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Western Conference and Texas Division Teams Embrace 10-Month Season as Other Development Academy Teams Prepare to Follow Their Lead

U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has made no secret of the fact he wants his players to be playing soccer for 10 months out of the year, gaining valuable training time, experience, and building a strong fitness base. In fact, Klinsmann has personally arranged for several MLS-based U.S. internationals to spend time training overseas. Brek Shea has gone to Arsenal while Juan Agudelo, Kyle Beckerman and Robbie Rogers are all training with German clubs.

“The big challenge is for MLS overall, how can they stretch that season into a format that is more in line with the rest of the world?” Klinsmann said. “If you have a seven, eight-month season and the players are getting a long break, that’s not enough.”

While the move to lengthen the MLS season will not happen overnight, many Development Academy clubs are taking the process into their own hands to ensure their players are building skills and fitness and establishing continuity in their training. Hence the introduction of the ten-month season.

The Reformers
At the end of the 2010-11 season, the SoCal Division announced that beginning in 2011, all the Academy teams would commit to a 10-month long program. The Northwest Division and Texas Division quickly followed suit, paving the way for an unprecedented change in the landscape of youth development in the United States.

The change requires players to commit to playing only for their club team throughout the year and will likely become the standard for all 78 Academy clubs in 2012-13. Some teams, such as FC Dallas, have had 10-month programming since the team’s inception into the Academy. Other teams, such as the Pateadores and Strikers FC, are kicking off their first 10-month season. In the Northeast, Oakwood Soccer Club will not officially compete in a 10-month season until Fall of 2012, but the club decided to get a head start and established a fall training program this year that included three trainings per week and friendlies on the weekend.

More frequent training sessions and consistent access to the players is part of the reason FC Dallas instituted 10-month programming when the club joined the Academy in 2008.

“I think that it has been very beneficial for us to train for so many days a week because you can pass along more information to the players,” said FC Dallas Academy Director Oscar Pareja, whose team has four or five training sessions a week. “There are clubs that lose their kids for three or four months, and that is wasting time with the kids.”

Strikers FC Director of Coaching Don Ebert was a strong proponent of the longer season, due especially to the development opportunities missed by losing players to other programs for three months out of the year. Also, playing one game per weekend instead of two allows teams to spend less time regenerating players and more time working on the technical aspect of the game.

“We were always rushing in the shorter season,” Ebert said. “We were just maintaining the players’ ability to get through what was a very tough five or six months. I just felt that a longer season of more consistent training and fewer fixtures on back-to-back dates allows us to do different types of training, whether it’s indoor, sand, a fitness day, a finishing day, etc. You could just do a lot more from a teaching and development perspective than you could when you were racing against a stacked 20 or 30 games in five months.”

Commitment to Development
According to Pareja, committing to play solely with the club has also benefited the players, who no longer feel overwhelmed. FC Dallas has been at every post-season event in at least one age group since the 2008 season. The U-17/18 team finished as runners up at 2011 Finals Week, going into the event as the only team with two representatives on the Development Academy Starting XI. FC Dallas also has players consistently called in to represent the U.S. as part of the U-17, U-18 and U-20 Men’s National Teams.

“They are more concentrated on one thing, one commitment,” said Pareja. “We don’t have kids that are jumping from one tournament to another; we don’t have kids who are thinking about playing on different teams. The consistency in the ideas, the philosophy, the style of play, the position the guys play, all of that is benefited by having them together all year.”

Ebert said Strikers FC lost some players when the teams declared it would make the switch to 10-month programming. However, the players who stayed demonstrated that they are more passionate and focused than before, elevating the level of play and commitment at the Irvine-based club.

“We were very fractioned,” said Ebert, “People had choices. Now the only choice is to look at yourself, and see what your goal is and what path you want to take to get there. Do you want to be really serious and just focus on soccer? There’s a path for you: it’s called the Academy.”

In the Northeast, club teams still rely on the previous model of allowing players to participate in high school programs. However, Oakwood SC, under the direction of Rick Derella, presented players with the option of committing to forego the high school season and play only with the club team in preparation for next season. Only two of the team’s 11th graders chose to play with Oakwood SC during the fall, but the vast majority of the players born in 1996 decided to forego playing on other teams and committed exclusively to the Connecticut club.

“When we heard about the 10-month programming coming about, we took it very seriously and presented it to the players for this fall,” said Derella. “We tried to get the 1995 team to do it but since they were going into 11th grade, only two of them chose to play with Oakwood this fall. But pretty much the whole 1996 team decided to skip high school because they’re banking on the fact that they’re going to be the full Academy players the following year, so they’ve been playing all fall together. They’re 10th graders and a lot of them played varsity last year even as freshman so they did give up playing for their high school team but are looking forward to the future. They’re counting on 2012 where we will have a year-round, 10-month program.”

Derella’s players made the choice to switch to something similar to a 10-month season after hearing from U.S. Soccer Director of Scouting Tony Lepore, who was invited in to speak with local youth coaches in a public seminar. Players and their families also heard from Kevin Bacher, who joined the staff of Oakwood SC after spending 10 years in the college ranks as an assistant coach at the University of Connecticut.

A Push for Consistency
Bacher, who led the recruiting efforts at UConn, said colleges are looking across the country and around the world for players who are in a competitive environment. His selling point to the 1996 players was the amount of time they would have to train and prepare if they chose the 10-month program.

“Your high school season is only three [months],” Bacher said to his athletes, “but that means we can’t start in August. You’re playing with them in September, you’re going in October, some of you are still playing in the middle of November, and so we’re not really getting you until December. Now it’s winter. So, we’re really not going to start with you until February or March, so all you’re doing in the spring is playing games, because you can’t get any training done.”

Oakwood SC has not officially committed to 10-month long programming, so players played in friendly matches throughout the fall, preparing for when the season started in full force during Thanksgiving weekend.

“It’s a very difficult calendar right now,” Derella said. “Right now for our kids, without the 10-month programming, we’re playing 21 Academy games in 93 days in the spring. Right now, the kids [finished] high school, we had to play two league games on one weekend, a double weekend on Thanksgiving, and then one week later play in the showcase.”

Derella looks forward to the 10-month programming to allow for his players to train more and with more consistency.

“Training will become more and more important,” said Derella. “And by doing it over a long period of time and with consistent teachers, not with different rules and different coaches, there will be consistency.”

For the clubs who made the decision to commit to 10-month programming, there has been a cultural shift that has requirement adjustments from all the participants. While there have been other obstacles, the clubs have already recognized the benefits for player development and working hard to find solutions that will ensure all 78 teams are ready for the 2012-13 season.