Playoff Restructuring Leads to More Meaningful Competition Throughout Regular Season
• As of May 7, Only Five of 40 Automatic Qualifiers Across Both Age Groups Have Been Decided
• Fewer Automatic Qualifiers Allows More Teams to Stay Part of the Playoff Picture
• More Meaningful Regular Season Games Improves Training Environment, Player Development
CHICAGO (May 11, 2010) – With less than one month remaining, the 2009-10 Development Academy regular season is shaping up to be among the most competitive in the program’s young history as only five teams have clinched automatic berths to the Playoffs, leaving 59 spots still up for grabs.
The wide-open race towards the end of the season is a noticeable change from last year when nine divisions each had three automatic qualifiers and five wildcard teams were added to the mix to bring the total number of teams in each age group to 32.
A major reason for the more competitive finish is due to changes that were initiated after U.S. Soccer’s technical advisors, administrators and coaches took an in-depth look at what had gone well and what could be improved after the program’s first two seasons. The prevailing thought after the 2008-09 season was that a change to the structure of Conferences and Divisions, and a subsequent change to Playoff qualification, could increase the level of training and competition for the duration of the regular season. This season, the top two finishers in each of 10 Divisions automatically qualify for Playoffs, which will once again be held in Greensboro, N.C.
The change in postseason structure seems to have paid off. As of May 11, all but one division still has automatic qualifiers up for grabs, and nearly every team can still earn one of 12 wildcard slots in each age group. Internationals U-15/16, South Carolina United FC U-15/16, Concorde Fire U-17/18, Washington Premier FC U-17/18 and IMG Academy U-17/18 are the five teams that have secured automatic qualification to the playoffs.
Along with benefits to the competitive aspect of the season, the new structure also has been a boon to player development. Chris Brewer, technical advisor in the South Conference, has seen a noticeable change in the improvement of the players from this point in the season last year.
“The change from last year to this year has been evident,” said Brewer. “Virtually every team still has a chance to make a push for a playoff position, whether it’s automatic or as a wildcard, and that’s a great motivator for all of our clubs. More teams have a chance to reach the postseason and that’s really changed their perspective. It has made everything feel more competitive, which is a great opportunity for players to grow.”
South Carolina United FC head coach Rob Strickland said that reaching the postseason has been a huge motivator for his squad.
“Making the playoffs is something that I hope every team in the Academy strives for,” said Strickland. “Of course the larger picture for this program is developing players for our national teams, which is something we’ve had a bit of recent success with. But making that push, bringing up the level of competition not only in our games but also in training, is definitely a major factor there.”
According to Strickland, who also serves as the club’s technical director, South Carolina United’s training sessions became more and more competitive as automatic qualifying loomed.
“We all watched the games from Finals Week last year on television, and most of our players have been part of the Academy program since its inception,” he said. “We really thought that this year we could make it to playoffs and hopefully, ultimately, to Finals Week. It added a lot of intensity to our training sessions, which started in the fall and winter. We really geared up for the game where we had a chance to qualify, and when we did qualify the guys were really celebrating.”
But, as Strickland explains, qualifying for the Playoffs does not mean the work is done. South Carolina United was one of the first teams to clinch an automatic berth.
“We’re really trying to play well and get as many points as we can to try to get a favorable seed in the Playoffs and keep the guys focused,” he said. “That means we’re really going to have to continue to play well in our last three games and get ourselves in good form heading into Greensboro so we can do well for ourselves.”
Though Strickland understands the motivating factor of Finals Week, one thing he said will not change is his team’s style of play.
“We’re training hard all the time and in our club it’s evident that no one is a guaranteed starter,” he said. “We know that if we play well as individuals and work hard, that the team will do well. The line between development and competition really hasn’t been a conflict in our style of play, which is passing and moving. We don’t play just to get results, so we’re going to continue to play well and it’s benefitted us from both competitive and development aspects so far.”
Though many playoff berths are expected to be clinched ahead of the upcoming Spring Showcase, the final day of the 2009-10 regular season is slated for June 6.
The Playoffs will once again be held at Bryan Park in Greensboro, N.C., from June 25-29, as 64 of the top teams in the Academy will come together to play in a round robin format within a four-team group. The top finisher in each group will advance to the third annual Development Academy Finals Week.
The National Training Center in Carson, Calif., is slated to host Finals Week from July 9-17. The prestigious event showcases the highest level of youth soccer in the country, and in the past some games have been televised live on the ESPN family of networks.
“Being a part of these events is a goal that most teams lay out at the beginning of the season, which is a great motivator to work hard for the entire year,” said Brewer. “I think the sheer amount of time, resources and effort that U.S. Soccer puts forth in both the Playoffs and Finals Week, make them worth being a part of and clubs really understand that now.”