The continued attention and emphasis on player development in the United States obscures one rather important quandary.
Are we – as a nation, within our current structures – currently capable of cultivating talent with the coaches we have in place to usher players from the lowest reaches of the system toward the professional level?
Composing the proper response isn’t as simple as evaluating the Development Academy system and weighing the merits of the folks in place at Major League Soccer and other top youth clubs. Try as those clubs might – and MLS outfits, in particular, have competitive and financial reasons to funnel players through that route – to corner the market, the landscape encompasses far more than those regulated clubs and their work with teenagers.
The broad-based and financially-dependent model of our youth soccer places inherent pressure on a wide swath of coaches across the country to identify and nurture talent. The involved contributors tackle their tasks with disparate capabilities from the moment a budding player steps foot on a soccer field. A parent coaching an under-8 side to make sure his son or daughter has the proper supervision naturally approaches the game differently than a college coach moonlighting with a prominent local youth club to help his recruiting class for next season.
Different coaches supply varying perspectives, but the dearth of uniformity and the tension between development and success leaves substantial learning gaps for promising prospects. The early years, in particular, can leave educational and technical voids that are difficult to fill along the way simply due to time lost, while the later years can result in conflicting messages and priorities that leave players flummoxed.
In some areas, the patchwork assembly is easy to sidestep. It isn’t difficult to locate a succession of competent and engaging coaches in southern California, for example. Not every market boasts a similar depth in quality, though. And many of those coaches still approach their tasks with varying levels of acumen, experience and knowledge. It is often left to the player to adopt the proper principles and then eschew the tutelage that goes astray.
For most players, that task remains something a bit beyond them. Although the game has made great strides on these shores over the past couple of decades, it is not weaved into the culture as intricately as it is in other parts of the world. The fundamental tactical and technical underpinnings are acquired through coaching and training sessions for the majority of players, not by honing their skills in small-sided games or watching top-level domestic matches week after week.
Even at the top levels, those qualities are often found somewhat wanting in comparison to peers around the world. Both the United States’ Under-17 and Under-23 teams struggled to implement a 4-3-3 setup – a technically demanding formation that requires both collective understanding and intricate skill – in recent years and suffered the ignominy of crashing out during CONCACAF qualifying tournaments as a result. Montréal striker Marco Di Vaio even lashed out at the tactical sophistication in MLS during an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport last summer, though the league has taken significant strides in this department over the past few years.
Give United States Soccer and the community at large credit: the cognoscenti has taken strides to address these concerns and create a culture where more players receive the instruction and the repetition they require to sharpen their technique. US Soccer youth technical director Claudio Reyna devised and implemented a curriculum for coaches to follow to establish a certain style of play and placed more emphasis on the duration, frequency and quality of training sessions. MLS recently established a partnership with the French Football Foundation to allow representatives from each club to take a 16-month course – including eight weeks of coursework and an immersion stint with a top European club – usually reserved for French coaches.
Those strides, however, will not solve the underlying problems caused by breadth, geography and shifting priorities. US Soccer must work earnestly to ensure that all players – not just a chosen few who manage to navigate through the byzantine ranks – receive more of the instruction required to improve the tactical and technical base for the country as a whole.
Significant investment in the upper levels of the game will ensure the Development Academy system continues to progress in the coming years. The overall success of that endeavor and the cultivation of talent on the whole, however, may hinge on marked improvement in the quality of instruction before players hit their teenage years. As with everything else related to the growth of the game in this country right now, the foundation – not the final gloss – still remains the most important priority.