With stints as an assistant coach during the 2002 FIFA World Cup and head coach of U.S. U-18 Men’s National Team, George Gelnovatch has been involved with soccer in the U.S. since his playing days at the University of Virginia under Bruce Arena.
Now with 14 seasons as the head coach of the Cavaliers under his belt, Gelnovatch has seen his player selection process undergo a major overhaul since the inception of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy.
“I think the Academy program is still relatively young, but already I think there are some benefits,” said Gelnovatch, who won his first NCAA College Cup championship in 2009. “The standards that have been set by U.S. Soccer for these clubs are good standards, but the biggest change I have seen is in the identification process.”
With Development Academy scouts in attendance at a majority of regular season games and every game during Showcase events, players are identified and tracked more closely and consistently than in the past.
The coaching staff at Virginia takes advantage of both the Richmond Strikers and the Richmond Kickers proximity to Charlottesville. Not only does Gelnovatch keep a close eye on local talent, but he has a full slate of quality teams coming in from across the country on a weekly basis.
Gelnovatch and his staff are also among nearly 300 college coaches in attendance at every Development Academy Showcase.
“For college programs, those Showcase events make it easier to get into a four-day environment and watch all of the Academy teams,” he said. “To come out to three events a year and see all these players shouldn’t be an issue for any major program.”
Keeping a close eye on the Academy talent, Gelnovatch has definitely seen a change in the type of players coming out of the member clubs.
In 2009, the Cavaliers brought in Will Bates from the Richmond Strikers, D.C. United’s Marcus Douglas, Sean Murnane and Shane Cooke, and BW Gottschee NYC’s Ahkeel Rodney, meaning all but one freshman on the team hailed from an Academy club. On Feb. 3, three more Academy players signed National Letters of Intent to play for Virginia as they attempt to defend their national championship.
The 2007 NCAA Champion Wake Forest will add no fewer than six former Academy players to the Demon Deacons squad for 2010. The 2008 and 2005 NCAA Champion University of Maryland also continues to bring Academy players into its highly-regarded program, building on six first-year Academy alums who helped the Terrapins advance to the tournament quarterfinals in 2009.
“The impact of the level of play in the Academy has been tremendous for our program,” said Sasho Cirovski, head coach at Maryland. “Every time you see a game, it’s highly competitive, good spirited and played a very high level with a great deal of accountability. That’s something you want to see as a college coach, how players deal with that kind of environment and it’s more clear when you watch an Academy game than maybe another youth game that isn’t as meaningful.”
In addition, the structure of the program, which includes training at least three times per week and playing games on the weekend, mirrors that of a college season.
“The regimen of playing other Academy teams and traveling with some consistency has definitely added some structure and development that makes the transition from a youth club to a high-level college soccer team a little bit easier,” said Gelnovatch.
As college programs continue spring training in preparation for the 2010 season, Development Academy players continue to train with their respective clubs, hoping for a taste of the NCAA tournament. The current Academy season will conclude at Finals Weeks at The Home Depot Center in July.