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En Route: Academies ready for playoffs, but Showcase lingers as afterthought

En Route: Academies ready for playoffs, but Showcase lingers as afterthought

End of the 2010-11 season presents a new experience for Development Academies.

The last week of the regular season is upon those involved in U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy, the prestigious nation-wide youth club soccer league. While the primary focus may be on the playoffs at this time of the year, it is also on the greater theme of the league – player development.  

It is easy for teams to get caught up in results and divisional standings when there are 32 playoff spots on the line, but it is more important to keep an eye on the bigger concern that new Youth Technical Director Claudio Reyna has emphasized for the past few months – development over wins.
 
To the credit of many of the successful teams in the Development Academy, the two have typically gone together in the infant years of the elite league. U.S. U-20 players Kelyn Rowe and Moises Orozco both played on successful teams that were in the playoffs last year. The concern for the scouts is getting every team at the level of those in the playoffs that are producing talent like Rowe and Orozco.

U.S. Soccer is trotting out a new attempt to bring all the teams together this year with an event at Pizza Hut Park that combines the playoffs [for the top 32 teams] with the Showcase [for the other 46].

In previous years, U.S. Soccer has put on a Spring Showcase for all 78 clubs a few weeks prior to the beginning of the playoffs as a way for teams to play against other teams from across the country and college coaches to have a chance to see a number of players in one place. It was the second of two showcase events for the year. The first took place in Arizona in early December. 

This year though, U.S. Soccer changed the format and put the Showcase and the playoffs together at one venue, Pizza Hut Park. It brings a different mentality to the affair as Development Academy coaches have told Goal.com during the season.

“It is going to be tough if you are not in the playoffs, you are going to go play three matches at the showcase with the season already over,” one coach said. “You hope college coaches and national scouts still come watch, but where is everybody going to be?”

The hesitation over the prominence of scouts at the event for the non-playoff teams is a concern for many of the coaches and clubs that have been through a long, tedious season. 

“As much as they say, ‘[scouts] will be around,’ the fact is the playoffs are a different level,” said the same coach, who has multiple years of playoff experience in the Development Academy. “Last year, once you got to Greensboro you knew it was the playoffs. This is different.”

Other coaches were not so pessimistic about the new routine with a venue hosting both events.
 
“They are trying to help out the players and teams that did not make the playoffs from an exposure standpoint,” L.A. Galaxy Academy coach Kenny Arena said to Goal.com on Saturday. “To only have one event is not enough.”

Arena went on to speak about how the younger teams can learn from the experience and take something away regardless of the position the team ends up at the finale of the season.

However, the older teams will also be in the predicament of heading to Frisco, Texas with little on the line and that is where the games and quality can quickly deteriorate. Frankly, it is obvious in the competitiveness of games that the teams lack ambition once they figure out the run for a playoff berth is over. 

So the showcase will be a culmination of 46 teams unfortunately playing second fiddle to the playoffs, but still determined to say, “Hey! Look over at me” like the younger sibling in any household. Obviously, it is not ideal, but nothing is easy in the Development Academy due to the extreme geography U.S. Soccer has to deal with in planning for any event.

But it does offer an opportunity to make the event more meaningful historically. Reyna’s sales pitch about the new system of play for the youth teams in America has been available for two months on U.S. Soccer’s website. Perhaps it is time for Reyna to force the issue on some clubs to buy into his ideology on player development. 

The fact of the matter is that these games are relatively meaningless even for those with the winning-at-all cost mentality. But in the bigger picture this is a meaningful week, this is a time that is about building for the future and returning the focus to the pitch of development over results.

The Showcase is a perfect testing ground for implementing a fluid 4-3-3 attacking formation and some basic principles of the new coaching ideology into various clubs’ repertoire. Even though Reyna’s focus has been on the younger ages for player development, the basic elements of tactics are there in his lessons that could help these clubs in the coming years with some time at the Showcase to digest the curriculum with hands-on experience.

Although the spotlight is on the playoffs, the long-term future of the Development Academy may be in the Showcase, as the concept of the league depends on every club improving at a steady rate. Finding the right motivation to help those clubs mired with both U-16 and U-18 teams in the Showcase could be the key to helping the league grow and make the event meaningful in the future.

J.R. Eskilson is the Youth Soccer Editor at Goal.com. If you have a comment or an idea for a story, you can email him at jr.eskilson [@]gmail.com. Or follow him on Twitter @NCAAsoccer

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