Two years ago, I wrote what is still one of my favorite articles in my time at Black and Red United: a behind the scenes look at the US Soccer Development Academy, which had recently mandated a 10 month season for all of its clubs, ending the ability for Academy players to play high school soccer. And, as well all know, D.C. United's academy has produced seven Homegrown players, including the first Homegrown player to be sold to a European team. With the announcement of Richmond United, the merger of the Richmond Kickers and Richmond Strikers development academies, I figured I would attend their public town hall to get an update on youth development in the United States.
The first part of the town hall was a presentation by former D.C. United player Clint Peay, who is now one of US Soccer's 9 regional technical advisers for the academy system; Peay is also an assistant coach for Richie Williams' U-17 national team. Peay is the technical adviser for clubs from North Carolina to Washington, and he gave an overview of the Development Academy system from the perspective of US Soccer. The regional technical advisers observe games and practices, give the coaches feedback, and give each academy a formal rating. The ratings are on a 1-5 star scale, with only Real Salt Lake and the New York Red Bulls' academies even reaching the 4-star rating. Together with these 9 technical advisers, US Soccer also has 80 scouts across the country (primarily college coaches) who also look at youth players for potential inclusion into the national team pool.
Peay was very upfront about the fact that, while winning is always a good thing, the primary purpose of the US Soccer Development Academies is the individual development of players with the ultimate goal of producing better players for the US national teams. The win-loss record of each team matters little in the overall evaluation of each academy; what does matter is the team's style of play. Peay also had some choice words for the format of college soccer, saying that its basically a different game from what the rest of the world plays.
One point that was made twice by Clint Peay and then again by Michael Milazzo of the Richmond Strikers is the importance of ending pay-to-play and going to cost-free academies, which the Richmond Kickers' academy was this year and which Richmond United will be next year. Pay-to-play obviously allows only those children whose parents can afford the fees to be members of the academy, cutting out a wide swath of potential players. For an example, the fee for D.C. United's U14 team is currently $2500 per year, with the fee for the U16 and the U18 teams each being $1500 per year. D.C. United does offer scholarships for its academy players; according to the team 5 players are on a full scholarship, 17 on a partial scholarship, and 51 receive no aid. However, the team did stress that everyone who applied for aid last year received something.
Michael Milazzo, Director of Soccer Operations for the Richmond Strikers, then gave an overview of the structure of Richmond United and how it would be different from the Richmond Kickers or Richmond Strikers current academy system. Milazzo framed this merger as an opportunity to look at everything that each academy has done in a new way and focus on innovative and progressive ideas moving forward. Their player evaluation criteria reflect that: they are interested in players that have technical ability, game intelligence, physical attributes, and mental strength. Ihor Dotsenko, technical director of the Richmond Kickers Academy, made the point that they want the players that will develop into the best players at the next level, not just the players who are the best now. Both Milazzo and Dotsenko will coach the U14 team in the next season, with the goal of hiring a dedicated coach soon; Milazzo will coach the U16s; and Dotsenko will coach the U18s.
One of the new initiatives that will be part of Richmond United, for example, is the inclusion of futsal as a part of the winter training regimen, which has been a recommendation of US Soccer starting last year. Futsal requires an even higher focus on technique development, and so including it when it is difficult to play outside makes sense.
And finally, To bridge the gap between the Academy teams and the Richmond Kickers professional team, Richmond United will be starting a U23 team this summer which will initially play against similar teams such as D.C. United, the Carolina RailHawks, and other local amateur teams. According to Richmond Kickers director of soccer Leigh Cowlishaw, the goal of the U23 team is to provide "top academy talent, former academy alumni, top college players in Virginia and our professional players additional training and playing opportunities that will enhance their development." While the team will not be playing in an official league this summer, one of the options at which the team is looking is to join the USL's Premier Development League down the road.
Overall, the newly united academy's goals are ambitious: to graduate 75% of their players to Division I colleges, to attract the best players of the region, to achieve a 5-star rating from US Soccer, and to be nationally respected. And the unification of the two academies makes this easier, and reflects the primary (and often unspoken) goal of these academies nationwide: the development of the top players in each academies market. MLS teams, for the most part, have already achieved this goal. Now it is time for the lower division teams to join them, and Richmond United is a big step in that direction.
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