The Development of American Youth Soccer
In the international soccer community, Brazil, Germany, France, Italy, Argentina, Spain, and the Netherlands are all soccer economies that export high-level players. These players are being recruited in leagues outside of their own countries. In the world soccer market, there is now a definite migration of exported players to the point that most of the top international leagues are at least 50% populated with foreign players. For example, the English Premier League is now 69% foreign players for the first time in history (TransferMarkt as cited in Woitalla), and the German Bundesliga is now 50% imported players, as well as the French Ligue.
It is interesting, then, that the United States' MLS is not mentioned in this particular report. According to CIES Football Observatory Monthly, Brazil, by far, exports the most players with 1,784; Argentina is a competitive second with 929 players, and France comes in third with 758 players, all recruited by the world’s soccer community (Besson, Poli, & Ravenel 2015). In the same report, U.S. football’s possessive soccer leagues have received, recently, an increase in imported players, the most being Brazil with 77, followed by the United Kingdom with 70 players, with Jamacia coming in third, importing 61 (Besson, Poli, & Ravenel 2015). In any of these reports, the U.S. is, of course, not mentioned as an exporter of players. Does this point to a US inability to produce international level players? How does U.S. soccer develop world class players in comparison to the leading soccer economies? Is there significant research to guide future soccer development?According to Euramerica’s
According to Euramerica’s, the value of Argentine players has risen dramatically since Lionel Messi achieved notoriety as one of the world’s best (BBC 2010). Argentina's soccer player trade has grown by almost 800% since 2010 (BBC 2010). The player export business in Argentina increased to 117 million USD in the last five years (BBC 2010). The populating of the national leagues with foreign players has increased the value of players being exported (BBC 2010). The first priority in finding talented players that have the potential to play elite soccer is to identify these players for further development. The identification and development system of the leading European and international soccer clubs is very professional. The academy system in Europe, Brazil, and Argentina are very effective to find and train young, talented soccer players (Williams & Reilly). Coyle, in his book, Talent Code, pointed to these talent hotbeds where deep learning is the process (Coyle 2010).
The youth identification system, through the leading European club teams, has become very sophisticated and highly scientific. In the future, there will be many cutting-edge changes and innovations as a result of current research and in the area of developing this new talent (Williams & Reilly as cited in Gopon). It is compulsory that all French Division One Professional Teams have youth soccer development academies (Stahl as cited in Gopon). This inter-club recruitment and development system has been groomed to seek out embryonic stars that develop in the youth ranks. This has been assisted by the “charter for quality” of the Union of European Football Association (Allison & Howie, 2016). A culture of identifying and recruiting and developing has evolved to be a sophisticated institution in Europe especially. The focus of this culture is to discover players of exceptional talent at a young age (Reilly, Bangsbo, & Franks as cited in Gopon).
One of the predominant attributes of the leading international soccer development countries is exceptional coaching. Coaching and training education has reached a very high level at most of these club academies. As an example, the French academies stress good coaching to such a high extent that they have built a special training facility in Paris specifically for the identification and development of professional coaches (Stahl, 2000). Much like identifying players, the coaches are evaluated psychologically. This is to confirm superior communication skills, and a creative mindset (Stahl, 2000).
The coach within the European Academy system will work with the player consistently over an extended time, in some cases five years or more (Stahl as cited in Gopon). The French coaching certifications have become so popular that the U.S. major league soccer has entered a partnership with the French Football Federation in 2013 to train American youth academy coaches (Bird 2016). The agreement allows MLS academy directors and coaches to complete the Elite Youth Coaching License, administered by the French Federation (Bird 2016). It is the equivalent of a UEFA Pro License for Youth Coaches (Bird 2016). These coaching licenses prepare the coach or director to be able to administer every phase of a training academy emphasizing recruitment and development (Bird 2016).
The foundational attribute of recruited candidates for the French Youth Football academies is their attitudes about training (Beswick, as cited in Gopon). Beswick describes task-oriented players as those who have a desire to participate in soccer for the love of the game, and to develop their techniques (Beswick as cited in Gopon). This is in contrast with ego-driven players, who seek fame or social status by becoming better players. These Academy Coaches look for players who are level headed, who are focused and self-confident (Stahl as cited in Gopon). As an example of the ultra-sophisticated training and evaluation of players in the European football academy system, the French academies break down talent into three areas: psychosocial, physical ability, and technical skills with the ball. They further break down the physical talents into aerobic, anaerobic, speed, quickness, and attributes of elite athletes such as flexibility and agility (Gopon). A scientific battery of tests are given to each player to determine physical limitations and potential abilities (Gopon). The constant pervasive focus in these soccer academies is that each player experiences long hours in deep practice (Coyle 2010). In the French academies, players between the ages of thirteen to fifteen may spend 750 minutes per week practicing individual techniques (Stahl as cited in Gopon). After developing for ten years, the average amount of practice for premier players, for example, is 4,587 (Helsen et al 2000). According to research done by Helsen, Hodges, Van Winckel and Starkes, it takes at least ten years to develop young soccer talent into elite professional players (Helsen et al 2000).
Ajax is the famed Dutch youth soccer academy in the Netherlands (Sokolove 2010). It is referred to as a “talent factory”; it produces players and then sells them, sometimes for very high fees (Sokolove 2010). Many refer to Ajax as the founding father of youth soccer development (Sokolove 2010). The Dutch people have a talent for problem solving and innovation, much of this is the result of living in an environment that has to be modified to survive (Sokolove 2010). The building of soccer players is an example of a problem to be solved (Sokolove 2010). The Dutch coaches and academy directors are extremely scientific, methodical, and task-oriented when undertaking the construction of soccer players (Sokolove 2010). The majority of players at Ajax come from the Netherlands and are recruited (Sokolove 2010). There are professional, full-time scouts who work for Ajax who will scour the countryside for talent to recruit, but there is special attention to recruit younger talented players (Sokolove 2010). The training and recruitment process at Ajax is very intense and competitive. At this academy, the kids live, train and receive an academic education (Sokolove 2010). A typical success story of a youth player at Ajax is one of Wesley Sneijder (Sokolove 2010). He began at the academy at seven, trained there until he was twenty-three, when Real Madrid acquired him for twenty-seven million euros (Sokolove 2010). He now plays for Inter Milan, the current Italian champion and winner of 2010’s Champion League Tournament (Sokolove 2010). At Ajax, there is a definite method to training each individual player (Sokolove 2010). The Ajax model is an emphasis on technically obsessive individual time with the ball (Sokolove 2010). This is in contrast with a regimen playing many hours of playing organized games (Sokolove 2010).
The U.S. Academy System
The developmental academy system of the U.S. was started in 2007 (Parchman 2016). The D.A., as it is referred to, was originated as an effort to imitate as much as possible the youth training system of the European and leading soccer economies (Parchman 2010). The D.A. is referred to as an academy system, but more importantly, it looks like a league rather than just a group of academies or one academy (Parchman 2016). It is a league consisting of some eighty clubs playing a year-round schedule (Parchman 2016). The D.A. players become eligible to be recruited by a system for MLS clubs including U12 to U18 age groups (Parchman 2016). Within U.S. youth soccer, there are many sections; most have programming from U6 to U18 (Parchman 2016). This encompasses a huge amount of players and many different organizations. There is a very loose system presently to recruit and identify talented players. For instance, this USYS organization is composed of thousands of U6 to U18 players, and has only roughly nine professional scouts and one hundred part-time assistants to identify, recruit and develop the brightest talents (Parchman 2016). Many smaller European nations have ten times more scouts with far less numbers to recruit from (Parchman 2016).
The system for finding, recruiting, and developing these players is to first put them into teams, which are age-grouped, to play internationally against top youth teams in Italy, Argentina, and the Netherlands (Parchman 2016).
The big difference in the international soccer academies that are successfully turning out elite professional players is that their emphasis is on individual skills and training and very intense training methods rather than playing continuously in tournaments and games and competing for league standings as a member of a team (Sokolove 2010). Ajax, for instance, is a supermarket of worldwide soccer exportation of top players to the world’s best clubs because they develop and teach the very young players at an early age (Sokolove 2010). The U.S., by comparison, does not really contribute to this marketplace. The number of American recruits for European and other international academies and clubs are very few (Parchman 2016).
The emphasis on training very young players, culturally in the United States, could be considered obsessive and abusive. In Europe and Asia, this would be much more culturally acceptable. In America, the self-made athlete is more worthy of respect and admiration than the kid who devotes himself to the soccer academy regimen (Parchman 2016). In countries such as Germany and Argentina, coaching education programs have produced knowledgeable coaches to guide future generations of professionals (Parchman 2016). These very high expectations of coaches in the leading soccer nations had a great effect on the development of youth players in those nations (Parchman 2016). Coaches in FFF coaching academy are groomed to be educators, teachers, and leaders to focus on the individual’s football education (Bird 2016).
The D.A. system in the United States still over utilizes the competition between teams and league standings, rather than an emphasis on individual players to reach levels of great talent and skill along with the fact that the U.S. has a lack of visionary coaches who have the experience, skill, and work ethic to develop players over a long period of time (Parchman 2016). Culturally, in the United States, there is a preoccupation with everything occurring in a short period of time rather than nurturing and developing players over decades (Parchman 2016). Real change will come from qualified and passionate youth coaches at the U-8 to U-10, possibly U-14 levels to be obsessive in training for skills and fitness (Parchman 2016). “The USSF has an academy program for U17 players located at IMG in Bradenton, Florida” (Forbes, 2006). This academy has some quality instruction and would qualify as one that would be similar to a European-style program. Players actually live at the academy and attend an academic school as well (Forbes 2006). The critique of this program is its effect on very few players. The USSF has 3.5 million youth players registered, and in the U.S. today, we have more than 14 million soccer players (Forbes 2006). Our nation has more people playing soccer than the total population of Portugal who have advanced to the semifinals of the World Cup (Forbes 2006).
It is interesting to note that Lionel Messi was originally trained by a club located in his hometown in Argentina (Parchman 2016). He had been nurtured and trained as a very young child in small-sided games and individual coaching (Parcman 2016). He transferred to Barcelona when he was thirteen (Parchman 2016).
Barcelona’s success now is the fruit of a 20-year commitment to youth development. The fact that the academy director/manager reports into senior management or a board member reduces the chance of constant change, which is disruptive to a child’s development. Many of the academy directors/managers had been involved in youth development for many years. The most successful clubs or associations, including Clairefontaine (French National Centre), Bayern Munich, and Middleborough, have had the same person in charge for between 13 and 30 years. One of many negative points that arise from constant change is that clubs invariably lose the talent they have in their system to other clubs (Sulley 2012).
“The best players in foreign countries are identified by pro clubs. In the United States, the youth and college games remains a place to discover talent”(Davis 2008). The research here points to several glaring differences of U.S. soccer development and the major soccer economies of the world. Foundationally, U.S. soccer is not connected to the international soccer economic market; U.S competitive teams are getting some imported players, but export very few. Any business person would understand that there must be a balance between import and export of goods or services. U.S. soccer is loosely involved in the international market, which creates other problems such as funding academies, research, and professional teams. The inferior academy program which again has fallen back to being more of a league than a program of identification, education, and development. The philosophy of having to win at U6, U8, U10 or younger, compared to an emphasis on soccer education and development. There is a tendency for coaches to be apathetic and not engage in professional development in the United States. A glaring obstacle to building a soccer culture is an existing preoccupation of U.S. fans for anything big, tall, and genetically predisposed. In contrast, the entire world respects and admires the incredible skill and tactical genius of a five-foot-six little man on Barcelona’s premier team.
The development of a real American world-class soccer player who could play for Barcelona would be an obvious game changer and would inspire many young players to be more skill intensive. A soccer culture must be developed at the grassroots level to recruit and inspire quality professional coaches. More than any other solution, a culture that would encompass the soccer community in the United States and generate talent is imperative. This culture would solve many of the problems that seem too complex. This culture would foster and nurture talented, young American players. This culture would educate and value rigorous coaching curriculums and certifications. This culture would have a respect and value for the game’s required deep skill and intense fitness. The martial arts community embodies many of these same ideas, where training and learning is embraced over a long period of time and instant results are devalued. Most importantly, this culture would encourage a love, respect, and enjoyment for the beautiful game.
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