Sep 8, 2012

Youth Soccer Development--The Development Academy Growing Pains

The great Alecko Eskandarian has a wonderful column on Youth soccer's dilemma: Development academies vs. high schools, in which he covers the problem with the recent change by the U.S. Soccer Development Academy to shift to a mandatory 10 month schedule.  Let's start with what is good about the Development Academy:

Development academies have done wonders helping to identify and nurture the accompanying demand for talent. The 10-month schedule is an initiative that would put the talented youth players on par with the curriculum and schedule of those in Europe and South America. In most of those powerhouse nations, the academy system is the focal point for the development of future national teamers.

There is no argument that the development pipeline for professional players, at the MLS and NASL/USL-Pro levels, will improve as the Academy becomes fully integrated into the national player development scheme.  The recent USSF announcement of a U14 development academy program for boys will also spur that effort forward.

But as Eskandarian points out the change to a 10 month calendar does put a kink is the system for players, who must now choose between an academy team and their high school team.  Now I questioned whether the rule was simply too harsh, after all there are many other aspects to playing for one's high school than simply the quality of play on the field, there are social, communal and even personal goals attained by a young man who chooses to play for his high school.  So, USSF heard some of the complaints and responded:

U.S. Soccer added a rule allowing academy teams to have a certain number of exemptions for players to remain on their academy team while playing high school, as long as that team fills its roster with a minimum amount of full-time players. Then the question arises, if all the top players will be used as exemptions, then what's the point of expanding to a 10-month season? It would completely defeat the purpose.

That is a good question and as Eskandarian pointed out, the player himself has to take responsibility for his own development.  So, he may have to balance the need for personal social goals in his school against his goals to be the best soccer player he can be.  

But one of the interesting side effects of MLS affiliated academy teams is how much they have come to dominate the playing landscape where they are based.  This is not to say that the MLS affiliated sides are wiping the floor with everyone every game, but they tend to rise to the top.  As they should, because MLS teams offer opportunities that other sides do not, access to professional players on a regular basis, the opportunity to play in reserve league matches, generally better training facilities, nutritional and medical facilities, and coaching infrastructure.  So looking at that, Eskandarian posited this alteration to the mandatory 10 month calendar for all Development Academy teams:  

It should be a priority for every MLS academy to meet the standard of offering fully funded residency-based programs that offer housing and education along with everything soccer-related. This takes a massive financial commitment, but only then can the U.S. say it's producing a youth development system on par with the top youth programs in the world. 
Once in place, I think it should only be mandatory for MLS academy teams to compete in a 10-month season -- and not non-MLS academies. The best prospects should be funneled toward MLS academies. In turn, MLS academies should offer the best facilities, coaches, training and environment. The notion that a player has been identified as a future pro prospect and will be headed to a professional team's residency program will then be completely justifiable on all ends. 
Those who would rather play high school or attend a private school could play for a non-MLS academy team instead. This would also prevent non-MLS academy teams from going to drastic measures to remain in the Development Academy league. These non-MLS academy teams can decide whether they want to offer training and exhibitions during the high school season to fulfill a 10-month schedule or stay on the seven-month schedule.

I fully concur with the residency program for MLS academies.  Yes, it is a big financial commitment, but it must be done if the MLS and U.S. is to compete on the same level as Europe and South America.  I have an additional suggestion.  When the MLS firs team squad travels to away matches, the Academy team does as well and plays on the same day as the First Team.

But it is the second tier that matters.  The top players will always get identified and yes, it will be helpful to be identified earlier.  But is is that second tier of players, boys who may blossom later.  These are the players who will largely populate most of the Academy teams and ultimately the college ranks.  

I referee high school soccer and I can see the physical differences in some boys who are 14 15 years old.  They have the soccer brain, you can see it in the manner in which they play.  But sometimes they put on weight and look out of proper shape.  Then the next year or two they put on the height. Some players put on a lot of height and then are awkward with their body.  Some have their physical abilities, but not the right mental training to grow as players, but with time and training they do.  These players become Division I college players and might be professionals later.  

the truth of the matter is, for every Lionel Messi who was clearly gifted at a young age, there are dozens of players who won't bloom until their late teens.  A Development system that can nurture both types of players is needed and like it or not, it will have to mean some tiering in the system.  Eskandarian's idea is a great start, and I would like to see it implemented, sooner rather than later.  

Check out my soccer blog at Nutmegs and Stepovers

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