Behind the Scenes of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy: Richmond Kickers Town Hall

U.S. Soccer recently mandated a 10 month schedule for all of the premier youth academies. But what does this actually mean for MLS and USMNT fans?

This past Saturday, I had the opportunity to go to a town hall meeting about the changes to the U.S. Soccer Development Academy system hosted by the Richmond Kickers, a USL-Pro that sponsors teams from U-4 through U-18. For those of you who might not know, U.S. Soccer recently mandated that all of the 78 development academies that are officially sanctioned move to a 10 month schedule for their U-16 and U-18 teams, eliminating the possibility of these kids playing high school soccer.

Why do I, as a D.C. United fan, care about what's happening in academies, you might ask? As every United fan should be aware (and proud), they have had the biggest successes so far with homegrown players. Think of how the 2010 season would have looked without the young and exciting talents of Bill Hamid and Andy Najar, or 2011 without Ethan White on the backline. This presentation cleared up a good number of issues that many people have floated as problems with the move and, overall, it sounds like they are making the right decision.

The four people on the panel were Leigh Cowlishaw, Richmond Kickers head coach and U-16 coach, Rob Ukrop, president of the Richmond Kickers, Ihor Dotsenko, Richmond Kickers technical director and head coach of their U-18 team, and Greg Brewer, a technical advisor for U.S. Soccer. The nine technical advisors and Claudio Reyna make up the technical committee, and they are the ones who rate, review, educate, scout, and advise the coaches and players of the 78 development academies. (Richie Williams, former D.C. United great, is another one of the technical advisors.)

The bulk of the session was a presentation by Chris Brewer outlining the purpose of the development academy and how this new system would help them reach their goals. U.S. Soccer views the development academy as just that: their way of developing for the youth national teams and, eventually, the senior national team. It is their attempt to hybridize the European system of academies with the realities of the size and soccer history in the United States. U.S. Soccer's direct relationship with academies began in Bradenton, Florida, but has now spread to 78 locations across the United States, leaving Bradenton as just one of the crowd. The planning for the 10-month season started two years ago (before Juergen Klinsmann was hired), and the academies in Washington, Oregon, and California started playing this schedule this year. Unlike MLS or other domestic leagues, the development academies run September through June.

The purpose of the academy is to reduce the total number of games that these students are playing while increasing both the number of training sessions and the number of games that really matter. In the current system, these players are playing 30-35 games in six months for their local elite club and then playing their high school season in the other three months. Because of travel and the number of games, the training session to games ratio is often 1:1 or 2:1. The big point that all of the panel made was that it is difficult for these players to get better when they do not have the training time to actually learn.

With the new 10-month system, there would be approximately 30 games spread out over those 10 months, with training sessions four times a week. Expanding the schedule would also allow the teams to play more single fixture weekends, rather than cramming two or three games into four days. Not only would the kids miss less school (a big concern of the parents in the room), all of these games would be played against the best youth teams in the country. It also allows all of these players to be on the same schedule, rather than some players having club in the fall and high school in the spring, while others have the opposite. It would also make the job of the technical advisors easier, allowing them to see the players in their region more often and in greater concentrations. However, Brewer did acknowledge that the idea would be for the players to have time for school, soccer, and not much else.

One of the concerns aired has been that players would miss out on the experience and camaraderie of playing high school soccer. The Kickers have surveyed their current players and 70% are already committed to giving up high school soccer for the academy. They have also had over 20 players not currently in the academy inquire about trials. While that might not sound like many, that is actually half of the academy spots that each team has. (Typically, there are 36 players combined on the U-16 and U-18 teams, with 6-8 more training with these teams.)

But the biggest advantage of the development academies is the constant instruction and evaluation from U.S. Soccer. Each team receives two formal evaluations from their regional technical advisor every year, as well as many more informal observations and consultations. (You can also read U.S. Soccer's entire youth curriculum, if you want.) You can already see the new style of play being imposed at the youth level: teams get graded higher for playing out of the back and get penalized for playing long balls, for example. Cowlishaw also said that the majority of their teams play a 4-3-3, with only a handful playing a 4-4-2. And while the current development academy system is only U-18 and U-16, U.S. Soccer reviews and evaluates all of the curricula down to U-9. They soon hope extend the official system down to U-14 as well; U.S. Soccer was ready to implement it this season, but too many of the teams were not yet ready for that move. Brewer said that he thinks they may implement it for the 2013-2014 season.

Also with the new system, players in academies attached to professional clubs have an opportunity that independent academies do not: the ability for their best players to train with members of that professional team. D.C. United did this last year, with players like Patrick Foss, Brad Vorv, Jalen Robinson, and Collin Martin getting time in Reserve League games. All of the members of the Kickers staff made this point multiple times: playing with a professionals is better than any D-1 college soccer experience. I don't know if that's always true, but it is for the vast majority of colleges.

In addition to this whole new system, the Kickers announced that their academy will be cost-free next year, due to new sponsorship deals and some private donations from people interested in developing the next wave of soccer talent. This is something offered, for the most part, only by MLS clubs and a small handful of others. This means that the player fees, flights, buses, vans trips, hotels, meals, and all other expenses will be covered by the club; one parent asked if their travel would be covered as well. (It is not.) Before this system, a player would probably expect to pay over $20,000 for four years in the academy. Obviously, the more that this can happen, the more players can be judged on their talent and not just their parents' ability to pay for all of this. The Kickers also soon hope to expand this to their girls academy as well.

But enough rambling from me: now that you have the inside scoop, what are your opinions on the new 10-month development academy system?

(Special thanks to Shelley Sowers, Leigh Cowlishaw, and Greg Brewer for letting me pester them.)

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