Winning its fourth World Cup last Sunday, Die Mannschaft fulfilled more than the promise seen by soccer pundits and oddsmakers. As celebrations from Berlin to Baden-Baden ended a 24-year wait, an interminable world title drought by German standards, the country’s football leaders knew that the victory marked a triumph for a revamped youth development system. That system produced national team players such as the final’s goal scorer Mario Goetze, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, and “Fußballgott,” soccer god, Bastian Schweinsteiger.
With its commitment to a new development program more than a decade ago, Germany created a deeper pool of homegrown talent that laid the foundation for a win in Rio. The years of planning behind the Germans’ 2014 tournament run demonstrated, once again, the critical connection between a country’s soccer development system and international success. National soccer federations that methodically develop young talent, that teach technical proficiency at a young age, and carefully advance top players through the ranks, put themselves in World Cup contention.
With World Cup ambitions that go far beyond the Round of 16, the United States reexamined its development system several years ago. The US looked to Europe and South America for ways to improve and deepen its pool of homegrown players, paying particular attention to the way Germany restructured and invested in its youth programs. The result, in part, was a network of nearly 80 soccer academy clubs, including 18 run by Major League Soccer franchises, borrowing a blueprint from the talent pipelines created by European club teams.
“The MLS is still very young and the academies are even younger than that,” said Bryan Scales, the Revolution’s director of youth development. “They’re in their infancy here. So, it will take us time. But I think we can adapt some of the best methods from any of the major soccer-playing countries from around the world and try to institute what makes sense here within our culture and within our geography to help develop players.”
Even for traditional soccer powers such as Germany, the payoff from improved youth development programs required patience.
As the new millennium approached, German soccer leaders worried about the quality of homegrown talent. Among troublesome trends, they saw the number of German-qualified players in the Bundesliga decline. So, 15 years ago, they embarked on an ambitious plan to restructure the country’s youth development system. The new system required clubs in Germany’s top two divisions to establish academies and placed a greater emphasis on teaching young players technical skills.
When asked what dividends US Soccer hoped to collect from its new youth development system, Tab Ramos, former men’s national team player and current youth technical director for US Soccer, said, “We hope to be as competitive as possible with the rest of the world. We can compete now, but it’s still going to be a little while before we can turn around and go to a World Cup every four years thinking that we’re going to win it.
“But the structure in general is in place. So now, if there is a talented 12-year-old anywhere in the country that’s anywhere near any development academy club, we can identify him and we can put him through the program, whether that’s through their MLS club or another academy club in the area. We didn’t have that before.”
Starting to pay off
For the last several years, the Revolution have been recruiting young players to their academy club and molding them into top-level college and professional players. Scouting and recruiting players from around the area, generally within a 75-mile radius of Gillette Stadium, the Revolution operate with roughly 20 players each on their U-14 and U-16 teams, and 16 to 18 players on their U-18 team.
Two graduates of the Revolution Academy already play for the pro team — midfielder Scott Caldwell of Braintree and midfielder Diego Fagundez, who was born in Uruguay but grew up in Leominster. In the 2014 World Cup, defender DeAndre Yedlin, a product of the Seattle Sounders’ development program, became the first MLS academy player to compete on soccer’s biggest stage.
US soccer leaders and Revolution youth development coaches believe players such as Yedlin, Fagundez, and Caldwell represent a promising trend that will make the national team more competitive.
“When US Soccer set up the development academy it was to improve the level of our national teams,” said Scales. “When MLS started their development academies, it was to help develop players for the first team, which moves in parallel to what US Soccer wants to do. Over the next 5-10 years, I think it will be another huge step forward [for US soccer] as far as players that are developed for MLS and players concurrently developed for the men’s national team.”
It already is a giant leap forward from the not-too-distant days when town and club teams were run by parent-coaches, high school and college teams served as proving grounds, and talented youth players competed in almost 100 games per year with as little as a couple of practices per week.
At the request of US Soccer, when a young player signs an amateur contract with an academy team such as the Revolution, he agrees not to play high school soccer. In the future, Ramos said that college soccer will not be part of the development equation. By replacing high school schedules with a 10-months-a-year commitment to an academy club, the leaders of US youth development aim to ensure more training time with top-level coaches. A schedule with four practice sessions per week and one game per weekend mimics the routine followed by many youth development clubs in Europe.
For players, the new training-focused system provides ample time to sharpen technical skills. It also exposes them to a consistent coaching philosophy designed to prepare them for an MLS first team, the US men’s national team, or both. No longer are the country’s most promising players juggling an overload of games and feedback from club, high school, and national team coaches.
“It’s night and day,” Revolution general manager Mike Burns said of the differences between the US development system now and the one in place when he grew up in Marlborough in the 1980s that involved a town team, high school and college soccer, and the Olympic Development Program ladder to the national team.
“Now, the environment has changed so much to where at a much younger age kids are playing in a more competitive environment for 10 months of the year. There are so many more opportunities now because of MLS, because of the academy system run by US Soccer, that just weren’t around [when I was coming up].”
And whether young players train with the Revolution Academy or with FC Bolts Celtic, a US Soccer Development Academy member based in Waban, they come under the eye of national team coaches across all age divisions. The overall effect is a more professional, more focused, more coordinated approach throughout the youth ranks. So, when players are called up to the first team in MLS or to the senior men’s national team, it is a logical progression from what they have learned at lower levels.
“We’ve developed our methods on how players are developed and our style of play and how we want to help educate these players,” said Scales. “It’s evolved over time and it continues to evolve and it remains flexible. But we feel very strongly that all of our players need to have autonomy to make decisions on the field on their own and have the technical ability to adapt to the game at the highest level.”
According to Burns, there are close to 100 players who’ve come up through the US academy system and signed professional contracts. In Caldwell and Fagundez, the Revolution have proof that they’ve created a method that works.
“It helped a lot, especially because of how close [the youth academy teams] are to the professional team,” said Fagundez of his academy system experience. “They get together and see what the first team is doing. They get you ready as much as possible . . . It’s a fun experience when you know you’re so close to the first team that you never know when they’re watching. You have to be on your toes. ”
Meanwhile, Ramos, also the head coach for the US U-20 team and an assistant for the national team, noted that US Soccer monitors the practice plans of coaches and tracks players’ progress, too. After all, on the national team side, no one needs to tell US coach Jurgen Klinsmann the value of a strong, coordinated network of youth academy clubs and the vital role pro teams can fill in player development. He coached Germany as its revamped youth development system took hold, guiding the national team from 2004-06. Now, with German soccer heavily influencing the US, Scales, Burns, and Ramos expect that Klinsmann will have an increasingly deeper pool of homegrown players vying for spots on the national team.
“If you look at the last 25 years, I don’t believe there’s been a country on the planet that has made as much progress in the game of soccer as we have, from a national team standpoint, from an academy standpoint, and from a professional league standpoint in MLS,” said Burns. “If we make as much progress in the next 25 years as we have in the past 25 years, I don’t see any reason why we’re not going to be one of the top teams in the world.”