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.
But some club coaches in the area said they feel the academy doesn't do much differently than what has been done in the past, and that the results of playing for D.C. United are no different than what has been in place for years.
"I think we all want to push our players on to better environments," said an area club technical director who asked not be named because of the impact it could have on his club's relationships in the area. "But the key is, is it a better environment? We're told it is, but there is nothing being done that proves they are.
"The argument is, 'We put kids at U-Va. or Virginia Tech.' They'd have gone there anyway. All these clubs that have been in the area -- Reston, Great Falls, McLean -- they put kids to those school in recent years. Nothing has changed. They just come from D.C. United instead of different teams. There's pros and cons on both sides of the fence, but it's hard to say they're right and they're wrong, and that's what [D.C. United does], and that's the sad part. They insist they're correct."
Both Kasper and Maessner acknowledged there was a fissure between local clubs and D.C. United, though both said the relationships are improving.
"There has been some backlash for sure, but we try to be up front about it," Kasper said. "We try to communicate that these are our goals, and hopefully club presidents, club boards, club coaches, club technical directors understand that it's also an opportunity for a player to maybe one day play for what should be their hometown team, D.C. United, and this is an avenue for them. There is still some resistance, and club coaches don't necessarily get that or care."
Meanwhile, United's academy teams have benefited from an area saturated with talent and, because United has no teams before the under-15 level, from local clubs that have developed the players through their youth.
Of the 22 first-team All-Met selections in 2008-09, several are United academy players, including Chris Perez (Gonzaga), Christopher Hegngi (DeMatha), Andy Najar (Edison), Travis Pittman (Osbourn) and the spring All-Met Player of the Year, Sean Murnane (Westfield).
According to Maessner, players benefit from the professional environment they are placed in at the United academy. They train on the RFK Stadium auxiliary fields and have access to many of the same amenities of the MLS team, as well as to United's trainers and coaches.
Perhaps most importantly, standout players on the youth teams are given opportunities to train with the first team, and not just as a formality.
"It's just a great experience playing with [the first team] realizing what you need to work on to go pro," said Alex Herrera, a D.C. United academy player and 2008 All-Met at Yorktown. "Just being in a pro environment makes you want it more. It's a really good experience. You learn a lot just being around the pros, and training with them is a lot better. You can't get that anywhere else."
Several players have been brought in to train with the first team, and all are there with the purpose of evaluating how ready they are to play at the country's top professional level.
Discussions could include prospects such as goalkeeper Bill Hamid, who has made clear his intention to skip college and go pro, as well as Najar, a 16-year-old standout who trained with the first team last week.
Maessner expressed optimism it will be "sooner than later" that an academy player is signed to the first team.
"I don't know if that's going to be this week or next year, but it's very close," Maessner said. "There are a lot of kids that are very good, and I think are ready to step into that environment even if it takes them a year or two . . . to get used to that environment."