by Evan Rosenthal

Claudio Reyna, the respected former player and current Youth Technical Director of U.S. Soccer, recently presented the U.S. Soccer Curriculum to help guide coaches towards the ultimate objective of producing professional American players capable of seriously competing for a World Cup. The comprehensive, 123-page document, covering almost every aspect of the youth game, foremost stresses “development over winning” for soccer clubs across the nation. No experienced soccer coach would argue with the philosophy or content of the plan. Yet the great difficulty is the implementation: how to actually go beyond words and take that step onto the playing fields across the country.

As the youth development system stands in the United States, the vast majority of soccer clubs measure success with the short-term goal of winning games and have very little incentive for long-term, individual player development. As a result, the individual and institutional interests of those clubs are not aligned with Reyna and U.S. Soccer’s mission. Most soccer clubs in the United States are community-based, recreational programs or amateur soccer clubs unattached to professional organizations. These soccer clubs operate as small businesses, designed to increase membership by attracting and retaining players and by winning competitions.

Locally, winning teams attract players and nationally, successful clubs gain prestige. Coaches in those clubs advance their careers based on their tournament exploits, and select players who win games. Thus, to expect the coaches of these clubs to stress development over wins based on a curriculum is unrealistic given the current youth structure, where clubs and coaches only have real incentives to win games – and where winning matches and developing individual talent are oftentimes mutually exclusive. Only by altering the structure of American youth soccer, and giving the clubs incentives to develop players for the long term, will U.S. Soccer be able to foster a culture where such a curriculum can be implemented.

The Current System Does Not Work

Einstein’s oft-quoted definition of insanity applies to the past dozen years of U.S. youth soccer: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Millions of Americans play soccer – some published estimates being in the 15-18 million range. That’s more than the entire population of Holland and double the population of Serbia, two countries that continually turn out players of the highest professional caliber. Yet in the U.S., despite the expanding infrastructure of fields and facilities, the merchandise and gear and websites, the proliferation of clubs and camps and tournaments and leagues, the level of players produced has not improved significantly since the late 1990’s.

The 1994 World Cup, followed by the creation of Major League Soccer, was certainly a watershed moment for growth of the American game. But during the years since the 1994 World Cup, while youth and professional soccer continued to expand, our impact in the world scene stagnated. Currently, the best of our players have only marginal roles in the top European leagues, and none of our national teams (youth and men’s) have shown significantly better results. In his presentation, Claudio Reyna used having players in the Champions League as a measure of success in developing players. Using that standard along with the main test of World Cup results, there were actually more Americans on Champions League clubs in 2000 than there are now, and our best showing in the World Cup was in 2002, which suggests that American soccer has declined in the past decade in our ability to produce top talent. Our best youth World Cup result was in 1999.

Given the large population, the amount of soccer players, and money circulating through youth soccer, the United States should be producing better players. Our national team should not struggle to defeat tiny nations with very little resources and small populations. MLS teams should not have to bring in foreign players from lower divisions to add technical ability and creativity to the line-up. There are many factors that are often brought up—the lack of a soccer culture, the presence of three major sports, not accessing the right athletes—but the main one is simple: the youth development system in the United States is not even set up to produce professional players. It is for the most part an amateur system, producing amateur players, and by and large rewards clubs and coaches who win—not the ones who develop professionals.

Recent Changes are Not Enough

Aware of our developmental shortcomings, MLS enacted the homegrown player designation, which in 2006 finally imposed a structure with incentives for clubs to develop players. Major League Soccer’s homegrown player rule gave franchises what seemed to be a logical right to sign the players nurtured in their system. With the rule in place, MLS academies have no reason to focus as much on wins and losses in youth games. Instead, the prestige of winning is replaced by the prestige of producing successful professionals, and the academies can hire their staff accordingly.

Already, MLS clubs are developing players from their academies who are signing professional contracts, contributing to their club on the field, drawing interest from abroad, and helping the national program. Clubs like Chivas USA have even announced efforts to field players from their area – mimicking the successful cantera (quarry) policies of Spanish clubs like Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona, clubs who prioritize players from their region and take pride in their youth system. As evidence by the World Cup finals, where the rosters of the Holland and Spain were filled with players from the academies of Barcelona and Ajax, youth academy soccer is proven to be a science, and getting that science correct is more important than ever for being competitive on the world stage.

Being attached to professional first teams, the MLS Academies operate with a different model than the typical amateur club. Their foremost goal is to place players on a professional team, and the clubs are rewarded financially with each success. In that model, the marketplace—not a suggested curriculum—demands that the clubs develop players in the right way as there is a built-in financial incentive. This change aligns the MLS academy system to the successful models across the globe and is a large and needed progression for American soccer.

But the homegrown player rule only involves sixteen American clubs in fifteen cities. Besides those sixteen organizations, the vast majority remain amateur clubs designed to win games, not produce talent, and have no incentive to develop professional-caliber players. While the homegrown rule will certainly benefit soccer in America, there remains much more to be done to make the most of the large amount of passionate and driven young players spread across the United States. In order better take advantage of the nation’s soccer resources, U.S. Soccer must implement a similar rule that would expand the homegrown concept and provide soccer clubs nationwide the incentive to produce professional players.

A league for elite clubs called The Development Academy was established by U.S. Soccer in 2007 to organize the chaotic youth system, coalesce the talent into a manageable pool for scouting, and guide those clubs towards increased training and fewer meaningless competitions. Yet it remains similar to the old system in that the way to gain recognition is through winning, and coaches have no other real incentive to do anything else than win games. Moreover many of the clubs in the league, due to their recognized Development Academy status, are able select players from other clubs and do not need to take development seriously—especially given that the program starts at the U15/16 level, missing many of the crucial early years of learning. Thus, there is little ‘development’ involved.

Yet the initial steps at organizing the club structure are encouraging and lay the foundation for a further reorganization that will enable U.S. soccer to take the next step. By forming the Development Academy, U.S. Soccer took that crucial and much-needed plunge into the youth game, and proved they are capable of making sweeping changes to the current system. Yet still, with the exception of those sixteen MLS clubs, there remains no direct monetary incentive for most clubs to produce professional-level players. The only way to change the current system is to change the incentives. Youth clubs must have incentives to produce professional players or they simply will not. Given the current set-up, you cannot blame the clubs or the coaches for selecting and training youth teams to win. The clubs have to keep membership high and attract the best players to survive, and the coaches are looking to further their careers.

The Solution

The next step for American youth soccer is to connect the Development Academy teams with current professional clubs, thereby linking youth academies to professional teams and providing real incentives for clubs to develop professional players. In a country the size of the United States, with millions of players, it is not enough to only have sixteen professional academies. The United States Soccer Federation must mandate that Development Academy teams be connected to a professional club.

The current professional system has roughly 90 soccer teams spread across the nation in four divisions: MLS, NASL, USL PRO, and USL PDL. The U.S. Development Academy has 78 clubs competing in 2011. By linking the academies to the professional clubs, it will expand and alter the current pool to locations which are organic to communities who support a professional team. What’s more, having thriving academies will help support the professional franchises, because it is in the best interest of everyone involved in American soccer for these professional clubs to thrive and provide more opportunities for aspiring professionals. In the long run, the soccer community needs to support professional teams foremost, because they are the organizations that should be building the talent of the future—as they do all over the globe.

U.S. Soccer needs to end its support of amateur youth clubs that are not attached to the professional system. The goals of these clubs do not align with the goals of the United States Soccer Federation, which is to produce a team capable of competing for the World Cup. There will still be demand and need for amateur clubs, but they should not be a part of U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy. U.S. Soccer must only support a youth league for clubs that offer a professional men’s team. Whether the mandate will force professional clubs to develop their own youth academies, encourage already established youth clubs to merge with professional teams, or force youth clubs to create professional sides, this change will reward and support organizations that are investing in American soccer—the ones who are paying players to play the game.

Clubs could still charge fees to youth players to cover operational expenses. Paying for coaching and pay-to-pay clubs are not the problem. In the current market, why should a youth club not charge a fee for coaching and services when a player intends to play for social reasons or to make scholastic teams? In a professional structure, once players are good enough to offer significant value, clubs will have reason to offer free training and places on teams—whether that ends up being for a few select players or the entire academy.

This change will gradually professionalize American youth soccer, and organize the structure so that coaches and clubs have incentive to produce players—just like the structures in place in the rest of the world’s successful soccer-playing countries, structures that are proven to yield results. In soccer, a globalized game where clubs develop players from young ages, there is no place for the MLS Draft. The draft process that might work for other sports is does not fit soccer. MLS teams should deal directly with the player’s club. Unlike other American sports, the college system isn’t the main channel for players to flow through, so having a draft not only doesn’t make sense, it also crushes any incentive for smaller clubs to develop players. Instead of mimicking the youth structure of other American sports, soccer should set an example of the best way to develop professional athletes.


The new structure will merge the disparate parts of youth and professional soccer, and help create a soccer culture that will encourage professional players. The union of the youth set-up will also help the operations of the professional sides, giving them more resources and a larger grass-root reach to support their first team. The competition inherent in sports and abundant in American culture will always be there, but the coaches that the clubs employ would need to keep the larger goal in mind of developing first-team players. Those coaches will need to have the skill and the expertise to help players along the road to making the first team. The players they select will not be based on winning youth games, but based on who has the ability to succeed in the long-term in order to benefit the club.

For the individual player, the focus will be climbing the ladder onto the first team. Instead of the ultimate goal being selected to the youth national team, or playing in college, the player’s goal will be breaking into the professional squad, and once that is done, being sold to a larger club. If the player attends college, the same current homegrown player rules should apply if he then wants to turn professional.

Moreover, on the technical and psycho-social side of development, having professional clubs with youth set-ups will allow the young players to learn from the professionals, as has been started with some of the more successful MLS Academies. Most aspiring soccer players in the United States rarely get a chance to see professional players up close, let alone sharing the same facility or even practicing together. Even a lower-tier adult professional player could greatly influence the play of a child, and for a teenager, playing with adults is a crucial step to becoming a professional that is oftentimes unavailable in most youth clubs. Offering teenagers the progression into the men’s game will also help boost the key 16-19 year age group, where many talented American players fall through the cracks for lack of professional opportunity.

The overall structural change will organically produce Reyna’s curriculum in clubs across the nation, since those tenants are proven to work. The market will dictate best practices in development. While there are many instances where this system is already in place, U.S. Soccer has the ability to mandate the new structure that over time will benefit the future of the game. The transition will not be simple and easy, and will require much cooperation. There are many roadblocks that would need to be overcome and worked out. But ultimately, by shifting the development of our players towards professional clubs, and helping those professional clubs grow, we will lay the groundwork for future success.

Effective drills and training regiments can be recommended, symposiums and courses and badges can be offered, well-meaning reports and books and videos can be produced and disseminated, but the fact is that youth soccer in the United States is still largely an amateur system judged by wins and losses. Besides the few coaches who genuinely gain their satisfaction by developing players, and the MLS clubs who are starting to take development seriously, there is little hope that the vast majority of clubs work against their own interest based on a suggested curriculum. While the curriculum proposed by Reyna and U.S. Soccer is thorough and accurate, it has limited reach and potency within the current system, does not influence the coaches who need it most, and will ultimately have a negligible effect on the game. Only by giving clubs incentives to develop players, and professionalizing the system, will youth soccer then be able to truly change the culture from winning to development, and only a USSF mandate can create those structural changes.


Evan Rosenthal is a writer and youth soccer coach in New York City, with ten years of experience teaching young players the game.
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