Youth Soccer Development in the United States

When I decided to write a piece on youth development, I immediately started focusing on the same questions that many of us have been debating and discussing since Bruce Arena and the US Men’s National Team were eliminated from World Cup Qualifying:

  • Why don’t we have promotion/relegation yet?
  • How can we make youth development academy programs more affordable?
  • Are kids better off going to college and MLS, or going to Europe at a younger age?

And so on.

But after spending countless hours reading articles online, listening to podcasts, reading Tweets, and listening to others debate the same questions over, and over, and over again, it made me wonder if it’s actually possible for me to sit here and write a piece that says “here’s what’s wrong with US Soccer, and here’s how we fix it”…. nor would I want to come off as, in the words of Claudio Reyna, “arrogant” enough to actually think that I know more than the fine coaches, scouts, and administrators throughout the country who dedicate a large portion of their day-to-day lives to help kids get better at playing the beautiful game.

So what I decided to do was ask the opinion of those who are involved with youth development efforts on a day-to-day basis, as well as those who have actually lived it as a coach and/or player.

Thanks to the following contributors who were nice enough to give us a few opinions on youth soccer development in the United States, in alphabetical order:

  • John Ellinger– Former U-17 US Youth National Team Head Coach, former Real Salt Lake Head Coach, currently Director of Technical Operations at the Soccer Association of Columbia and Baltimore Armour.
  • John Harkes- Former US Men’s National team captain. Won 2 MLS Cups with DC United, also played in England for Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County, West Ham, and Nottingham Forest. 90 Caps for the USMNT. Still actively coaching with Mclean Youth Club.
  • Ryan Martin– Former Wake Forest and FC Cincinnati Scouting Director, currently DC United Academy Director.
  • Bill Moravek– “A”-License coach who has previously served as an assistant for the Jamaican National Team, former academy coach and scout for Southampton and currently a head coach in Bethesda Soccer Club’s Development Academy, as well as a current scout for Fulham FC in England where he and his sons spent 5 years abroad before returning to the United States.
  • Matt Ney– “A”-License Head Coach of Bethesda Academy U17 Team who has been involved with the Development Academy for a number of seasons. Coach Ney’s U-15/16 team made it to the quarterfinals of USSDA playoffs last season, only to be eliminated by a very talented Atlanta United team 4-1.

Each of these coaches bring a unique perspective to the youth development conversation, and I’d like to thank each of them personally for taking the time to participate.

It should also be noted that I spoke to John Harkes on a number of these topics. His responses were dictated and sent to him for review, we hope to add his contributions once his official responses are received.

I interviewed each coach, and the first question I asked each of them was:

More kids are playing soccer in the United States than ever before. Do you believe some of them are falling through the cracks?

Ryan Martin, DC United Academy Director

Ryan Martin DCU Academy

“Yeah, definitely. Some of the best players we’ve been able to bring over to DC United we found playing on a middle school team or in some sort of rec program. One of the biggest responsibilities that we have at DC United as an MLS Academy is to discover and develop the best talent in the area, but it isn’t always the players who are playing in organized travel programs.

So since I came on board, Ben Olsen, Dave Kasper, and myself have made it a priority to improve our scouting network. We’ve scouted over 700 players between the ages of 11-15 so far this year. We’ve promoted John Bello to Full-Time Scouting Director, and we’ve added 8 part-time scouts to the program who are out there helping us to identify more talent in the DMV.

Our goal is to discover and develop the next Andy Najar (who DCU discovered at a tryout). We plan to constantly improve our scouting network, as well as our relationship with other local youth clubs by continuing to establish partnerships.”

John Harkes:

John Harkes USMNT

“Yes I do, but this does happen around the world. It just happens at a slightly higher rate in the US, due to our size as a country. I think we need more scouts, and more organized opportunities and sessions for top players.

Also, what is the criteria for a scout in the US? I don’t think it should be based on someone taking a low salary or per diem just to fill the role.”

I went on to ask John about how scouting played a role in his success as manager at FC Cincinnati:

harkes fc cincy

“I had been fortunate to have coached at all levels in the US, so I had a massive network of players from youth, PDL, college, USL, NASL, and MLS that, when combined with Ryan Martin, we knew what we wanted when we were scouting players. Ryan’s experience and the conversations we had while he coached Ian with Jay Vidovich at Wake Forest were great. We were on the same page.

The final decision on many talented players came down to character. We discuss technical ability for a possesion-style attack, physicality, speed of thought, and pure speed, but the deciding factor was character.”

Matt Ney, Bethesda Academy Head Coach:

Matt Ney Bethesda

“Oh, I don’t think there’s any question that there are masses falling through the cracks. I think this will continue to be the case until we have more clubs. I think we have to get to the point where there is a youth club in practically every neighborhood, and in every different pocket of the DMV. I’m talking about a kid in Bailey’s Crossroads not having to go play for Alexandria or Arlington, but a home club in his actual neighborhood. A kid from a Baltimore suburb not having to travel to play for Armour or one of the traditional Baltimore-area clubs, but they have an organized and competitive club in their actual neighborhood or general area.

I think we need more clubs popping up, either under their local YMCA or through other means. And as more clubs develop, it benefits the USSDA clubs like Arlington, Bethesda, Baltimore Armour because they’ll develop partnerships with more local clubs and improve their scouting network as a result. But I don’t think there are enough clubs offering kids the option for competitive club soccer. Take Gabriel Jersus, for example. Started off in a small, tiny youth club in Brazil, and is now playing for Manchester City and the Brazilian National Team.

So as more clubs begin to form, and the bigger clubs like DC United and other MLS Academies start going after their talent, the question becomes….what incentives do these smaller clubs actually have to develop players from ages, say 8-14, and then just let them leave for DC United or Philly Union? They get nothing. The players play in a youth club for however many years, DC United comes in and offers them the chance, but then what do the clubs get in return?

That’s what we have to start figuring out.”

(We’ll expand on this below)

John Ellinger, Former USYNT Coach and Current Baltimore Armour Director of Technical Operations

Baltimore Armour

“I don’t know if it’s a case where players are falling through the cracks. US Soccer’s youth scouting system is very good.

The only thing I would add is that I feel that more players who are scouted as potential National Team players should be given the chance to participate in camps with current National Team players, instead of just saying ‘well, they are close, but not there yet.'”

Bill Moravek, Current Bethesda USSDA Coach

bill moravek

“I think the obvious answer is, yes. Between the costs usually associated with playing USSDA, and even competitive USYSA travel programs, as well as the amount of travel involved, it’s a huge commitment that isn’t affordable for everyone. There are scholarships available for some players, but the amount of paperwork and the overall process that’s involved can be rigorous, at best.

And it isn’t just an inner-city or lower-income problem, either. It has to do with the landscape of our country.

In London, you could have 10 youth clubs within walking distance. Here in the States, everything is more spread out. There is a lot of travel involved just to make it to your training sessions every night. And in terms of cost…growing up, all you had to pay was a small fee to cover insurance, you got your kit, and you’re off. But now it’s a lot more of a business. Clubs have to cover field rental fees, referee fees, lighting, uniforms, coaches, etc. the list goes on.”

“One of the biggest issues in the USA, and Reyna touched on this, is perhaps the arrogance and smug demeanor of so many in high level coach/admin. positions. We cannot go on speaking about developing players in this country and comparing non-USSDA to MLS USSDA or even worse, comparing either of those to top academy programs in Europe, as there is no comparison or overall frame of reference.

It just isn’t possible.

And unfortunately, there in lies the problem. We need more ‘cultured’ coaches/scouts who have a broader spectrum, a realistic perspective of just how different the environments are, and how best to gather methods to catch up with more advanced footballing nations.

How may we do that when none of our top has experienced anything of the sort from a coaching or scouting perspective outside the USA?

For me, unless you have lived that side of it, it is impossible to know. Granted, these opportunities are hard to come by, but we have many capable coaches/scouts here in the USA who would really benefit from more than just a 1-2 weeks trip to a club overseas. I don’t have all the answers, but do believe this would be of benefit to so many. We have so much potential and talent in this country, we are on a good path but the system needs some fresh ideas and implementation.”

My Conclusion, after speaking to everyone:

My conclusion to this question is going to basically summarize what I think about youth development conversations, in general, over the past week… and that is that everyone has a different opinion, and everyone has a different point of view.

This is why I was excited to get so many different opinions, from so many different viewpoints.

Ryan Martin is an MLS Academy Director. His job is to do whatever he can to identify and develop the best players he can, and to help DC United become the top youth development club in the region.

John Ellinger is a non-MLS Academy Director who has experience coaching one of the country’s most successful youth national teams ever.

1999 U17 YNT

He’s also been a head coach in MLS. I know, from my experience as a former volunteer assistant at Baltimore Armour, that Coach Ellinger is extremely involved in the US Soccer landscape, participating in National coaching seminars and attending USSDA Showcases. His opinion, as both a coach and USSDA administrator, hold a lot of weight for me, because his day-to-day activity revolve around youth development.

John Harkes, who has made 90 appearances for the USMNT during his playing career, has played in Europe and also has a son coming through MLS, believes (based on his past experiences in the overall US Soccer landscape) that we are hiring scouts who are affordable, versus US Soccer having a set procedure when it comes to hiring scouts.

Bill Moravek, currently a head coach of a non-MLS USSDA program who has experience in the youth soccer landscape in Europe, also brought an interesting perspective to the conversation.

But what resonated with me the most was my conversation with Matt Ney, and here’s why:

I was lucky enough to be involved in the US Soccer Development Academy for 3 seasons: Baltimore Bays USSDA U13/14 for 2 seasons, and Baltimore Armour U15/16 for one season. In fact, here’s the first ever post on the site from 2013, Bays U14 vs Richmond Strikers, Brady O’Conner (now playing at GW) with one of the goals.

There is a lot of pressure to succeed when you’re a player or coach in USSDA, and the term “succeed” isn’t necessarily defined as “developing promising youth talent”. Making the playoffs, winning records, and style of play are three things, from my experience, that many define being a “successful” player or coach in the Development Academy.

Is USSDA too results-oriented? In my opinion, yes. But it’s hard for me to say this when I’ll be Tweeting out two weeks later that a club is struggling because it’s lost it’s past 2 matches, so there ya go.

The point of my story is this. As a coach of a non-MLS Academy Club, it’s hard enough to compete week in, week out…keeping all of the players’ start percentages as high as they should be, keeping all of the parents happy, four training sessions a night, countless hours of travel, late night training sessions, etc. without also having to worry about losing your best players to another club like DC United.

When you’re coaching kids in the Development Academy, you’re spending a LOT of time with them to help them develop. So I understand if it’s a bitter pill to swallow if you’re Matt Ney or any other USSDA coach, you’ve spent years coaching the kid (4 sessions/week, traveling every other weekend, etc.), you’re helping to develop the player, and when DC United approaches the player and convinces him to switch teams, the developing club has lost their best player, and has received nothing in return.

This can be especially frustrating when you look at how much youth players are worth in England and other European countries, and you wonder how big of a problem it is that our youth players hold practically zero value in the way things are currently structured.

This is from the England FA’s website:

fa

If a 12 year-old who is being developed at a Category 3 club is sold to another English club, the training club is entitled to £12,500.

Now obviously this sparks the debate, do we want to be selling kids to and from youth clubs? US Soccer will inevitably say “absolutely not”, and I can’t say that I blame them. Here’s an interesting article from the Telegraph in England:

How youth players are being left on the scrapheap thanks to exorbitant compensation fees

But we do need to figure out, in my humble opinion, how our youth players can build and maintain some sort of value, and how we can give youth clubs the INCENTIVES to develop players who will later go on to play college or professional soccer. I’ll come back to this later in the article, I want to go through a few more questions first.

The next question I asked everyone was related to how US Soccer can help non-MLS USSDA clubs evolve and thrive, a conversation which came up in my interview with Philly Union U-18 head coach Jeff Cook this past summer.

Does US Soccer or MLS need to do a better job helping USSDA clubs, especially non-MLS clubs, financially?

Ryan Martin, DC United:

Ryan Martin FC Cincinnati

Ryan Martin was at Wake Forest before going on to work with Harkes at FC Cincinnati. He later would later take over at DCU Academy.

“I think MLS has done a lot to help expand youth development efforts. The Generation Adidas Cup, the partnership with Liga MX, I think MLS is doing a great job.

But I think US Soccer needs to follow suit.

I think different clubs need different scouting, and I think we need more scouts, to be honest. There are too many kids slipping through the cracks, and our country is so big, geographically, that one Academy Technical Adviser can’t be expected to cover a territory as large as ours- from Richmond to Southern NJ, among all clubs and all different age groups- and not expect kids to slip through the cracks. I think if anything, US Soccer needs to start adding more scouts.

You look at Germany, and I bring this up because we’re completing our second round of evaluations from DoublePass, but a country like Germany has over 300 scouts who are evaluating youth talent on a daily basis.

I think that adding incentives to the Academy setup would make sense, similar to Germany and other countries. Each club gets a rating based on different criteria, and maybe US Soccer adds a financial incentive for each club who are able to meet different standards, but also penalize clubs who fail to measure up.

In terms of facilities, you look at Atlanta, Salt Lake, LA FC, obviously our new training facility which is being constructed….all of these clubs are all pushing the envelope when it comes to building world-class training facilities. Improving facilities is an obligation for every MLS USSDA club, but it takes money.”

 

Matt Ney, Bethesda Soccer Club 

Bethesda Academy

Matt Ney’s Bethesda U-16 team made it to Quarterfinals of USSDA playoffs last season, before losing to Atlanta United 4-1. Atlanta United brought a number of players down from their U18 team for the game, after that squad was eliminated.

“Do I think US Soccer should be helping Non-USSDA clubs more, financially? Absolutely.

Do I think it will ever happen? Not really.

A lot of people believe that the best players should be playing for MLS USSDA clubs. But if you look at some of the current U-17 players- Josh Sargent isn’t playing for an MLS USSDA club, nor is Timothy Weah. There are tons of players out there who have the quality, but it would be silly to say that a player isn’t good enough if he doesn’t play for an MLS youth club.

You could look at our result in the USSDA Playoffs last season- we lost 4-1 to Atlanta United- and say ‘well that’s why our best kids should be playing for an MLS Academy’, but tell that to Jeremy Ebobisse (who played for Bethesda-Olney) or Gedion Zelalem, or Joe Gyau, or Chris Odoi-Atsem, or Jalen Robinson, or Bill Hamid, all of whom developed at our club.

I always compare it to Chelsea, how many youth players who they develop or young players who they purchase actually crack the first team at first? Not many. De Bruyne ends up being sold, Lukaku, Matt Miazga had to go out on loan, the list goes on. So if an MLS youth club dangles the chance of playing for the first team in front of the parents, and then the club ends up with 33 kids on each USSDA side, isn’t that a little stifling for their development?

As DC United and other MLS clubs pursue players that we and other Non-MLS youth clubs have developed, I think tensions will continue to rise. If US Soccer had a compensation plan in place for acquiring players, it becomes a different conversation.

But there isn’t a plan, so tensions are extremely high between clubs, as we all believe that we’re the best option for the player to develop. It’s arrogant to think that a club helps develop players at a higher rate just because the club has a professional title. If the system is open, and everyone is on an equal playing field, then development becomes more competitive, the best will rise, and those who can’t compete will fail. Just like in any other business sector today.”

John Harkes:

John and Ian Harkes

Father and Son- John and Ian Harkes

“Youth clubs are generally doing a good job developing players. It is vitally important for the youth club to provide opportunities for all players to have the opportunity to be included. Our country is massive, we need clubs in every community if possible. If a club develops a player to pro level, the club should be compensated. That compensation can be used to lower costs for families, and pay coaches. Discussions with US Soccer regarding a proper business structure are needed.”

John Ellinger:

John Ellinger

“There is no question that supplements from US Soccer would help the non-MLS DA Academies.

The pay-to-play v. free play model in the older DA age groups is a difference maker.”

My Conclusion, after speaking to everyone:

I don’t think that we need an open market where youth players can be sold to other clubs. There’s enough pressure on our youth players as it is, what happens when they find out they’re worth a few thousand dollars if they’re sold?

But I do believe, in my humble opinion, that US Soccer could consider implementing an incentive-based structure where all clubs (not necessarily only USSDA clubs) are rewarded for developing a player and helping to funnel them into the College/MLS pipeline, or if the player goes on to play professionally elsewhere. If DC United goes after a Bethesda player, and the player makes the switch, then Bethesda is awarded some type of financial incentive as a reward for developing the player.

I, personally, in my humble opinion, believe that this could be a way for clubs to reduce the astronomical fees associated with competitive travel soccer. They can charge less if they know that they will be compensated for developing players who will later go on to play professionally or at a competitive collegiate level. Instead, what seems like the short-term solution to a long-term equation…clubs have to charge parents thousands of dollars each season to cover field rental fees, insurance, etc.

I also believe that an incentive-based structure could be a way for more coaches to become interested in getting involved with youth development efforts. If a coach makes $6k per season, that seems to be the short-term solution.

But if the clubs and coaches are compensated based on how many NCAA division one-caliber players they’re developing, or if they’re able to help develop a player who later goes on to play professionally, the coaches then have the ability to earn more money based on their performance, and are more invested in the player’s development process. Would the youth coaches put more effort into helping introduce players to potential college programs? I believe so.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be cash that is awarded to the clubs based on meeting certain incentives, either. The impression I got from Matt Ney, and the impression that I’ve gotten from many within the USSDA landscape, is that they want to expand their clubs. They want to eventually be able to offer a professional option to their youth players, which would almost certainly benefit the overall youth development efforts in our country. It might be possible that US Soccer could help these clubs reach their goals, but the constant question of US Soccer’s relationship with MLS might make this a more difficult conversation than we think.

The next question which we asked everyone was about coaching education. Currently, US Soccer and the State Youth Associations are responsible for hosting and offering coaching courses.

Philly Union U-18 head coach Jeff Cook told us this summer that he believed that the MLS clubs in each market could eventually evolve into the federation-figures that help out with coaching education efforts in their markets.

Should US Soccer be responsible for all coaching education, or should MLS clubs become more involved?

Ryan Martin, DC United

ryan martin dcu academy

“As an MLS Academy, it’s our duty to help improve coaching education efforts. Ben Olsen, Dave Kasper, and myself make an effort to put an emphasis on coaching education, and we’ll continue to improve and expand those efforts.

We currently have partnerships with 17 different clubs in our area who we help offer coaching education courses to. We have 9 DC United players working on their ‘B’ Licenses, and are actually serving as assistants in the youth development training sessions. 2 of our guys are in the French Federation UEFA class, and we’ve been working with coaches from clubs like Inter Milan and Benfica to learn even more.”

John Ellinger:

“US Soccer is doing a great job at the moment with coaching education. They are currently running some B License courses for MLS players at the club level, which is a fantastic opportunity for those players.”

 

Matt Ney:

“I think we do a pretty good job educating our coaches. We have 2 outside coaching consultants who help us with continuing education courses and we make an effort to get more of our current players involved in coaching education courses.

I think the bigger issue is, can US Soccer bring in more scouts, and can we do a better job working together? We need to do a better job improving the number of players that US Soccer is actually scouting.”

Bill Moravek:

“Yeah, coaching education can always improve, but the bigger issue is scouting.

I’ve said this for years, US Soccer isn’t scouting enough players. You might see some guys getting looks at the USSDA games, but US Soccer sends practically zero scouts to some of these bigger USYSA tournaments and events, which is a shame. There is still a lot of quality talent at the USYSA level, but US Soccer seems to only be focusing on the USSDA clubs and players.”

My Conclusion, after speaking to everyone:

Scouting seems to be a big void when it comes to developing youth players in our country. It’s an issue which has come up across the board, with everyone I’ve spoken to.

I agree 100% with Bill Moravek’s comments regarding USYSA players not getting enough attention.

I’ve heard one local Division 1 assistant coach who is very active in the local recruiting scene imply that, while USSDA programs do a good job teaching kids how to “play”…aka play out of the back, keep possession, stretch the field and play a more attractive brand of soccer, it’s the USYSA players who are actually becoming more accustomed to the physical style of play that is similar to that found in a lot of Division 1 college soccer.

Which brings me to my next topic: youth players moving overseas at an early age, versus the college and MLS track.

If you’re a youth player, are you better off overseas at a younger age, or playing in college?

John Ellinger:

“I feel experience has shown us that it depends on the individual player. Everyone jumps on the go to Europe bandwagon when our players are actually getting useful minutes in first team games, but the moment they stop playing, you hear that they should have signed in the MLS. College v Home Grown, again it depends on the individual. Some players are not mature enough to deal with the demands of being a young professional player and then should make the decision to play in college.”

Bill Moravek:

“I think that a change of scenery is great for any youth player. If you play in the same environment your entire youth career, you’ll only know what you’re familiar with. We were in Europe at Fulham, and I thought it would be a good move for the boys to come back home and play for a few seasons in the States. That being said, it’s not the same for everyone. You have to be ready to learn a new culture, learn a new language at times, be away from your family and friends. I don’t think there is one right or wrong answer, it depends on the individual player and what’s best for him.”

 

Conclusion:

While it’s true that Pulisic, Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, and others have found success at younger ages playing in Europe and other countries, the majority of our best USMNT players have come up through the college and MLS system. These include:

  • Brian Mcbride
  • John Harkes
  • Clint Dempsey
  • Geoff Cameron
  • Carlos Bocanegra
  • Tab Ramos
  • Claudio Reyna

So I tend to agree with Coach Ellinger that the “Move to Europe early” bandwagon is easy to jump on when a player like Pulisic is thriving in Germany, but are we looking to develop one world-class player (a needle in the haystack), or a USMNT team of guys that compete in World Cup Qualifying?

The college game can still improve. I’ve watched countless NCAA soccer games this past season, and there’s no question that it’s making progress. But let’s not just assume that we need to send all of our kids over to Europe for our country to succeed as a soccer-playing nation, in my humble opinion.

The last question I asked each participant was about promotion/relegation.

Many think that a structured second and third division of MLS would help offer younger players more first-team matches. Do you believe in promotion/relegation?

Ryan Martin:

“Yeah, I think it would be a good thing. But I don’t think it’ll ever happen. When you look at the MLS franchise fees and what some of these MLS owners are paying, versus the USL franchise fees, there’s a huge gap there.

We have a USL team coming soon, and I’m excited about our younger guys getting some first-team matches. But do I see promotion/relegation happening in the US anytime soon? Probably not.”

John Ellinger:

“Personally, I like the addition of USL clubs like Red Bulls II, Monarchs (RSL II), etc. It allows the MLS clubs the opportunity to sign their young players to pro contracts, so foreign clubs cannot get away with signing American players for zero development fee.”

Overall Conclusion

So, as I mentioned in the beginning of the piece, there isn’t one overall consensus or solution to the question “how do you improve youth development in US Soccer.”

Many believe that we’re developing the talent, but US Soccer isn’t doing a good enough job hiring and developing scouts who will go out to the USYSA events and non-USSDA games to identify potential talent. Scouting was something that almost every participant mentioned as something that US Soccer needs to improve, whether it be hiring more scouts, or reviewing the process that is currently in place for training and developing current scouts.

Many believe that US Soccer should do a better job when it comes to helping our youth players become more valuable, versus allowing them to pick and choose their clubs, free transfers, etc.

When someone says “youth travel soccer is too expensive”, that may be the case. But if club fees are lowered, and US Soccer helps us to transition into a system where youth players are being sold for large fees, are we adding pressure on the youth players when a 14 year-old finds out he was sold for thousands of dollars? Do we want an open market where teenagers are being bought and sold? Probably not.

I do believe, personally….in my HUMBLE opinion….that US Soccer could consider implementing an incentive-based program where clubs are rewarded for developing players who go on to MLS Academies, professional clubs both domestically and Internationally, and competitive Division 1 NCAA programs. While many would say that “NCAA soccer is not a revenue-generating sport, why should US Soccer reward clubs who go on to play NCAA soccer?”, it’s hard for coaches to develop players who go on to compete at the NCAA level, which is what US Soccer seems to be hoping for (players who play a few seasons of college and enter the MLS Draft), without the clubs receiving any type of incentive for developing the talent.

Another huge issue which seems to be ignored is the amount of money that clubs spend every season on field rentals and facility fees. If we’re comparing youth academies here in the US to those overseas, and we look at facilities…the idea of a Category One or Category Two youth club in England playing their home games at a local high school or State Park would probably be laughable.

If I really wanted to get carried away with a radical idea, it would be that US Soccer needs to partner with top youth clubs on a long-term basis to help improve facilities nationwide, versus offering grants to local municipalities and organizations to build more fields or improve current fields.

You can build all of the fields you want, and these programs are an amazing solution when you talk about making the game available to everyone.

But are we really doing a good enough job helping youth clubs who have a track record of developing our country’s top talent develop club facilities that our youth players are excited about every night on their way to training, and that are comparable to the facilities in other countries?

“If only I knew a millionaire”….is that what top club administrators should have to think to themselves when they’re trying to improve their facilities, applying for a number of grants and still having to organize additional fundraising efforts on top of it all?

Again, if we were talking about radical ideas…US Soccer has partnerships with some of the country’s top corporations.

Taken from their 2016 Guides to Grants document on the USSF Website, they have partnerships with:

Hellas Construction:

hellas construction

 

Musco Lighting:

Musco Lighting

Hunter Irrigation:

Hunter Irrigation

And hundreds of other corporations.

If we were talking about radical ideas, why can’t US Soccer purchase land in certain areas? They can help introduce the clubs to potential sponsors, who would want to be involved with improving each club’s facilities based on the projects being backed by US Soccer.

US Soccer owns the land, and helps the club build more fields. US Soccer offers financial incentives at the end of each season to the clubs based on the players they are developing, who go on to play for MLS Academies, college or professional programs, etc. Each season, with these incentive funds, the clubs can increase the amount of stake that they own in the land, help develop facilities by building additional fields, clubhouses, training centers, etc. and everyone is working together to improve development efforts.

Clubs can eventually offer professional first-team options as they secure additional corporate sponsorship, and the youth coaches now have incentives to focus on developing players who will be prepared for the next level, whether it be professionally or at the collegiate level.

Again, this is a dream world, radical idea.

But one of the main messages that I’ve come away with, between Claudio Reyna’s “we’re too arrogant” statement, and John Harkes saying when I spoke to him that “we need to do a better job working together” is this: while it may be true that competitive travel soccer in the United States may be too expensive, and while club administrators and coaches may become nervous that parents will be hesitant to continue to invest thousands of dollars every season in their child’s soccer development, it appears to me….in my HUMBLE OPINION…that we can all work together to make youth development efforts more profitable for top clubs to expand, top coaches to continue to develop talent, and top players to play in an atmosphere that prepares them for that next level. As clubs continue to expand, similar to franchises, they can partner with additional youth clubs in their area, or even help to launch more clubs in additional neighborhoods, with those clubs’ coaches having incentives to develop talent and introduce them to a higher level of soccer.

But no matter what that answer is, can we ALL….US Soccer, youth clubs, parents, and players….work together to come up with a long-term solution to a LONG-TERM problem.

Because, as it appears in the current landscape, all that we’re offering right now are short-term solutions.

 

A Family Affair

navy

Navy Men’s soccer hosted their second of two summer camps over this past Independence Day weekend. The players and coaches were all business on the pitch, but there was also a family atmosphere among the entire camp that made the grueling summer temperatures a little more enjoyable.

Navy Head Coach Tim O’Donohue had his daughter and young son running around on the Naval Academy practice fields, in addition to a camp coaching staff that had more of a “brotherhood” feel than that of a bunch of co-workers counting down the hours until they could get home.

This wasn’t a coincidence. It’s obvious that Coach O’Donohue focuses on creating an enjoyable (while competitive) family-like environment by bringing in positive, quality guys into his camp who he is familiar with. Coach O’Donohue, a 4-year starter in his playing days at Muhlenberg College, played for a coach by the name of Jeff Tipping. Coach Tipping was the Director of Coaching for the NSCAA between 2002-2011, and has been on the fields at the Naval Academy for both Summer Camps.

When “Coach OD” was head coach at Stevens IT (between 2001 and 2010), the team made it to 10 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, along with 10 straight league titles. He worked with a player by the name of Paul Killian, who was rated the best Division 3 goalkeeper in the country in 2012 and voted first-team All-American. Paul, who is a DMV Local (played at Marriott’s Ridge), was an assistant at Stevens under O’Donohue. Paul is now one of Navy’s assistant coaches, and residential soccer junkie….he graduated High School in 2009, and yet could tell me all about Clint Peay’s High School soccer career, or the great DMV soccer players before his time.

Another one of Coach OD’s Former players at UConn, Mamadou Diouf, was selected in the 2014 MLS Draft and was a camp favorite. The list goes on of players and coaches who Coach OD has worked with, and loves having around.

Two of the coaches that highlight this weekend’s Navy Soccer Camp: Greg Statt, Academy Operations and Scouting Coordinator for Rangers in Scotland, and Jeff Cook, u18 Philadelphia Union Development Academy Head Coach and Assistant Coach for Bethlehem Steel FC.

In our prior piece covering the first Navy Camp, we discussed youth player development with Peter Reynders from Genk’s world-renowned youth academy in Belgium, and John Doolan from Everton. We’d like to take a second to offer a sincere congratulations to Coach Doolan, who we found out this weekend has been promoted to assistant coach for Everton’s First Team, as well as U23 coach, and head of recruitment for Northwest of England and Europe. Congrats Coach Doolan!

In this follow-up piece, we talked to Coach Statt and Coach Cook to discuss additional topics related to youth development in the modern game.

Greg Statt

statt

Rangers FC, Scotland

You can usually tell how passionate a coach is about youth player development just from talking to them for a few minutes, and it’s obvious after sitting down with Coach Statt that he is as passionate as they come. Coach Statt, who is head of Academy Operations and Scouting Coordinator for Scotland’s renowned Rangers FC Youth Academy, probably sounds like a pretty serious guy who walks around in a suit all day and sits behind a computer answering e-mails, right?

Wrong.

Coach Statt is extremely passionate about not only working with youth players, but also about being able to relate and understand the younger generations. His interactions with the campers are engaging and sincere, he even has an awesome Twitter profile where he poses for pictures with players, and lets everyone in on his day-to-day responsibilities. We asked Coach Statt some questions regarding Rangers’ approach to youth development in Scotland.

Me: “Coach, first off welcome to the States and to Maryland. At last Navy Camp, we talked to Genk and Everton youth coaches about additional sports or activities that your Academy implements for the youth players. Do Rangers offer the same at their Youth Academy?”

Coach Statt: “Yeah, absolutely. For the younger lads, dodgeball and volleyball are usual favorites. Then as some of the Academy players get older, we also have touch Rugby and Judo as well. We try to mix up the activities for the kids as much as possible.”

Me: “In terms of small-sided games for the younger players, what is Rangers’ philosophy?”

CS: For the u11 players, everything is 7v7. At u12, it’s 7v7 up until the end of the year or Christmas time, and then January to May they’ll go to full 11v11.

Me: We talked to some of the other coaches last week about the mental aspect of the game for youth players. Is this something that Rangers’ Academy dedicates additional resources to?

CS: “Ay, absolutely! We really focus on the mental aspect a lot when working with our youth academy players. Rangers actually employs a Mental Skills Coach, who works with the players not only in group sessions, but also in a 1-on-1 environment. We really try to focus on a “growth mindset”, versus a “fixed mindset”. A growth mindset is one where players believe that they can achieve their goals through hard work, working together with their teammates, and listening to the advice that their coaches are giving them. Those with a fixed mindset are more likely to believe that their athletic talents alone are enough for them to succeed, and are less likely to work harder on things like grades or individual training, because they think that they are already good enough, and don’t need to do the extra work.

The mindset at Rangers Academy isn’t to ‘win at all costs’. The mindset is to support each other, everyone works together.”

Here are a few different resources on growth mindset versus fixed mindsets:

Me: ”It sounds like Rangers spends a lot of time on the mental aspect for their youth players?”

CS: “It’s absolutely vital for our young players to have the correct mindset from the beginning, but it also applies to our coaching mentality. Everyone wants to win, but we focus 100% on development, versus the ‘winning at all costs’ coaching mindset. For example, if we’re up 1-0 in a big game, and we have a player on the bench who has worked hard in training all week, but hasn’t been in the game yet, we make sure to get that player on the pitch. We don’t focus on ONLY winning, we prefer to do right by the players who put the work in and are serious about becoming footballers.

If we have a majority of players who are doing the right things: working hard, helping their teammates, are coachable and buying in, we spend more time with those players during the week than with the players who think they already know everything. At the risk of being singled out, the players who we don’t spend as much time with usually come around and buy in. Sometimes the players need positive discipline, from a mental aspect, for them to realize what’s expected of them.”

Me: “We also talked to the coaches last week about futsal for the younger players, is futsal something your academy implements for the younger players?”

CS: “Absolutely. World-class players like Messi, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, they got to be as good as they are for a reason, and they all swear by it (futsal). We’re getting the hang of it (laughs). You might call it ‘medium-contact futsal’, but our lads are getting the hang of it.”

Me: “Thanks coach, one last question. For your Academy players, and their families. Do they pay for anything?”

CS: ‘No, they don’t.”

Me: Nothing? So the thought of parents having to pay for their kids to attend your youth academy, that would be pretty much unheard of then?”

CS: “Yes, it would never happen. The families don’t have to pay for a thing, everything is taken care of.”

I didn’t get a chance to ask Coach Statt more about Rangers’ facilities (as it’s something I discussed with coaches from Genk and Everton), but he definitely acknowledged that Rangers’ state-of-the-art training facilities is an integral part of the development of their youth players. The youth players train at Murray Park, also referred to as Auchenhowie. From their website:

Opened in July, 2001, the centre is divided into three distinct sections – an administration wing, a professional wing and a youth wing

The youth and professional wings have their own reception area, dining room, changing rooms, kit store and lecture room, whilst facilities such as the gym, medical suite and indoor pitch are shared between the professional and youth set ups.

Every piece of equipment in the £150,000 state-of-the-art gym is linked to the medical centre’s computer system to monitor every player. Each one has an individual code which activates a personalised fitness programme designed to meet their unique requirements.

The gym includes an isokinetic machine, which allows players to work within the constraints of an injury by testing muscle strength and reaction during a workout.

Murray Park also includes a 6 x 3 metre hydrotherapy pool with an angled, moveable floor and a series of massage jets and currents that allows a range of rehabilitation exercises to take place.

The 60 x 40 metre indoor synthetic pitch allows players to train whatever the weather and is laid on a bed of sand and tiny rubber crumbs designed to cushion the surface and prevent injuries. This revolutionary new surface closely mimics real grass and is used by other top clubs such as Ajax.

Sounds like a pretty sweet setup. A sincere thanks to Coach Statt for his time and willingness to discuss what makes Rangers FC Youth Academy so successful when it comes to developing youth players.

An American Coach’s Take

At both Navy Summer Soccer camps, we’ve talked to youth academy coaches from Belgium, England, and Scotland about what makes their youth academy programs successful when it comes to developing some of their country’s best players, but what about an American coach’s take on youth development? After all, it is Independence Day, right?

Jeff Cook

cook2

Philadelphia Union

This past season, Jeff Cook was the head coach of the Philadelphia Union u18 US Soccer Development Academy Team. Coach Cook will bump up to the Union’s U19 team next season, in addition to his role as assistant coach for USL side Bethlehem Steel. He has been with Philly Union’s Youth Academy since 2013. Prior to working with the Union, Coach Cook was head coach at Dartmouth for 12 years (2001-2013) where he won four Ivy League Soccer Championships, and made the NCAA Men’s Soccer Tournament seven times, including two Sweet 16 appearances.

Before Dartmouth, Coach Cook was Head Coach at University of Cincinnati for four seasons, where he was named Conference USA Coach of the Year, and took the BearCats to their first even NCAA Men’s Soccer Tournament in 1998.

Last season, as u15/16 Head Coach for Philly Union, his team made it to the playoffs and was the 12th-ranked USSDA team in the country. Despite going undefeated in the group stage of the playoffs, they missed out on the quarterfinals on goal differential This past season, Coach Cook’s u17/18 side finished on top of a very competitive East Atlantic Division, but had a tougher time in the playoffs. But despite any of Coach Cook’s wins or losses over his successful coaching career, one thing that he is obviously passionate about is player development.

Coach Cook ran a session on combo play and build-up out of the back while I was there, and it was refreshing to watch a coach work on things that have made Philly Union teams so successful over the years. He coached the campers on things like breaking lines with their passes (versus shorter, more obvious options). He made sure the wing players were wide and up the field on every rotation, opening up space and passing lanes for his 6/8 to drop in and find the ball. He made sure the CB’s were wide when their GK collected the ball, opening it up for the 6 to drop in and distribute. He coached the players at the 6 position on different angles they can take when making their runs dropping in to find the ball, to open up space and be less predictable.

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These are all things that Union Youth teams in the past have focused on. I was lucky enough to be a volunteer assistant coach in USSDA at one point, and we played Coach Cook’s teams twice a season in 2014-15, 2015-16 seasons. His teams were always organized, always played and knocked the ball, and ALWAYS had players who could stretch you and attack out wide.

So from the outside looking in, it’s one thing to know what the Union teams are going to do when you play them. Watching their U18 coach run a session and work on the things that make their teams so successful, all while being willing to share this knowledge with the younger campers, is another.

Me: “Coach, first off great session. A lot of times, coaches will come to camps and work on some of the obvious things, while maybe playing their cards close to their chest and not wanting to give away too much from a coaching perspective. Do you owe Coach OD a favor, or is this how you always run sessions when others are observing?”

Jeff Cook: “It’s actually a full club coaching philosophy at the Union, from top to bottom. We share our coaching instructional videos publicly on our website, and we make sure we are very open in regards to sharing information that has made our coaches successful. Actually (laughs) sometimes maybe we’re a little too open about it all, but the goal is to improve how the game is played everywhere in our region, not just at our club.”

Me: “One thing we talked about last time with Everton Coach Doolan was- scouting youth players, and how players end up at the club. Could you talk about your scouting network, or how you identify potential Union Academy players?”

JC: “Scouting is important, but at the Union one thing we really focus on is the relationships with other youth clubs in our home market. The ownership is really dedicated to community outreach, so we host coaching nights and other events that benefit coaches at other clubs in the Philadelphia area. We make sure to maintain positive relationships with youth clubs in our home markets. Our philosophy is simple: if we do the right things, and do right by other youth clubs in the area….if we set up the proper environment where we are developing players, and we aren’t looked at as the MLS club constantly coming in and poaching the best players, then naturally players will want to play for us, and coaches from other clubs will want to send us their top players.”

Me: “Coach Doolan also talked about some of the financial aspects for top clubs in England. When Everton’s youth academy was awarded Category One Status, they receive around $1 million per season from the English FA. In terms of how the Development Academy continues to evolve, is this something that MLS needs to step in and start helping with?”

JC: “We are very lucky at the Union. Ownership is 100% committed to youth development, they contribute $3-$4 million per year to youth development alone. Development Academy is a pioneering effort, and the implementation of USSDA is changing the game in our country for the greater good. But yes, MLS will have to step in and contribute more to Development Academy clubs as MLS and USSDA efforts continue to evolve. Each USSDA club is independently-run and, from a financial aspect, are pretty much all on their own.”

Me: “So you believe that US Soccer and MLS can be doing more, moving forward, to improve youth development efforts?”

JC: “Not only from a financial standpoint, but also from a coaching education standpoint. Like I said earlier, we want the youth coaches at clubs in our market to possess the education and knowledge to succeed. But US Soccer can’t do it all. In a market like Philadelphia, there are 5-6 million people here. At one point, we would love it if Philly Union were looked at more as a top ‘federation’ figure on our area from a coaching education aspect. MLS and The Union want to start contributing more for coaching education. We think the next step for US Soccer, from a youth development standpoint, will be for the MLS and US Soccer to do a better job working together, in terms of offering more formalized coaching education.”

Me: “We talked about facilities, residency, and other youth development topics with the other foreign coaches. Can you talk to us about Youth Academy facilities at Philly Union?”

JC: “The YSC Academy, and the facilities at YSC, are a perfect example of Ownership’s commitment to youth development. The facilities are state-of-the-art, from the locker rooms to the strength training equipment and staff. YSC is a four-year school where kids get a quality education, and there is no charge for any of our youth development programs. We won’t offer actual residency for any kids under 16 years old, but for the kids in the YSC Academy program, their development has taken another step thanks to the program. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, players go through two sessions per day: one from 8:15am-9:30am, and another after school from 3:30-5:00pm. On Friday, we’ll have a mobility session, and days after games they usually have off. Our youth players go through 8-10 sessions per week, including games. We only had 3-5 players this past season who didn’t attend the YSC program, and it became obvious later in the season that they were not developing on the same level as the players who were YSC students.”

The Union Youth Academy players also work with Sports Psychologists, performance coaches, athletic trainers, and other youth academy staff members that Union’s ownership employs as part of their $3-$4 million investment each year in youth development. Union’s youth development model, as published on their website:

20160504.Youth Development Model

Me: “US Soccer audits every USSDA club each year on a number of factors. Can you talk to us more about what USSDA looks at during their yearly assessments?”

JC: “USSDA audits each Development Academy club on things like the clubs’ coaches and their licenses, facilities, player development, and how self-sufficient they are from a financial aspect. This past season, each USSDA club was audited by a company called DoublePass, a German company who goes through every aspect of our club. The goal is for US Soccer to eventually, hopefully, evolve USSDA into a criteria-driven league. The Das Reboot book (written by ESPN FC regular Raph Honigstein) is a great read for those interested in youth development, and how German clubs have managed to benefit from the Bundesliga becoming more criteria-driven.”

Me: “So over the next 3-5 years, what do you believe the future holds for USSDA and youth development efforts?”

JC: “Criteria-driven leagues, I believe, is the future for youth development. Hopefully USSDA can evolve to the point where MLS or US Soccer, or both, are able to reward clubs financially for doing the right things for youth development in the United States. Also, I think a professional pathway for the younger players would help. Reading United, Bethlehem Steel, and Philly Union are three options here in our home market. We would like to start working with players at the u16 age group, and getting those players on more of a professional pathway. Our goal, at the end of the day, is to produce players for the first team of Philly Union within our own academy system.”

We want to extend a sincere thanks to Coach Jeff Cook for his time and willingness to discuss youth development. An American coach at a top USSDA club is obviously a perspective that we value, so thanks to Coach Cook for his contribution.

Navy Soccer

OD

Coach OD

Throughout interviews with the coaches from Everton, Genk, Rangers, and Union, a similar topic kept coming up: mentality. It’s no secret that Navy’s men’s soccer team struggled a bit in Coach O’Donohue’s first season in charge of the program, but Coach OD is the first to admit that the transition from the last coach to his current tenure is a work in progress… in the right way, with 10 verbal commits for 2017-2018 season, two of them rated top 100 by TDS.

At UConn, as the associate head coach under legendary coach Ray Reid, he was part of a program that made it to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Men’s soccer tournament for three straight seasons. How does Coach OD, who is #1 in the country among active NCAA Men’s soccer coaches for win percentage, plan on turning things around at Navy? By implementing the mentality and work ethic that he attributes to working with Coach Reid.

Me: “Coach, thanks again for having us out for your camps. How did you manage to get all of these coaches out here this summer?”

OD: “Some of the coaches had connections through Coach Reid, but most of it was managed through Coach Tipping who I played for at Muhlenburg. The camps have all gone better than expected: we’ve had great turnouts, and the coaches who came over from Europe have had nothing but great things to say about our facilities and their experience here. At Navy, we are committed to excellence. We wanted to bring the best camp available to the area, with the best coaches, which I believe we have done this summer. But also, from a learning experience, it’s been great for myself and the other coaches to be around guys like Peter Reynders, John Doolan, Greg Statt, Jeff Cooke. Their demo sessions have been very informative, and now that we’ve had these guys stay with us for a few days, we plan on visiting them at their clubs over in Europe in the future to learn more from them. We’re only as good as who we associate with, and who we spend time with. Spending time with all of these great coaches, along with guys like Jeff Tipping, the guys from Pelota training have been here helping kids put some extra work in as well, and everyone else, it’s been a great environment, and we plan on continuing our coaching education as a program moving forward.”

Me: “Your first season at Navy, talk to us about what stood out, and what you hope to build on.”

OD: “Well, going 0-6 in league play is what comes to mind. That’s unacceptable, and will not happen again. The Patriot League is one with a lot of parity, so every team will give us a match this season. Moving forward, in addition to improving league play and finishing top 4 in our conferenc, the goal is to beat Army. We lost to them 2-1 last season, but over the next 2-3 years we hope to outclass those guys. This past Spring, we’ve seen some progress. We beat Villanova 1-0, defeated GW 3-0, and tied George Mason in a match where we had the majority of possession. We just have to keep working at it, the Spring season was important for the guys who were here under the past coaching staff to understand how we plan on playing moving forward.”

Me: “You were part of a very successful UConn program before coming to Navy. What have you learned from Coach Reid, and what is different between Navy and UConn?”

OD: “Recruiting is one thing that is a main focus. Coach Reid taught myself, and the rest of the coaches he has worked with, about how hard you have to work to recruit the types of players were are looking for here at Navy. I’m working on passing this down to the rest of my staff as well, and those guys have been spending 12 days at a time on the road, recruiting. We’ve been hitting every USSDA event, we actually just got back from Development Academy playoffs where we saw some great players play for some great teams. Alex Yi is out right now actually recruiting. One thing I learned from Coach Reid that I plan on implementing here at Navy, is: nobody will work harder than us at recruiting. That being said, we’re looking for American players here at Naval Academy obviously, versus at UConn. When I was at UConn, Coach Reid might call me and say “I need you to take a trip to Senegal tomorrow morning to talk to a kid”, and I’d be on my way. I think I made that trip 7 times while at UConn? We would go to Patrick Viera’s academy, Diembers, where we found some good players. Here at Navy, we’ll just have to work even harder on finding the best guys for our program, and our AD Chet Gladchuk and the rest of the administration has been extremely supportive of what we’re trying to do.”

Me: “In terms of an identity, what do you hope your team will look like next season?”

OD: “We want to play. I learned from Coach Reid that it’s important to do these camps, and make efforts to give back to the community, which we plan on building on. But on the field, we’re not going to park the bus and hope to get lucky moving forward. We’re going to open things up, we’re going to press high up the field, we’re going to knock the ball, and we’re going to recruit guys who know how to play the game.”

Me: “During your time here at Navy, have any of the other coaches or staff helped you out at all?”

OD: “The football team, I’ve been very impressed with how their coaches go about things from a mentality standpoint. They really hammer home the ‘brotherhood’ message, which helps the players stay together and work for a common goal. That’s definitely something, as you can see, that I’m trying to implement here at Navy. We’re working together to be more than a team, we want to create a family atmosphere and brotherhood type of feel throughout the program.”

.. We hope to continue to add guys who can play, but more importantly, guys who fit the image of excellence that we’re looking for here at Navy, in terms of their character and what they’re all about.”

In Closing

Spending time at the Navy Camp these past few weeks, and watching the campers and coaching staff interact with each other, has been a fun experience. At the end of the day, everyone is passionate about the game of soccer and becoming better players and coaches, which is a great environment to be around. Hopefully this continues to help raise everyone’s game, and put their best foot forward next season. Best of luck to Navy, and a sincere thanks to all of the coaches for their time.

Starboard: Everton & Genk Youth Coaches Discuss Youth Development at Navy Soccer Camp

Peter Reynders from Genk, and John Doolan from Everton, were both at this weekend's Navy Soccer Camp

I’m going to show you a few pictures, and I want you to tell me if you recognize any of these guys.

Seriously, this is the test of your true soccer fandom right here. We’re going to show you pictures of a few players most of you have never heard of, but let’s see if you get maybe one or two.

Here we go.

baines

carrasco

Rooney

Benteke

davies

hi-res-41911fb56078d2e7faca585d41487586_crop_north

Rcourtois

osman

and last one…you had it right earlier…

How many did you get? Okay, so maybe these guys weren’t relative nobodies. They are, from top to bottom, WORLD-CLASS superstars:

  • Leighton Baines, England
  • Yannick Carrasco, Belgium
  • Wayne Rooney, England
  • Christian Benteke, Belgium
  • Tom Davies, England (maybe not world class quite yet, but Everton sound excited about him)
  • Divock Origi, Belgium
  • Ross Barkley, England
  • Thibaut Courtois, Belgium
  • Leon Osman, England
  • Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium

Okay….Cool. Why Do We Care?

You care because we’re about to blow your mind, that’s why.

All of these players have something in common…. they have all played for one of the two best youth academies in the world:

  • Everton F.C., in England
  • K.R.C. Genk, in Belgium

The Everton players are pretty obvious, because once Everton find a player they like, those players tend to stick around. We’ll tell you why a bit later.

But if you’ve never heard of Genk, or if you don’t believe us that all of those players played for them, well we can prove it if you’d like:

benteke genk

courtois genkl

de bruyne genk

Okay I lied, I could only find three photos, but that last De Bruyne pic is worth extra credit.

I was lucky enough to meet youth academy coaches from both teams: Peter Reynders, from Genk, and John Doolan, from Everton, this past weekend. Both coaches spent a few days in Annapolis, helping out with second-year Navy Men’s Soccer head coach Tim O’Donohue’s first of two summer camps.

It became pretty clear to me as soon as I stepped onto Navy’s practice fields that Coach O’Donohue, former associate head coach of a UConn program that reached the NCAA Men’s Tournament four times (three straight appearances in the NCAA Quarterfinals), had something special going on there this past weekend.

Coach O'Donohue prepares to introduce John Doolan from Everton

Coach O’Donohue, in Navy Blue, prepares to introduce John Doolan from Everton

I got there on Friday just before 2:30 and when I looked over, all of the campers (and there were a LOT of them) were just making their way back to the pitch.

Everton Youth Acadademy coach John Doolan, who is in charge of Everton’s U16 team and has a pretty decent playing resume himself, was about to conduct a combination play session, which had the players’ AND coaches’ section at full attention.

The players who were performing the demos weren’t too bad either. Recent Navy recruits Jacob Williams (Baltimore Armour u18’s) and Tyler Collins (Baltimore Celtic/Mount Saint Joe’s) put in some work, along with first-year volunteer assistant coach Zach Bowman. Tomas Potts from UMBC was among the GK’s, but coach made sure the camp GK’s (who made some pretty good saves, to be honest) were in goal for the drill.

DMV soccer legend (for those of us growing up playing soccer in the area around the same time) and Navy assistant Alex Yi walks by and looks ready to go 90 minutes without a problem. DeMatha head coach Andrew Quinn is attendance, along with Northeastern head coach Chris Gbandi, Binghampton Head Coach Paul Marco, Sean Topping from Muhlenberg, former NSCAA Director of Coaching Jeff Tipping, Brent Boone from Pelota Training, and finally, Peter Reynders from Genk in Belgium.

Coach Doolan (grey shorts) conducting his session at Naval Academy

Coach Doolan (Everton top, grey shorts) conducting his session at Naval Academy

Not a bad group, and it’s obvious that the campers are getting a quality soccer education during this week’s camp.

After camp let out for a break, Peter Reynders, from Genk, and Coach Doolan, from Everton, let me sit down with them and ask them some questions about youth development. Obviously, if we have two coaches in town from two of the most successful youth development academies in the world, it would be a pretty cool experience to talk to them, right? Below are some things we talked about.

Developing The Ginger Prince

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It’s all about mentality.

Kevin De Bruyne is the type of player that would start on any club team in the world. At Manchester City this season, Pep Guardiola has used him at the 10 (CAM), as well as on the wing in big games later in the season, and the fact that he can play either position without a drop in quality or production is nothing short of spectacular. Pep tends to make some pretty radical changes, like Jesus Navas re-inventing himself at outside back, playing Kholorav at center back, Yaya Toure going from his agent having to apologize to get back into the team to starting at the 6 over Fernandinho midway through the season.

The mental toll that it can take on a player when they feel like they’re being played out of position can be underestimated, especially for a world-class talent with, at times, a matching ego. But after learning more about the club environment that Kevin De Bruyne was brought up in during his youth days, it’s obvious why these types of transitions are easier for him to deal with, from a mental aspect, than some other players.

Before I drove to Annapolis on Friday to interview the two youth coaches, I tried to do some research on both coaches and academy programs. Not necessarily an easy task to research a Belgium club, let’s just say Google Translate was used fairly often.

I used this article as a starting point when interviewing Peter Reynders from Genk, which I’ll translate in bits and pieces below, along with his answers and responses. Note: the article was from June 2014, around the time when KDB was recalled from Wolfsburg loan (10 goals in 33 appearances, at the age of 21) to re-join Chelsea, who he had transferred to from Genk’s professional team the season prior.

Peter Reynders: “The scouting knew that Kevin had some problems there (past club Ghent), and his parents were open to a new road for Kevin, who was already someone with exceptional play and football intelligence, but in mental terms, there was still a lot of work. Enthusiasm and the will to achieve his goals were very high. At Genk, the plan for every talent in youth education is identical: making the player better at all levels, and developing his particular qualities well, both technically, tactically, physically, and at a mental level.

Belgium soccer, particularly the Belgium National Team, went through a very tough patch between 2002 and 2012. They missed out on the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, as well as the EURO’s in 2004, 2008, and 2012.

However, their youth teams had a lot of promise, with their U-21 side making it to the semifinals in the 2007 UEFA U-21 Championship, a team that featured young players such as Fellaini, Mirallas, Vermaelen, and Axel Witsel.

belgium

Why do we bring this up? To explain their meteoric rise in past years, similar to that of the Golden State Warriors in the NBA, which is almost a direct result of developing youth talent.

  • In 2014, they made it to the Quarterfinals of the World Cup, knocking out the United States, and finishing higher than ever as a country.
  • In 2016, they made it to the Quarterfinals of the Euro Championships, losing to an under-rated Wales side which saw Gareth Bale at his best.
  • For 2018 World Cup qualifying, they’ve had practically no problem thus far, finishing on top of their group and seeded in first place.
  • Currently ranked #7 in FIFA World Rankings

So what do Belgium youth academies, and Genk in particular, focus on to make their players so successful?

The mental aspect of the game.

Me: “You mentioned in this article that Kevin De Bruyne, when you worked with him….he had the passion to succeed, but maybe something was missing from a mental aspect?”

Peter: “Yes, we knew he was a great player from his time at Drongen and Gent, but he ran into some problems at his prior youth clubs. He was good from a tactical standpoint, his technical ability was superb, but from a mental standpoint, he needed a lot of work.”

Peter goes on to explain.

“He did not trust his teammates at all, and wanted to do too much. We knew he was a good player, he went on to play for our professional team and then made a move to Chelsea, but as a youth player, we really worked hard with Kevin to improve his mental approach to the game”.

In the article that I referenced earlier, this is reiterated.

“The big challenge for him was to use his technical skills in competitions. We talked to him very often and, having seen his exceptional talent, also had a lot of patience with Kevin. We tried to give him a good feeling by making him sometimes important. But that should not be constant either. We are careful in the education to place young people on stage.

We have many talents in our youth education, and it does not help them in their development as we continue to pamper them. In our training, each player must receive 70% of the playing time and therefore will not start the competition even if the larger talents do not even fall out of the competition. It is good to see how youth players deal with it mentally. Disappointments once belong to football, also in youth education. This allows you to recognize the real talent and winners.

Me: “So in this past article about De Bruyne, you mentioned that you worked harder with him on some mental aspects of the game. Do you remember any specifics in terms of what you did to help him realize his potential?”

Peter: “For Kevin, at such a young age, he needed to realize how good he actually was. Yes, we make sure not to pamper our players, or to put them on a pedestal, this is very important. But at the same time, Kevin (and other youth players who we’ve worked with) benefited from positive encouragement.

When he started not only trusting his teammates more, but also working on some mental aspects of the game- maintaining focus, not constantly putting his head down when things went wrong- and to pick and choose the times when he was able to take over a match, that’s when he started to reach his true potential, going on to play for our professional team (at only 17 years of age).”

More from the article, which I read to Peter throughout the interview:

We went on to work with Kevin specifically on his step technique, speed of execution, and timing and choosing his action and fit. In his first years, he played in a central position, in view of his exceptional trapping technique and game insight. Not yet pinned on a fixed pitch, but especially attacking and at times also at 6 and 8 to develop his game and to think about ball loss. His bias has always been a great advantage to play both left and right. Only after the promises, Kevin moved on to positions 7, 10 and 11.

Me: “So, you played De Bruyne out of position at times, to develop certain aspects of his game? Interesting.”

Peter: “Yes, but we did not play him much at the 6. When Kevin bumped back to the 8, ball retention and decision-making improved, but more importantly, the game slowed down for him tremendously. He was a lot more patient when he moved back to the 7/11 or 10, in attack.

Before, both mentally and physically, everything was moving so fast that maybe the end product was lacking. Once he moved back and saw more of the game, he made great strides in terms of his mental decision making and, like I said, the game just seemed to slow down for him”.

Landon Donovan at the 8? Pulisic at the 6? 

landy

Imagine a top youth club in the United States moving their best player, say an attacking mid or wing player, out of position for a few matches, all while risking a few results and/or the other players/parents thinking he (or she) was crazy? Very interesting to hear from a top European youth coach that he helped to develop one of the best players in the world by playing him out of position, and making sure he realizes how important it is for him to trust his teammates more in order for him to succeed.

In terms of mental preparation tools, and some other less traditional methods and exercises that Genk introduce to their younger academy players, Peter explained that it isn’t just about training 8 times a week and the actual game of soccer that they try to focus on.

Me: “In 2003, Genk built a brand new youth training facility next to Cristal Arena. Do you believe that the facilities themselves have helped when it comes to youth development”?

Peter: “Without a doubt. The brand new youth training facilities that we have at Genk have been great for the younger players to develop. In terms of football, between the ages of U7 and U12, the players only play small-sided games. First 5v5, then 8v8. Only at the age of U13 do they start actually playing 11v11.

Between U7 and U12, they typically get 3 training sessions per week. In terms of non-football activities at our facilities, we have a set training regimen for even the youngest players that we implement. At U7, we introduce them to boxing, judo, and gymnastics”.

Peter Reynders, Genk Academy Coach, during Navy Soccer Camp

Peter Reynders, Genk Academy Coach, during Navy Soccer Camp

Me: “That’s interesting, so you’re telling me that some of the best players in the world (De Bruyne, Carrasco, Courtois, etc.) were doing gymnastics and judo when they were younger”?

Peter: “Yes, absolutely. We believe that these activities help with movements and exercises that are not always used when training for, or playing football. These activities help with overall mobility, athleticism, footwork. It also adds variety, new and different ways for younger players to get fitness and exercise other than training on the pitch”.

Me: “Wow, very interesting. And from the mental aspect, which we’ve talked a lot about, are there any specific mental tools or activities that you implement?”

Peter: “Absolutely. We have started introducing virtual reality, and we also have computer-based programs at our facility that all youth players ages 13 and up must complete. These help them to understand certain game situations, and overall perpetration from a mental aspect.”

Me: “Interesting, did you develop these programs in-house or can you share the names of the programs you use?”

This is a topic which Peter wasn’t so willing to discuss, and it becomes obvious to me that Genk has developed some important non-traditional tools and methods that are used to train their younger players from a mental aspect. These tools are essential properties that they are not willing to share with competing clubs like Anderlecht, Brugge, Standard Liege, and other Belgian clubs which hope to gain an edge when it comes to mentally preparing their younger players.

One other thing worth noting: Genk opened their brand new youth training facility in 2003. It was mentioned earlier that Belgium’s National Team drought was between 2002 and 2012. While we’re not saying that that Genk’s new facility was a main reason behind the Belgium team’s meteoric rise (currently #7 in World FIFA rankings), it would be hard not to believe that it played a part in the development of the country’s best players. We bring this up because facilities are a hot topic when it comes to youth development in United States.

One last excerpt from the article, which I read to Peter:

Kevin had an exceptional step-by-step technique and game insight. Because he thought a phase further than the rest, he was always playable.

We have tightened these specific qualities by training with high intensity, and in small spaces, which means that you need to respond quickly and act.

Me: “One last question about De Bruyne. You mentioned in the article that Kevin possessed one particular quality that made him stand out from the rest: He was able to think a play ahead, and predict what would happen in certain situations in a match before they ever happened. Was this a result of Genk’s training or mental exercises, or just something you cannot teach”?

Peter: “It is a skill and characteristic which cannot be taught. As coaches, it is our job for any youth player we work with to train them for certain situations, and to help them realize what they are capable of. But for Kevin, he had one thing that cannot be taught, and not many players possess: the ability to think one play ahead, which can at times be more important than any technical, tactical, or mental exercise we work on.”

Age: More Than Just a Number

benteke

When we found out that so many top Belgium youth players have come through Genk’s Youth Academy (yes, it was a surprise to us as well), we were curious as to what their ages were when at the club.

In the United States, as the US Soccer Development Academy program continues to evolve, certain studies and surveys are published which show what ages are most important when it comes to youth development, and players taking the next steps towards College Scholarships and Regional Training Center invitations.

The ages of 14-16, from almost everywhere I read, are when youth players begin to understand and implement more of what they’re trained on, develop more from a tactical and technical standpoint, and actually implement the skills and tactical thought processes that are coached throughout their youth.

The following players were at Genk’s youth academy, during the following ages:

Kevin De Bruyne:
Genk Youth Academy: Ages 14-17
Genk Pro Team: Ages 17-21

Divock Origi:
Genk Youth Academy: Ages 6-15

Christian Benteke:
Genk Youth Academy, Ages 16-17
Genk Pro Team: Ages 17-19
Sold to Standard Liege, Went out on loan ages 19-21
Came back to Genk Pro Team: Ages 21-22
Went on to Aston Villa for 3 seasons, scoring 42 goals in 89 appearances

Yannick Carrasco:
Genk Youth Academy: Ages 12-17

Thibaut Courtois:
Genk Youth Academy, Ages 7-17
Genk Pro Team: Ages 17-19

Coach Reynders mentioned that Kevin De Bruyne came into the Genk Academy needing a lot of work from the mental aspect, but it seems like once he was at Genk he was able to come into his own.

I asked Peter about another player on this list, Christian Benteke. Currently at Crystal Palace, he came to Genk at the age of 16, which is a little later than players like Courtois, Origi, De Bruyne.

Benteke was sold to another Belgium club, loaned out for a few seasons, and then came back to Genk, which I found interesting. Following another year with Genk, after bouncing around a bit, he made a move to Aston Villa where he scored an astonishing 42 goals in 89 appearances for the English Club.

Me: “It’s obvious that Genk’s training facility and methods, along with youth coaches, are able to mold and develop younger players over time. But for a player like Benteke, who was in the club, left, came back, and then seemed to find himself again, what do you remember about him”?

Peter: “For Benteke, it is true that it was always mental. He was a big, strong, physically overpowering type of player. Unfortunately, for Benteke, he needed to find himself mentally, find his confidence. Maybe not the smartest player in the world, but when we worked with him, we spent more time trying to build him up than the other players. We worked on his mental confidence and belief in himself, his self-confidence, which he always needed help with”.

While Peter wouldn’t say specifically that, if Benteke was in Genk’s youth training program at an earlier age and for a longer period of time, he might have had more of a chance to succeed at a big club like Liverpool, it’s fairly obvious that the work, time, and effort that Genk coaches spend on mental training and preparation are playing a big part in the development of their youth players, for both club and country.

Big John

As English, and Quality, as they come

everton

We mentioned earlier that Coach O’Donohue’s summer campers at the Naval Academy were able to watch and listen to another coach from a top youth academy in the world, John Doolan from Everton, who is in charge of their U16 team.

John was just wrapping up a combination play session which was very impressive. During the session (which progressed into different advanced phases), he was able to demonstrate his technical ability and fitness level at the age of 43, showing the campers what he was looking for at full speed, while explaining from a coaching perspective, all without being short of breath once. He was a very commanding presence, and it’s obvious that this is an ex-professional player who demands commitment and dedication from his players.

We mentioned his playing career earlier. From everything that we found, there weren’t many bad things said about him, all the way up to his later days where there was obvious coaching potential:

doolan coach

John’s Everton youth academy has produced some of England’s finest players, such as Wayne Rooney, Leighton Baines, Leon Osman, Ross Barkley, Tom Davies (a prospect who Coach Doolan is obviously excited about), Jack Rodwell, Richard Dunne. Victor Anichebe….the list goes on.

Coach Doolan was sitting nearby while I was speaking to Coach Reynders, and was more than happy to chime in and discuss the Everton Youth Academy setup, along with what makes them so successful in England, a country where 5-10 different clubs could be competing for a local talent.

Me: “Everton’s Youth Academy was awarded Category One Status in 2012, which brought additional funding (a minimum of £775,000 per year) and resources. Was this a big moment for the club?”

John: “Yeah, absolutely. While it’s true that the bigger EPL clubs like Chelsea, Man United, Man City are all Category One, the additional resources that come with Category One status were a big part of what we’re currently doing with our youth system. Recently, in the U20 World Cup, which England won (John smiles ear-to-ear, proudly), we had more players represented than any other club. Five players: Jonjoe Kenny (20 years old, Everton Youth Academy), Callum Connolly (19 years old, has been at Everton since he was 9), Ademola Lookman (19, recent Evertonian), Dominic Calvert-Lewin (19, recent Evertonian), and Kieran Dowell (19, has been at Everton since he was 8).”

Young Lions Roar

england u20

Four of the five (Kenny, Lookman, Dowell, Calvert-Lewin) started in the U20 World Cup Final, a 1-0 victory over Venezuela. Calvert-Lewin scored the game’s only goal, his second of the tournament after being the first to score in England’s first match in a 3-1 victory vs Argentina.

Kieran Dowell scored the only goal in England’s third match, a 1-0 victory vs South Korea.

And Ademola Lookman, who Everton swooped up from Charlton earlier this month, scored 2 goals in their Round of 16 Matchup, a 2-1 win versus Costa Rica, and added another in England’s 3-1 semifinal win versus Italy.

Finch Farm

Finch Farm, Everton’s Training Facility

Me: “When it comes to identifying youth talent in England, you’re competing with a number of top EPL clubs- Man United, Liverpool (John cringes), and other English youth academies. Talk to us about your facilities, and what about your club or day-to-day activities that you think help younger players succeed”.

John: “We believe our facilities are top notch. 10 full-size pitches, one that’s lighted for night games and later sessions. A few small-sided pitches as well for the younger players. But one of the best parts of our facilities is that the young players have regular interaction with the professional players, since both teams train there. So a U16 player running into a player on the first team like Barkley or Lukaku on a daily basis is very special, and the first team players make an effort to interact with the youngsters”.

Me: “Speaking of small-sided, Peter mentioned earlier that their younger teams play almost exclusively small-sided games”.

John: “Ay. We are also big fans of futsal, we introduce it to the younger players almost immediately. They get more touches on the ball in futsal, and it helps a lot more from a technical standpoint when the ball isn’t flying every which way. It also brings the players back to the streets, there’s something about futsal that makes it seem authentic at times, brings out that fight and toughness”.

Me: In terms of additional training methods or exercises, similar to what Peter mentioned at Genk, does Everton implement any of those for youth training”?

John: “No, not really. Their parents send the kids there to learn how to play football, so the atmosphere at the club is almost 100% football. We obviously focus on the things which we believe are vital for young footballers to develop- proper nutrition and diet, training, we do also implement yoga so that might be one of the less traditional training methods. But the parents are sending us there kids to learn how to play football, not how to be gymnasts. They can do that stuff on their own time”.

Me: “In terms of typical training schedule, what’s that like for your U16 team?”

John: “The players train every day, and twice on Mondays. Sessions usually go from 6-8pm, but there will be times where they’re shortened to an hour and a half if we have a match coming up, or if a session the day before was more intense. So if we train twice on Monday, Tuesday would be a yoga day. Regular training sessions Wednesday to Friday, a game on Saturday, Re-gen on Sunday”.

Me: “How many hours would you say your u16 players spend, per week, playing soccer? There have been some studies here in the States that a typical u15/16 player is best if he spends 20 hours per week playing”.

John: “(counts it up) Typically, we spend only 15-16 hours per week playing. We don’t want to over-train the players, but it also depends on the players in the group. 3 years ago I had the best team I ever worked with, and they had to ask me to make the sessions harder because the players were so advanced (laughs).”

Me: “So in terms of scouting a player, there’s a page on the Everton Youth Academy website that says specifically not to send in Youtube video clips, and that you still receive thousands per week. Tell me more about how you scout and identify local talent”.

John: “We only scout players in the Liverpool area, within say a 50-mile radius. We want local players who are going to feel comfortable at the club- their families are nearby, they aren’t coming in from different parts of the country or from outside of England. That being said, we still compete with the big EPL clubs- Liverpool, United, City, the list goes on. So our scouting network is very important when it comes to identifying talent. In addition to our training facility, we also have Everton Soccer Schools setup, where young players can come play and be coached by our youth academy coaches. All of these are practically free. While we do have some talented players coming through the Soccer Schools, most of our talent is identified early on by our scouting network throughout the country”.

USA?

When interviewing both coaches, I asked them about what they knew about US soccer. Neither have spent much time here in the States, in fact I believe it was both of the coaches’ first trip to USA. Their responses are similar:

Coach Peter Reynders from Genk: “I have heard that soccer is developing in the United States. I have been very impressed with Navy and Coach O’Donohue’s camp setup, it’s a beautiful facility and the players are all eager to learn.

But it becomes very confusing to me when you start talking about things like ‘Universities and Colleges and Drafts'”.

Coach John Doolan from Everton: “I’ve been really impressed with everything I’ve seen here at the Naval Academy. The young camp coaches are eager to learn as well. One thing I would say to anyone reading this is- get your coaching badges as soon as possible. For our younger players, starting at U18, the players are actually required by the FA Category One clubs to start working on their coaching licenses and badges. It’s something you cannot start doing too early, to learn more about the game.

Aside from that, you have to realize that, from a soccer standpoint, USA is catching up. We have youth academy programs that have been in place for years, so I would say trust the process, but also realize that you’re catching up to other countries who have had Development Academy processes and facilities in place for a long time”.

Takeaways

One thing that will always come up when it comes to Youth Development in the United States is: money, which is responsible for a number of things, including facilities.

Back in 2012, when Everton was awarded Category One Status, they were awarded a MINIMUM of “£775,000 per year in funding from the Premier League’s youth development pot”.

As of 2015, the list of Category One youth academies in England:

Category One

So if there are smaller clubs on this list (at least when compared to Everton)- Reading, Derby, Norwich, Brighton & Hove Albion F.C., etc.

If the minimum allotment from the EPL development lot was £775,000 per year in funding, it’s more than likely that Everton’s youth academy is receiving over $1 million/ year JUST for being Category One.

Genk and Everton can afford to build and maintain top training facilities for their youth players.

Meanwhile, here in the States, US Soccer Development Academy clubs are responsible for providing and maintaining training fields (expensive) and game fields (expensive). The clubs who already have multiple fields at their disposal, like SAC (where Baltimore Armour trains), also have to schedule field times for all of their other youth teams to train on. So then they have to utilize additional local training options, such as Loyola University and Poly High.

For DC United’s Youth Academy teams, training on the RFK Auxiliary Fields and having different home fields (throughout VA and MD) every other game would probably be unheard of in England or Belgium.

The clubs have to pay the coaches and trainers as well.

In addition to the money and resources that USSDA Clubs are required to provide (with each USSDA club being graded among accordingly), the parents of youth players who are good enough to play at the Academy level are also required to come up with what can be looked at as EXTREMELY large amounts of money each season, depending on the club.

This can be upwards to $2,000-$3,000 per season depending on the club (or at least this was the number in the season before last when coaching in USSDA, we welcome feedback from others involved is USSDA), which doesn’t even include travel arrangements (flights, hotel rooms, meals, etc.) for the players or parents for Showcase events, and away games (DMV teams travel to Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania for regular season games, Florida and Indiana for Showcases and playoffs).

While most USSDA clubs will offer scholarship opportunities to the better players, a lot of the time the fees are covered by the players who are on the roster because they can afford to play.

Without getting into more specifics, the reality is this- USSDA is expensive. The Baltimore Bays lost USSDA status after Celtic was formed and they couldn’t keep the best players around. There were also financial reasons, and it took 4 clubs merging (Bays, Thunder, Pipeline, and SAC) in order to keep Development Academy soccer in Baltimore. The US Soccer Development Academy grades local clubs based on their facilities, coaching, and other factors such as player start percentages, but at one time one of the grading criteria were how self-sufficient the USSDA clubs were from a financial aspect.

That being said- like Coach Doolan said, we are catching up, but we are still WAY BEHIND. Yes, the Development Academy is producing top players.

Yes, the Development Academy is great for US Soccer.

But don’t even start to compare our youth development to those of Belgium or England, because we still have a long way to go. For youth development to continue to flourish and be compared to development efforts in other parts of the world, US Soccer or MLS need to figure out ways to assist Youth Development clubs in improving training facilities. The question is, how do we change this? We’d love to hear from you, leave a comment below.

Special Thanks

Special thanks to both coaches Peter Reynders of Genk, and John Doolan of Everton, for their time.

Also, a special thanks to Navy Head Coach Tim O’Donohue. The Navy camp staff and setup were all VERY impressive. For anyone interested in checking out their second camp session (June 30th-July 4th) you can find out more on this page, we have heard that one of the higher-up Rangers FC (Scottland) coaches will be there, among others.

navy coach