En Route: Training Centers Help Uncover Hidden Gems for USA

Development Academy's Tony LePore talks about the growing tool in the U.S. Soccer arsenal.
Training Centers have quickly become one of the most important, unheralded scouting resources for U.S. Soccer in only the third year of existence as Director of Scouting Tony LePore told Goal.com last week.

Designed as a way to help the identification process for potential youth national team players; Training Centers, or TCs, have found almost immediate success as a scouting tool with over 40 players added to youth national pools through exposure in the centers in the past two years.

The premise of the exercise is to bring the best players together at the regional level to train with each other under the guidance of a national team coach. While there is no fee for the players to attend, the training session can be invaluable for both players and coaches exposed to quality training, increased speed of play, and the eyes of the best scouts.

TCs were first piloted during the 2008-2009 seasons with the centers taking place in large cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago. Last year, they expanded to more locations and increased frequency.

And they continue to gain popularity. "We have already had 200 training centers this season," LePore told Goal.com in a phone interview. He added that TCs are more accessible than ever before. "We have opened it up to all clubs and organizations making sure that there was less chance to miss anybody."

This has been especially valuable for the younger ages, as LePore highlighted the use of the training centers for the U14 age group. While the U14 age group is not an academy level (U16/U18 is the youngest, currently), it marks an important age in terms of the youth national team setup.

The U14s are the initial age group for the national team. The system starts with a mega camp as an introduction to the process for the youngsters. In the past, the various Olympic Development Programs from all over the country have supplied the players for the mega camp.

TCs are making that an exercise of the past. The current crop of U14s has five players from TCs who may not have had a shot in the previous setup, especially at such an early age.

The centers really work for the U14 age because the scouts cast "a much wider net." LePore explained, "For the U14s, we have a good list of these guys, we can use the centers to narrow down the list."

In comparison to the Development Academy ages (16-18) "the centers don’t filter quite as much because the top players have migrated [to Academy clubs]."

When asked whether it would be beneficial to bring the U14s into the Development Academy structure, LePore replied, "The (U14) age group is definitely overplayed. The ratio of games to training is always off. But, it just doesn’t make sense to set up the U14 age group like the U16 or U18 because of the travel."

Still, some regions are moving to introduce that age group to an academy-like setting. The Northeast and Southern regions are both employing pre-academy set-ups for the young age class.

The pre-academy leagues, which do not represent the same setup as the academy or fall under the Development Academy regulations, are attempting to increase the quality of games for the younger class.

Even though the U14 age remains outside the Development Academy scope, LePore still sees the value in closely scouting the age for TCs. With between 40-50 players already added to national team pools through the training centers, the potential to find players “from any organization” makes it a very attractive option for U.S. Soccer.

Along with serving as a means to potentially discover youth national team players, TCs were set up to make youth national team training available at the local level for club coaches.

"We are working really close with the clubs" so coaches can learn from the experience as well as the players, LePore said. "We have coaches come in as a good development opportunity – they can take some drills from the session."

Beyond the experience of seeing national team training sessions, coaches are seeing what type of player can make it at the next level. "They are learning to gauge the level - sort of the process for the club coaches as well."

Even though LePore cautioned that there are still elements to figure out in the relatively new program, the groundwork is in place for a scouting tool that reaches beyond anything U.S. Soccer has utilized before.

J.R. Eskilson is the Youth Soccer editor at Goal.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @NCAAsoccer

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