

To address these issues, the USSF ultimately went for the decentralized model of engaging clubs to do the vast majority of player development. It had the advantage of utilizing an infrastructure that was already in place, and it made clear the Federation's desire to engage in a partnership with the clubs, as opposed to encroaching on their turf.

"We started with clubs that had already done a really good job developing players, despite the environment, despite the challenges," Hackworth said. "When we talked to some of the coaches, they wanted change.

"The clubs didn't want to be playing 80-100 games a year. They didn't want to go to six tournaments all over the country just to seek out one or two good games here and there. They wanted a place where they could consolidate everything they were doing for their own players, their own coaches, and then have a better environment to play in. There was a need out there, and when we touched base with the directors of coaching and the coaches, they were enthusiastic about the opportunity."

With that kind of buy-in at the club level, what has emerged is something Payne calls "an intervention," namely a nationwide youth league that increases the ratio of practices to games and eliminates re-entry of players into games once substituted, while also bringing together some of the best youth players in the country.

So all is well, right? All that remains to be done is to sit back and let the U.S. soccer factory begin to crank out elite-level players, correct? Not quite. The pro game's lack of influence, historically, has led to another big difference when compared to other countries, and that has to do with the costs of player development being borne mostly by the families of the players. In Part 4 we'll look in greater detail at the huge obstacle that is pay-to-play.

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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