En Route: The environment hinders growth in US youth soccer

U.S. Youth Technical Director Claudio Reyna puts an emphasis on changing the environment of youth soccer in America.
Between camps, monthly fees, and tournaments, the cost of paying for a child to play club soccer is not cheap. The fees quickly add up and the travel nearly every weekend begins to wear on everyone involved with the process.

For many, this is a show of devotion from parents to help their children play the game they love and, perhaps for the select few, profit from the experience with a college scholarship.

However, this is not the system that Claudio Reyna wants for developing talent to push the U.S. national team to the next level. Reyna believes that the environment of many clubs in this country is hindering the growth of players, and he is beginning to make his plea for a change.

“The environment is of the utmost importance,” Reyna told Goal.com last month. “If we think it doesn’t matter, we’re wrong. The kids should not be in stressful environments at this age.”

In the immediate returns of Reyna’s second year involved with the national team youth system, there has been little change on this front because club soccer remains a business that keeps those in the right spot well fed.

The pessimistic outlook may not sit well with all, as there are clubs out there in it for the right reasons, but for many others, the objectives that Reyna speaks about are blasphemy.

Reyna recognizes this, without saying as much, and has not so faintly began to campaign for putting players in ‘the right training environment.’

While MLS academies have an advantage in relieving the stress with the financing from the top level, Reyna also highlighted some of the other teams at Finals Week when talking about what clubs did a good job in providing a positive environment for player development, namely PA Classics.

The Classics, who were playing during the interview, are led by head coach Steve Klien, who was recently introduced as an assistant coach in the national team program at the U-15 level. Reyna mentioned that the Classics are set up with the right coaching, attractive playing style, and respect for the game.

However, the Classics are the exception for the most part, as Reyna views the current system flawed with the focal point away from the players.

“As it is now, it is way too focused with parents and coaches dominating,” the former U.S. international continued. “The game is always about the players first. It should be about them, and not about the parents, coaches, and adults who nine times out of ten screw it for the kids in our country.”

Reyna went on to talk how the environment goes on to influence more at the macro level, as the competition and league that young players are placed in has a great effect on the end result for developing talent.

“Collectively, that is how we are going to get better at developing players,” Reyna said in reference to taking a serious look at what type of situation kids are being placed in. “We have kids who are hungry and committed, so the focus is to remove [the stress and politics of youth club soccer] from the players.”

The technical director continued by saying that after removing these factors, the spotlight would return to the player, who, as he stated earlier, is the most important piece to the puzzle going forward. The challenges that Reyna speaks about on this accord are unique to the U.S. system.

The grand system of the US Soccer network makes it nearly impossible for him to reach out to every club or league. He is able to work with the Development Academy clubs with a hands-on approach but that is a small sample of the overall picture for youth soccer in America.

As many in the youth federation circle know, many of the top players in the Development Academy started at other clubs and slowly climbed the way to the more prestigious club in the area. The idea to reach those less acclaimed clubs is via the new curriculum that was unveiled earlier this year that is free to download at US Soccer’s website.

“The idea was never to have it just for the academies,” Reyna replied when asked how he intended to pass along the messages from the new coaching system to grassroots clubs. “Although, having them in the league it is easier to deal and relate with them, but it is out there for everyone.”

Reyna is not alone in his quest to change the system and improve the path for young players in this country. New national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann ranted during the 2010 World Cup about the backwards make-up of U.S.’s development ladder.

“[The system] is completely opposite the rest of the world,” Klinsmann, who was serving as a television commentator at the time, said about the problems with US Soccer. “You need to know how to develop the players. It is very difficult within the American culture to talk about the topic because you are the only country in the world that has the pyramid upside down.”

Now, with Reyna leading the way at the youth level, the system is beginning to change, as he focuses his attention on how to improve the environment.

The question for the future is if anyone will listen beyond those handpicked 70 or so clubs in the Development Academy. Outside those clubs is where the majority of players get their start in soccer and that is where the real battle lies for the hope of US Soccer’s youth program.

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