By Paul Oliu
Something has gone awry with the Academy system. Whatever the original intent as
designed by US Soccer, I find the reality a bit troubling. We were told that Academies are there to develop players. We were told it is intended to elevate the quality of play. We were told playing with an Academy IS the way to be the best soccer player. Sadly, the difference between intention and reality could not be starker. For the Academy system has become just another Ponzi scheme in the lexicon of US Soccer organizations. I realize I may be in the minority here, but we should not be surprised by it in the least.
What has struck me the most over the past few years is the sad quality of coaching that is currently on the sidelines. Having logged hours watching practices, I will say that our development of players are in the hands of coaches and trainers who lack experience, guidance, expertise, or all three. The lack of quality is by and large accepted or ignored, and little organizational guidance is provided. The lack of a coherent and structured curriculum creates a year’s worth of training into a hodgepodge of exercises without purpose. The end result is players that individually may be very technical, but have the tactical awareness of a rock.
Now, MLS Academies by and large seem to be a different than the others. There I do believe the coaching is at a level and the player development objectives are clearly defined. The non-MLS Academies however lack on both counts. Perhaps the only real benefit of those non-MLS Academies is to have concentrated talent in a single structure so as to make the college recruiting process easier…. For college coaches that is.
But this should come as no surprise; our obsession with technical skill has far surpassed our interest in tactical awareness and positional play. To make up for these deficiencies, Academies have put a premium on “BFS”, or “Bigger, Faster, Stronger” players. Find me a player that relies more on tactical awareness, positional discipline, but perhaps not as fast, they will more than likely be on the bench. Show me a BFS player, with less technical ability and tactical awareness, and they will more than likely be on the field. This is largely not about soccer development; it’s about ensuring your Academy wins.
Where this entire system starts to infringe upon the development of the players, is in how they limit the playing opportunities for a majority of them. The rule not allowing participation in high school soccer is obvious. Exclusions for the rule exist but it is applied unevenly. And I would argue that the rule harkens back when high school soccer was dominated by coaches who had little to no experience in the game. Over the years both coaching and the play has steadily improved making the rule more arcane. Just from a pure training perspective, why would you prohibit a player from training and playing for 6 out of 7 days a week? And why wouldn’t you let players play games in “hostile” atmospheres, where they are facing problems on the field that they have to resolve on their own? Why wouldn’t you want your players to play in games that are emotionally meaningful?
But in many academies it doesn’t just restrict players from playing High School; it also prohibits guesting, training and participating in camps hosted by other clubs and academies. There are many who believe the best teacher is the game itself. How is a player to learn if they are always sheltered in the Academy not exposed to different styles, coaches or players?
Part of the issue is the finances required to manage an Academy. For club teams that are used to support the Academy, the situation at times is even worse. Rosters of 20 to 22 players when only 16 or 18 can suit up invariably leads to less or no time for players to actually do what is most instructive. And that is to play. In this situation, deferential treatment is paid to BFS players as alluded to earlier, but also the chosen few whom the Academy has identified as special. All others are expendable and little to nothing is done to support their development.
The financial requirements go beyond what is required to support a club academy. It burdens the entire club soccer structure. Aside from the over $2000 tuition that is paid by non-academy players at a particular club to support academy teams, it doesn’t even give a non-academy players any sort of minimum practice and playing guarantees. In addition there are added fees that are expected to be paid. Whether it is additional training, tournaments, “coaches fees”, and the travel expenses, the system has become unmoored from the original intent of the Academy system. The environment created in a pay-to-play scenario has gone beyond the Academy, it has distorted the notion of “development.”
Youth academy coaches are clearly trying to tap into this type of largesse. I don’t begrudge anyone trying to make money, but when there is a suggestion that participation in additional training is going to give you a leg up with your team, for a mere fee of $400, $500 and in some cases, $600, that is corruption. In one Academy, the running joke is that if you don’t like the position your son or daughter plays, pay for extra training, and you can pick their spot. Sadly, where there is humor, there is a degree of truth.
The end result is what you can see on the soccer field. A game that more time’s than not is played by bunch automatons, lacking creativity, and devoid of any joy. As a lifelong soccer fan, this bothers me the most. If the objective, per US Soccer, is “to develop world-class players,” is this the best way to achieve that? Are we trying to create 150 academy’s full of inconsequential identical players in the hopes that a handful will shine through? Seems to me that this is a model that we had been following since the first residency camp.
Interestingly enough, there was a time when there were standards to the US Soccer’s Academy plan. The original intent was to build 32 academy clubs. Unbeknownst to many of us, I guess the quality of our youth has exceeded expectations and now warrants having 150 Academy clubs across the country. Ultimately, it seems the academy system has evolved for the worse, not for the better. The focus has centered less on the player, and more on what is best for the Academy. And I have to believe this was never the objective of US Soccer when they conceived of the idea. Not to take away from the tangible benefits of keeping the best players together, but it seems that the system is in need of an overhaul, a refresh or a reboot before it is too late. Otherwise, we will lose another generation to the whims of a system, rather than gain on the rest of the world.