U.S. Youth Soccer follows footsteps of European successAugust 05, 2015
The United States is a sports superpower. It has the most successful Olympic team of all time (having won more medals than any two nations combined). It's also home to the best baseball, basketball, and hockey leagues in the world. And of course "American" football is on that list as well. Athletic prowess is synonymous with the United States. Despite that, we are yet to give the world a true soccer star.
The stereotypical answer to the dearth of USA soccer superstars is that we don't care about the game in this country, and don't play it. This is fundamentally untrue, however, and we'll leave that sort of simplistic (and outmoded) thinking to Ann Coulter and Dan Shaughnessy. The fact is that more kids play soccer in this country than any other nation on the planet except China (a total of 25 million, according to Forbes). Yet soccer has been a popular youth sport in the U.S. for decades, and we're still yet to see an American star, so simple numbers can't be the solution.
It's obviously not a problem of money either, considering that not only does United States youth soccer attract more than enough investment (we're the wealthiest nation in the world), but also other superstars have emerged from far more impoverished conditions. Pele, for example, emerged from a Brazilian childhood where he played with a newspaper-stuffed sock, or a grapefruit (according to his autobiography, My Life & the Beautiful Game).
What's been missing from the equation in the United States?
The full answer is long, and fairly complicated. After all, developing a superstar is difficult for even the most passionate soccer countries with decades of experience. That said, there is a very basic explanation for the lack of American soccer stars: Our youth development, and particularly our youth coaching was terrible for decades.
It's dismaying for students of the game to think about, but how often have coaches of little leagues, or middle schools (even high schools) given terrible advice to players? Yelling things like "boot it," or "never pass backwards" were examples of amateur coaching that stunted players' growth.
Even beyond the simple mishaps, the level of coaches, and the organization of the U.S. system was largely terrible. Some elite youth players were taking part in more than 100 games a year, causing not only many players to burnout, but also failing to teach players proper technique and instinct. Since they were largely only ever playing to win, they did whatever was expedient, learning bad habits. Any questions about where the USA's historic inability to maintain ball possession is derived from should remember this major flaw in past player development.
An unheralded, but important benchmark
In 2008, the New England Revolution debuted their own youth academy. As part of a larger MLS initiative, the new academy was modeled after those in Europe, South America, and all over the world. They would start recruiting the local region's best talent, developing them in a professional environment, and grooming them with the goal of signing players to the actual senior team.
"It was exciting," Revs general manager Mike Burns said of the academy's founding, "it's something that we're really proud of."
Burns' background, like those of so many now involved with U.S. soccer, has an interesting link to both its past, and its present. Having grown up in Marlborough, he played his youth soccer in Massachusetts in a much different time. Instead of an array of options, Burns essentially had one choice: Go play for your high school team, and then go to college. Only then could you think about turning pro (and of course upon Burns' graduation, MLS didn't even exist yet).
Before entering the Revs' front office, Burns was the first ever U.S. player to represent his country at every international level (from youth level all the way up to the 1994 and 1998 World Cups). So he had a great vantage point to see the problem with the U.S. player developmental system:
"I think in some ways it was a little bit more of a level playing field at the younger age groups, if that makes any sense. And here's why: When I was 14, 15, 16, playing against other Under-16 teams, I don't think the gap was as large as it was in the higher levels, the 20s, the Olympics, and the senior team. The reason being is we almost all started out the same, but then those 14, 15-year-olds in Italy went back to Juventus or A.C. Milan in their academy system and we were going back to high school. That's where it starts to change."
Given that analysis, he's particularly proud of what the Revs, and all of MLS, are now doing with the bourgeoning academy system.
"For me, having grown up in this area, having played for this team, and having the opportunity to help start this program, it was really exciting. I can only imagine being a 12, 13-year old kid growing up around here, and having the opportunity to play at Gillette Stadium, in this kind of environment, in the competition that they're playing in."
What academies do differently (and why it's better)
Composed of three teams (U-14, U-16, and U-18), roughly 20 players each, and coached by more than 11 professional coaches, the youngsters in the Revs academy train 10 months a year, three to four times a week. They have players from Massachusetts of course, but also Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. Burns acknowledges the effort that young players are making to be a part of their setup (along with the indispensable help they get from family to commute regularly all the way to Gillette Stadium).
"While we're making a commitment to them, they're making a commitment to us, and we realize that," added Burns.
The major difference that academy players get from traditionally trained youth is the exposure to professional standards at a young age. Not merely professional coaching (which is critical to avoid developing bad habits), but also pro players, who they get a chance to train with.
"We regularly invite academy players into train with the first team," Burns said. "When I was coming into the program at that level, there was no opportunity like that."
When they get to age 18, Burns acknowledged that the choice of going to college or going pro is one that has to be treated carefully, so as not to pressure a young person at a critical stage of their life.
"We take it case by case," Burns relayed, "and it's important to support a player whatever decision they make."
And working in the more controlled learning environment of an academy is beneficial to a player's long term growth. Instead of playing too many games and developing bad habits, each age group is specifically catered to.
"With the younger age group, with 14-year-olds, we want to let them learn how to play the right way," said Revs Director of Youth Development, Bryan Scales. "They're going to make their mistakes, but they're developing vary rapidly physically and cognitively at that age."
Once they get older, the tone predictably changes.
"And then the 18-year-olds, we place a little more emphasis on how to win," Scales noted. "And they're treated a little bit more like how the first team would be treated."
The early results have been promising
So far, the Revs have promoted two players from their youth academy. Scott Caldwell, a midfielder who played in the academy before going to college (and then returning to play for New England). And Diego Fagundez, a forward with a knack for scoring goals. Having grown up in Leominster, Fagundez made his debut as a 16-year-old in 2011, and scored in his first league game:
Scales, who oversees the development of promising players like Caldwell and Fagundez (both of whom are now academy graduates), looks at not merely the Revs system, but those all across MLS and sees a massive shift.
"It's completely changed the paradigm as far as youth development in this country," he declared, noting that even though most academies are no more than six or seven years old, there are already more than 80 academy players in MLS ranks.
"It's still a work in progress," Scales said. "And it's still always evolving, but it's starting to get closer to how development environments are structured around the world in top professional clubs."
Scales and his fellow coaches tour European academies whenever they can, studying systems in places like Portugal (who developed a certain Cristiano Ronaldo) and other countries. Conversely, they've helped improve coaches of other local Massachusetts teams.
"We have a good relationship with local clubs in the area," Scales noted, mentioning how they have coach education nights in an effort to promote positive training methods.
The future certainly looks bright
Bad youth coaching, particularly at little league levels, will not entirely disappear anytime soon, but it is slowly being replaced by a newer, better generation of coaching. Burns explains:
"You have a lot more ex-professional players in the country than you've ever had. And some are getting involved in coaching at the professional level, and a lot of ex-pros are getting involved in coaching at the youth level. That's only going to help the program nationwide, in terms of development. I think that's very important for the continued growth of players at the younger levels."
Scales agrees, mentioning the positive development of coaches across multiple generations. He cited the old North American Soccer League (the professional forerunner to MLS), and it's effect:
"I'm a child of the NASL, and when that was here, those were my formative years of watching soccer, and being close to it. So I think you've got a lot of people that grew up in that time that played, and went into coaching. And their kids have played, and some of them are now coaching having watched MLS. So you have the added bonus of having played, and are now in coaching too. It's kind of a force multiplier."
Fagundez, one of the first to breakthrough for the Revs from their academy, is directly helping the team regain the kind of form that once made them a perennial contender. In 30 games last season, he scored 13 goals, and has four in the 2014 season so far.
His example is particularly appealing to young people who aspire to play professional sports. Imagine a kid growing up, watching his hero playing for the Revs, and knowing that that player grew up right here in Massachusetts? That's a dimension that the Bruins, Celtics, Red Sox and Patriots will rarely be able to offer (if at all). And the Revs can offer that regularly.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, both for New England, and the United States. Even on the 2014 U.S. World Cup team, there's a MLS academy graduate: DeAndre Yedlin, whose role as a hard-running substitute has paid dividends. Against Portugal in the USA's second game, Yedlin came on in the second half, and helped setup Clint Demsey's goal with his lightning run down the right:
Very soon, a generation of players will emerge who have been professionally coached just as long and just as well as other top soccer nations. And as Scales admits, that's when things will really get exciting for USA fans at the World Cup.
"I think that since the academy system is still so very young, and has made such progress in a short period of time, it bodes well for the future," Scales said. "Those next wave of players coming through both US soccer, and MLS academies I think will be able eventually to make an impact on the world stage."
So don't get carried away just yet, but stay patient USA fans, because good things are coming.