En Route: Youth Soccer Needs (Another) Overhaul

J.R. Eskilson looks at the flaws of the academy system in the USA.

In 2007 U.S. Soccer began an initiative called “Development Academy,” it was put in place to turn powerful youth clubs into advanced tools for developing players. The idea seemed to be a step in the right direction. An outlined plan that would have the best youth teams playing against each other and U.S. Soccer would afford the teams the availability to the most advanced technology in training. In the ideal world, it sounded like the change every youth soccer fan dreams of: professional environment for our youth, highly competitive games, and a new idea for how youth soccer should be innovated in this country. 

However, the whole process started off on the wrong foot. U.S. Soccer began an admission process into the elitist fraternity. They selected the most highly regarded clubs in the major metropolitan areas across the country. The Academy took clubs based on championship pedigree not on player development. There was (and still is) too much emphasis on results in club matches. The league structure, for some unspeakable reason, put in place a highly prized championship game every year that is aired on television. Obviously, the increased exposure and the championship trophy is the goal for every club. This makes the oxymoronic title of “Development Academy” that much more humorous with development actually playing second fiddle to results.  

During the U-20 camp in December, U.S. Soccer brought in two select teams from the Academy. Both of the teams were from the West region, and were embarrassed against the U-20s to the tune of eleven goals to one. The day before the games, Thomas Rongen told Goal.com that he was expecting some good competition in the games and was looking forward to seeing his players in a game environment. By the time the second half kicked off, Rongen was schmoozing with MLS scouts in the crowd and hardly even glancing towards the field. The result was more indicative of the players abilities than their limited practice time together. The fundamentals still are not there. Rongen should have known this well before kick off considering none of the technically gifted players on his team come from the Academy.  

Politics are one of the major components holding youth soccer back. It has been a major problem since day one in club sports and the disease just carried over with the Academy. Soccer moms butter up the coaches to get their kids more playing time. Coaches kiss up to club directors so their team can have better practice times. Etcera and so forth, this goes all the way to the top. The tight knit soccer community did not get that way overnight. The Academy changed nothing on this front. It is the same system from three years ago and many years prior to that.  

The only thing that seems to have changed is the monotony of developing players and the umbrella term “Development Academy.” U.S. Soccer now has an all-encompassing control of the clubs that are supposed to develop the best players in this country. Yes, this is why most of our players are compared to robots by European journalists. When you have all of your major clubs learning from the same manual, the players are going to come out in a cookie cutter form.  

U.S. Soccer should take no shame in the fact that their experiment failed. It was never bound to work. These high-profile clubs are very competitive with their results, and there is a financial benefit to winning these games and championships. In comparison, player development seems minuscule for club success. It is easy to access last year’s champion but hard to find out which clubs are producing the most talent for the next level.  

Plus the massive egos of club directors are only fueled by the titles in their offices. This leads to the other problem with this program, “Development Academy” puts all these clubs on the same level. There is no recognition or reason for a youth club to succumb a player to a professional youth team when they are in the same league. It is backwards thinking to every other successful youth system in the world.  All other clubs take pride in the success of their players advancing their careers by climbing the ladder. In the U.S., clubs grab and hold onto talented youngsters to boost their win totals even when opportunity arrives to advance up the ladder.  

In the end, the power struggle will ruin more players than it helps. There is no winner in this battle, only losers. Just have some sympathy for the players that are prevented from reaching their potential because the “Development Academy” is not working.  

J.R. Eskilson is the youth soccer editor for Goal.com

Get all the latest Youth Soccer news with Goal.com's dedicated page.