Over the weekend, the US Men's U17 Team Qualified for the 14th consecutive FIFA U17 World Cup to be held in Mexico this summer. The win came on the back of some lackluster performances by a team that routinely looked to be the second best team on the pitch. The final match, against a quality Canadian side, was won with a spectacular goal by Nathan Smith and a pair of insurance goals in extra time, which may have been more the result of better fitness rather than any better technical skill by the Americans.
Still, qualifying and winning the regional qualifying tournament, even if Mexico and their technical skill was not participating, is a good thing. But the performance and technical skill, or rather the lack thereof, is cause for a massive reconsideration in the way in which our youth national teams are managed and trained. But, I am not the first, nor likely the last, to call for a change to Bradenton and the current regime of developing our young players. It is not just about the young men, but also about our young women, for even as the 2011 Women's World Cup is set to begin in Germany this summer, the U17 WNT did not qualify for its World Cup.
Unlike Jason Davies, who sees problems with the number of U.S. boys in MLS academies as opposed to the Canadian side, I don't worry about the young MNT or WNT players being associated with non-MLS development academy teams. Rather, I think the Bradenton Academy is now doing a disservice to the technical development of young American players because the pool of talent that is being drawn from is much wider, and deeper, than what is represented by the players brought into the Academy. But at the youth national team level, there is a big and growing disconnect between the U17 level and U20 level. While almost uniformly amateur at the U17 level, the U20 level--both in the U.S. and abroad--is almost entirely professional in nature. That disconnect might be at the heart of Davis' piece, whether he intended it or not, the fact is that the Canadian boys spend more of their time playing against professionals and that will improve their game. But the American players don't spend as much of their time training and playing with professional players.
So what to do, end Bradenton as the destination for the best American young players--both for the men's and women's program. Instead, for the U17 boys and girls programs, the single academy should be replaced with regular, regional "residency" camps.
There are 10 regions in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy set up. Each of these regions usually has a "select" team which is the foundation for the regional residency camps. Each of these regional residencies are short term--three weeks or so in length, 4-6 times a year. But during the camps, the focus for games should be against professional sides (MLS reserves/Academies, USL/NASL) or against top collegiate programs. The camps should be no more than 30 players, which develops a pool of 300 or so players to draw from for National Team camps.
Focus should be on technical ball handling. I know it is important to teach tactics and formations to young players, but at the age of 14/15/16, the players should still be spending as much time, if not more, on technical skills and ball control. I would suggest at least 1:1 or 1.5:1 technical to tactical training ratio. Players at that age can see the tactics of upper age groups and will try to emulate that so coaches at this level need to be giving the skills to make the tactics work.
These regional residency programs should work like professional teams do, providing a place for players and coaches to develop a style of play unique to that region, much like professional clubs have a unique style and then the national team coach should be in a position to pick a national team squad from a pool of 300 or more players, just like Bob Bradley or Thomas Rongen does before tournaments. Coaches at the Development Academy club level and these regional residency programs should be focused on developing the player as a technical player. The National Team Coach should be focused on picking a camp of the 30 best players available in the weeks immediately prior to a competition, just like Rongen and just like Bob Bradley do, not selecting 40 or so players for an academic semester.
The fact is, the growth of the Development Academy (and why isn't there a girls aspect to the DA yet) makes Bradenton obsolete. The growth of the MLS academies and the connections between the DA clubs and overseas clubs (and associated scouting networks) no longer means that Bradenton is the destination for the best young American players nor should it be. The youth national teams should be focused on the same mission as the full national teams--fielding the best 25 players possible. The task of player development needs to be lower, at the DA club level or lower.