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Lower age groups in U.S. youth soccer still need overhaul

Editor's note: This is Part 5 of a five-part series examining the structure and organization of the U.S. Soccer Federation and its youth programs.

Of all the words that can be used to describe John Hackworth, "revolutionary" isn't one that immediately comes to mind. The current U.S. national team assistant is as easygoing as they come. Bring up the state of youth soccer in the United States, however, and it doesn't take long for Hackworth to go all Patrick Henry on you, although in his case, he's more inclined to say, "Give me more practice time or give me death."

In his additional role as the technical director of the U.S. Soccer Federation's Development Academy, Hackworth's main job is to make sure the program continues to serve its players and coaches well. But the former head coach of the U.S. U-17 national team isn't content to stop there. His intention is to revamp youth soccer at all levels.

Simply put, the basic tenets of the Development Academy -- the 3:1 practice to game ratio, no multiple games in a day, limited substitution rules -- are all things Hackworth would like to see applied to younger age groups.

"We want to change youth soccer in America because it's so important that the kid who is 8 or 9 or 12 be in the same kind of environment that we've set up here," said Hackworth. "And we want the soccer to be the same. We use this as a platform to trickle down.

"We ask all of the clubs who are in this program to run all of their [teams] much differently than they have in the past. That's our biggest goal. Can we really affect this change, not only for the players that are in this program, but for the players, parents and coaches that go all the way down [to younger age groups]?"

One obvious near-term step is creating a companion program for girls; yet in a peculiar move, the USSF is opting to take a go-slow approach. Much like they did on the boys' side, the federation has set up a panel to examine how girls' player development can be improved, with an examination of foreign development programs just one part of the process. It is comprised of former U.S. women's national team coaches Anson Dorrance, Tony DiCicco and April Heinrichs, as well as Carin Jennings-Gabarra, who is currently the head coach at the U.S. Naval Academy and was a member of the U.S. team that won the 1991 World Cup.

Given the immense amount of legwork that went into setting up the boys' program, as well as its initial success, it would seem to make sense to just copy what the boys have done and apply it to girls. DiCicco insists that it's not that simple. And while the Olympic Development Program (ODP) has been derided on the boys' side as being hopelessly inadequate, DiCicco thinks it benefits girls.

"I like a lot of [the Development Academy's] merits, but we still like a lot of things that ODP does," said DiCicco. "Then I think [the USSF], from a financial standpoint -- and this isn't something they've said to me, it's just my guess -- has spent a lot of human resources getting the boys' academy as good as it is. And it's pretty good. They've done a real good job of it, but not without cost."

The desire not to mess up a good thing is perhaps the biggest reason DiCicco and his colleagues are treading lightly. In 2008, not only did the senior women's side claim an Olympic gold medal, but the U-20s won a world championship, while the U-17s reached the final of the U-17 World Cup.

That said, it's clear that other women's national teams, most notably Brazil, have surpassed the U.S. in terms of technical ability. DiCicco also admitted that many of the ills plaguing the boys' game are present on the girls' side, with the practice-to-game ratio still a huge problem. Implementing a girls' Development Academy will not only help close the technical gap, but also enable the U.S. to maintain its standing as the pre-eminent women's national team in the world.

DiCicco is mindful of the need to move girls' player development forward, and he expects that something similar to the Development Academy will eventually be implemented; he's just not sure when.

"I think ODP on the girls side has been a very good program over the years," said DiCicco. "Now, it's still good, but I think it needs a bit of a face-lift. It's probably better now at identifying players than developing them, and the clubs are probably better at developing them, so we have to find the right mix there. At the same time, we have to get a calendar for these players. They play too many games, going from team to team to team, event to event. Eventually U.S. Soccer has to take control of player development, as they have done on the boys' side."

Another possible area of expansion is extending the program to include a U-14 age group. Hackworth is quick to emphasize that while the plans for such an extension are very preliminary, it would likely be more regional in nature and not involve the kind of cross-country travel that exists at older age groups. There are also questions about whether the USSF's infrastructure could withstand such an expansion. For that reason, Hackworth said the existing age groups would grow only by a handful of clubs next season.

Finding enough qualified coaches is also an issue. Hackworth feels that the perception that Americans are incapable of teaching the game is misplaced, especially since more and more former pros are bringing their experiences to the youth coaching ranks. But he agrees that there is a lot of room for improvement.

"It's not so much are the coaches good enough, but do they have a true understanding of player development, and the process?" said Hackworth. "We are trying to implement things so they get that. It's more how you manage a larger pool of players. How you look at what's valuable for an individual versus a team. And in that regard, we need to improve. And we need to hold our coaches who aren't doing such a good job accountable for it."

But beyond the boundaries of the Development Academy proper, Hackworth sees plenty of obstacles to duplicating the program's concepts at younger age groups. Some are political, while others are more cultural in nature.

For Hackworth, the solution begins with educating people who are new to the game as early as possible. Despite the game's immense growth in the U.S. over the last 40 years, soccer remains a niche sport residing largely outside the spectator sport mainstream. For that reason, the tendency to apply norms from other sports to soccer ends up creating a warped view of the game.

Hackworth said, "You have an uneducated group of parents and players who, when they are first exposed to this game, they think 'Soccer, it's just like any other sport. You can run players in and out, they need a water break.' All of these kinds of things mix up the initial educational process for parents and players."

The emphasis on results at even the earliest age groups is another chasm to be crossed. Hackworth goes to great lengths to emphasize that he's not advocating a system free of competition. It's a matter of applying such a concept at the appropriate age.

"We introduce competitive levels right from the get-go," said Hackworth. "So whether you're a 6-year-old or a 12-year-old kid, if you are competing, you are expected to get some results. That's how most people look at whether you've done a good job or not. We don't look at whether this player has learned the fundamentals of the game and has the ability now to be really good going forward.

"That is a major shift when we look at other countries around the world, especially in their own player development programs. When that initial introduction to the game happens, we found that most of the time, at young ages, they don't even care about results. They care about the kids developing the basic fundamentals so that they can [succeed] when it actually does become competitive and results do matter."

Hackworth recommends that competitive levels be introduced at around age 10. Not only will that create an environment where kids are freer to learn and make mistakes, but coaches won't feel pressured into taking shortcuts just for the sake of winning games.

Another topic that raises Hackworth's ire is the tendency of local leagues, and especially tournaments, to play multiple games in a day. The typical youth tournament often sees teams play three and sometimes four games in a given weekend. The concern is that cramming that many games into one weekend invites fatigue which begets bad habits, which ultimately stunts the player's development.

The problem is that these tournaments are huge moneymakers for the organizations -- usually clubs themselves -- that put them on. Additionally, the buzz of traveling to a tournament, and going up against different teams from outside the area, is something kids enjoy participating in.

"We have to make [parents] understand that it's more important for you to go play that great competition, but play that game all out, leave it all on the field, so that you're playing one game a day," said Hackworth. "That's a big change. We have to teach them that these tournaments, while kids love going to them, they're really not the best thing for them."

Hackworth adds that there is some evidence that his message is getting through. Some tournament organizers are looking at spreading their competitions out over multiple weekends to avoid fixture congestion. U.S. Club Soccer, a national youth soccer organization, has begun creating what they call pre-Academy leagues that apply the concepts of the Development Academy to the U-13 and U-15 age groups. Yet Hackworth knows the battle has only just begun.

"The more that message gets out, the more people will start to look at things a little differently," he said. "That is a huge challenge for us, but one we are trying to tackle in every possible way."

Viva la revolution.

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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