It was only six weeks ago when the New York Red Bulls U-15/16 team captured its first U.S. Soccer Development Academy crown at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston to cap off the 2011-12 season at Academy Finals Week.
The merry-go-round of soccer player development continues to spin as many teams return to the field this weekend, Sept. 8-9, to open the 2012-13 Development Academy season – the sixth campaign since the Academy first kicked off in 2007-08.
“We had a pretty heavy schedule this summer,” said U-15/16 Red Bulls head coach Rob Elliott, whose team also played in an MLS tournament through Aug. 10. “Obviously, the kids felt really good about the championship. From our academy standpoint, winning something like that is hopefully a byproduct of doing things the right way on a daily basis. As a coach, you get excited, as well, but the big picture is trying to develop the guys.”
FC Dallas won the U-17/18 crown for its first title, and the lead-up to that accomplishment was remarkable considering the emotional period the FC Dallas community felt entering the season. The players and staff dealt with the loss of former Academy player and San Jacinto College player Jose Perez, who was killed in a car accident in the days before the start of the Academy season.
“The players have been with us for three or four years, train daily and are part of an extended family,” FC Dallas Director of Coaching Chris Hayden said. “When Jose passed away it was very difficult for the boys to deal with, and it brought everyone close together. It really gave purpose to the season. Our players have an internal competitiveness and we dealt with a lot at the beginning of the year. But their faith, belief in one another and closeness helped us get through it all.”
Academy teams begin another chapter for 2012-13 this weekend, while FC Dallas and the Red Bulls kick off their new season later in September. The way the schedule has been devised under the 10-month season, Academy teams are focused on four days of training per week and one match over the weekend.
“The big difference is that we’ll be able to train for only single-game weekends and train an extra day,” Elliott said. “In the second game of a two-game weekend, sometimes the quality goes down because it’s difficult to play two games in two days.”
For FC Dallas, the schedule does not change much from last season.
“Internally, there is no schedule change because last year our division played in a 10-month season,” Hayden said. “The only change we will have is our conference realignment adding the Colorado teams.”
The 10-month season setup provides a useful platform for Academy coaching staffs to evaluate their players to the fullest in training and see them in a meaningful match each week. At the same time, Elliott also pointed out that he will likely approach his roster differently than in the past.
“We’re going to have a fairly deep team again, so we’re trying to keep a smaller roster so that there are more game opportunities,” Elliott said. “I think the goal would be around 20 [players]. It’s difficult to plan around the Residency guys or injuries, so it’s sort of a fluid thing for us.”
FC Dallas, like many teams, will face another season of heavy turnover following the U-17/18 team’s championship season. But the program has established itself as a postseason force with the U-17/18 age group also capturing a runner-up finish during the 2010-11 season.
“We’re losing a lot of talented players, but the year before we went to the Finals and had to replace a lot from the previous year,” Hayden said. “We obviously had a good performance from the players all year long, and I’m assuming the same thing will happen again this year.”
For teams like FC Dallas and the Red Bulls with a deep base of youth players, the recent announcement about the Academy launching a U-13/14 age group starting in the Fall of 2013 is also welcome news for the long-term structure.
“We already have a U-14 and a U-13 team, so it should be seamless for us,” Elliott said. “We’re looking forward to it to get some more competitive games, because sometimes those are hard to find locally. It’s definitely a step in the right direction to influence the players’ progress and focus on their habits.”
“It’s a great move from the Federation, and it’s more important than the U-17/18s, to be honest,” Hayden said. “We have a hotbed of soccer and a competitive format with a lot of players within every age group. We have had a pre-academy for the last two years and we’ve got teams down to 7 years old. So we identify players very early, and putting them into a national league format will continue to help with our vision for players moving into the first team. The sky’s the limit.”