For Youth Soccer Systems, Improving the U.S. National Team Pool Is the Goal

By Paul Tenorio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 6, 2009

John Maessner reclined in the chair behind his desk in the office tucked back in the tunnels underneath RFK Stadium, near the locker rooms and field entrance at D.C. United's home stadium. It had been a long summer for Maessner, a former United midfielder who is the club's director of youth development.

D.C. United's under-17 team had advanced to the final of the SUM U-17 Cup, a tournament featuring 14 developmental teams sponsored by MLS franchises, for the third consecutive year and took home the trophy for a second time. A week later, the under-18 team played its way into the final of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy national championship, where it fell to Carmel United (Ind.), 1-0.

Since the U.S. Soccer Federation inserted itself into the American youth soccer system two years ago by creating the development academy, D.C. United has established itself as one of the program's top clubs.

As United's youth system continues to grow, the club's front office has made it clear the changes the development academy aims to bring will extend beyond altering the scope of youth soccer and perhaps soon begin overflowing into the professional ranks.

"The goals were to do what's done around the rest of the world," D.C. United General Manager Dave Kasper said, "which is to have a proper academy system that can one day feed players into the first team."

The creation of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy was considered necessary for the further maturation of the country's national team program. The youth system in the United States was slipping into one that, at least in the eyes of the U.S. Soccer Federation, was focused too much on winning tournaments and participating in college showcases and not enough on individual development.

"After completing an extensive review and discussion across the country, we feel that it is the right time for U.S. Soccer to lead a change in the sport at the youth level," Sunil Gulati, the federation's president, said in a statement. "We need to shift the focus of our young elite players from an 'overburdened, game emphasis' model to a 'meaningful training and competition' model. This will ultimately lead to more success and will allow players to develop to their full potential."

The development academy intends to refocus youth soccer on the development of individual players through more training and fewer games. Teams are required to practice at least three times per week and play fewer games, though Maessner said the league still has back-to-back games on weekends, which they aim to change in coming years.

The move was not without its critics.

Suddenly, clubs that had been in place for decades were losing their best players to programs such as Potomac Soccer and D.C. United -- which held open tryouts for its youth system. Further, the suggestion that long-established youth clubs cared little about the development of players did not sit well with longtime coaches and club advocates.

"Yes [people were upset], but that doesn't mean what [Gulati] said wasn't accurate," said Clyde Watson, an assistant coach with the Washington Freedom and the technical director of McLean Youth Soccer, which joined the development academy for the 2009-10 season. "The thing is, in a nutshell, what this academy is intending to do is to provide the best developmental environment possible."

Watson, who has coached youth soccer in the D.C. area for more than 20 years and is also an assistant coach for the Washington Freedom, said the development academy meant coaches were going to have to learn to live with losing players.

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