In two weeks, viewers in the United States with access to ESPN2 and ESPNU will be able to tune in and watch the future of American soccer. Almost a year after its founding, the US Soccer Development Academy — consisting of 64 teams from across the country — will showcase its best eight teams at U-18 and U-16 levels in front of the television cameras for its inaugural national finals. The importance of the academy to US Soccer can be seen in the fact they’ve paid a considerable amount for the privilege of having ESPN televise these games, including the final on ESPN2.
The national Academy system was put into place to begin to address the lack of structure and over-focus on matches by clubs around the country. All the clubs in the Academy must now train at least three times a week, reducing the match-heavy focus that had dominated before, with a greater focus on player development rather than results. Teams play between 30-38 games in Academy Conference Matches — there are eight geographically divided conferences — as well as the Academy Showcases and the Academy Finals.
And the structured conference system means more meaningful competition when it happens, such as at this weekend’s Showcase in North Carolina (check out the top 15 goals on USSoccer.com’s Studio 90 for a glimpse of the quality on display), with the quality of competition consistently higher.
The importance of this also stretches to player scouting, as it gives those such as John Hackworth, Technical Director of the Academy Developmental program, a chance to see a far wider net of players than ever before, as he recently told Football 365:
We have seen some immediate results, because our scouts are now able to identify a lot more players capable of becoming part of the national team pools. Long term it will change player the quality of the player developing through all levels of American soccer. They will be better coached, more integrated with the various representative levels, and have a better understanding of the game. Over time this will benefit our senior team.
Chad McCarty, U-17/18 Cal Odyssey coach, concurred as he reviewed the performances at the showcase:
“For our club, we’ve seen a dramatic change in the whole climate, really, because the focus is on developing the players rather than just game in and game out going after the results. I think our players – especially for our club – they’re getting better every day. This environment is the reason why. I think if U.S. Soccer hadn’t gotten involved, if they didn’t lay out the framework and the model, then I think we wouldn’t have progressed.”
A further key consequence of the national academy system seems to be that it has spurred MLS teams to further develop their own academies, a move also prompted by the new ruling that allows MLS teams to sign directly two players from their own academy each year (we looked earlier this year at the MLS academies in depth).
The MLS teams fortunes were mixed in 2008, as each tried to finish top of their conference and qualify for the Finals in LA.
- Colorado Rapids finished 5th at the U-18 level, and last at U-16 level in the West conference
- Columbus Crew finished 1st at the U-18 level, and 4th at the U-16 level in the Great Lakes conference
- Chicago Fire finished 1st at the U-18 level, and 4th at the U-16 level in the Mid-America conference
- DC United finished 3rd at the U-18 level, and 2nd at the U-16 level in the Mid-Atlantic conference
- New York Red Bulls finished 2nd at the U-18 level, and 3rd at the U-16 level in the Mid-Atlantic conference
- Chivas USA finished 4th at the U-18 level, and 5th at the U-16 level in the So Cal conference
Therefore, the Crew and Chicago Fire U-18s will be the only MLS representatives amongst the 16 clubs at the Finals. Whilst most the MLS teams did perform respectably, it’s still disappointing that only half the league actually has Academy teams, and that of those, only two won their divisions, even if results are not everything at this level.
Next season, though, the Academy will expand to 74 teams, including the additions of FC Dallas, the Los Angeles Galaxy and the New England Revolution. The failure of the Houston Dynamo, Kansas City, Real Salt Lake and San Jose to join the program can only be put down to cheapness and a failure to understand the bigger picture (Toronto FC have an Academy that participates within the Canadian youth system, though not without some controversy).
Of greatest value are those MLS Academies offered for free. That removes from youth development in soccer one of its biggest obstacles: the high fees that assure it remains an elite, suburban activity failing to tap into less privileged demographics — playing for a traditional travelling club can run into thousands of dollars a year.
MLS fans are also starting to realise the value of these academies: not only will they provide streams of talent directly to their first teams, but they will bring in local players long schooled in the value of playing for the badge of a Chicago or DC United. Section 8 Chicago have closely followed their academy teams in person and on their website Backdraft (to which I am a contributer), from interviews with the coach to match reports. Toronto’s fans have also gotten out to cheer their boys, and hopefully those in other cities are doing so as well.
And this is actually football worth watching. Even though it’s in its nascent stages, the football I’ve seen played in the Mid-America division — particularly by the Fire and the US Youth National Team — has been technically impressive and showcased many players with MLS and USMNT potential.
There remains much to do. The development of the Academy system has stirred feathers with local travel soccer clubs, who fear losing the best talent, and high schools, who often can’t call on their players during development season. But these feathers will have to be ruffled for the overall benefit of American soccer and MLS youth programs. Tune in to ESPN later this month to get a glimpse yourself.