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Q&A: U.S. Soccer Director of Scouting, Tony Lepore, On Developing Youth Players

Today Lepore works with youth players in many different capacities. As Director of Scouting for U.S. Soccer, he leads a complex scouting network throughout the country. He works closely with the U.S. Soccer Development Academy to continually improve the league and challenge top players. He also serves as head coach for the U-15 Boys’ National Team where he aims to help players reach their full potential and continue on the U.S. Soccer pathway. A true coach and teacher, Lepore is involved with many youth development initiatives throughout the country. When you were young, your father worked as a financial manager for the Hartford Bicentennials in the North American Soccer League. Is that how you first got involved in soccer?

Tony Lepore: “Yes, that is correct. In the first couple of years in the NASL there was a team called the Hartford Bicentennials. My dad is a finance guy by trade and the company he was working for was their major investor so they asked him to oversee all of the financial aspects. But I also got involved like most kids, through our town program. I grew up in Farmington, Conn., and we had Farmington Soccer Club. It is one of those things where you look back and you realize how fortunate you were. It was run by this really special man, a Scotsman named Al Bell. Al was way ahead of the time, and he set up an awesome program at the local level. We had this outstanding soccer-only facility called Tunxis Meade, which is still rare today. So there was this great place to go and play. It was near my house so I spent a lot of time at the field. That was probably the most important part of my introduction to the game but I was also really lucky because of my dad’s position with the Bicentennials. I had this unique experience where I kind of got to tag along with my dad and spend time around a professional team. That’s definitely part of my introduction to the game and that sort of sparked my interest that continues today.” Manfred Schellscheidt, former head coach for the U.S. MNT, was the coach of the Hartford Bicentennials back then. Were you around him during this time? Was he a mentor to you?

TL: “That relationship actually came later. Manny didn’t become a mentor until about 20 years later when I started coaching with Region I ODP. Manny had a big influence on my development, not only as a coach but as a man and as a person. He became probably my greatest mentor. I know I’m among many when I say I feel fortunate to have had this time with him, coaching alongside him and learning from him, and even more fortunate to have a continued friendship with him. He’s a special person.” What other mentors influenced you during your coaching career?

TL: “I consider myself really lucky because there were many other mentors along the way that contributed to my growth as a coach. These were guys that you wanted to emulate. I spent many years with the U-15 Boys’ National Team with Jim Barlow, and before him with Ken Lolla, and also Charlie Inverso. Working along those three guys was really influential. I learned a ton working closely with John Hackworth when we started the Development Academy in 2007/2008. Also at that time, the former Director of Coaching, Bob Jenkins, was another great role model. More recently I had the privilege of working with Claudio Reyna, who taught me a great deal. I’ve been really lucky to have a lot of great coaching mentors along the way.” After playing in college and for some semi-pro teams, you became a middle school counselor while still playing for many years. How did you then transition in to coaching soccer?

TL: “I was actually still playing and coaching while at the same time starting my career as a middle school counselor. The only option I had at that time was playing in the USL, which was a summer heavy schedule. I was able to juggle things until the school year ended and it blended together really nicely for many years. I was still enjoying playing and competing until my early 30’s. It was actually hard for me to let go of playing but it was a really natural transition. I see a lot of similarities in counseling and coaching. For me, the rewarding part of both is connecting with young people and supporting them and helping them grow and figure things out and take ownership of their development whether in soccer, school, or life. The idea is to help them prepare for whatever is next and to help them reach their full potential and find success. I have a great passion for the game and for teaching, and for me, coaching is teaching. The other thing that helped me apply methodology was my education. I had a really strong understanding of childhood development and how to apply age appropriate guidelines. As a youth coach, it is very different than senior level coaching.” As the head coach of the U-15 Boys’ National Team, what goals do you have for the players at that age? What are some of the key areas for development with this age group?

TL: “This is the age group where it starts with player identification and evaluation. There is a lot of talent across the country in this age group so it ties nicely into my role of scouting. The goal is to identify a core group of players for the future. The general focus is to accelerate the development of our elite players. We want to expose them early to the U.S. Soccer way. With the U-15 Boys’ National Team, they are part of a step-by-step process. The core group has come up from the U-14’s and the next step for the U-15’s is to become part of the U-17 MNT residency cycle. That is the next step so we work closely with the U-17 MNT to help prepare them for that cycle. Of course we always have new players in every camp and new players breaking into the core group, which is also really important.” In late April and early May the U-15 BNT participated in the Tournament Delle Nazioni in Italy. The team tied Italy and Chile, and defeated Slovenia 2-0 to advance to the second round of the tournament where they unfortunately fell to Croatia 2-1. Tell us about that tournament and what the team learned from it.

TL: “It was a great experience overall. For this group of players, the ‘98s, they did not have an international trip at U-14. The cycles moving forward will always have an international trip at U-14. We feel there is a lot of value in them. So with the help of Director of Youth National Teams Jim Moorhouse, we’re actually adding more. But for this group that was their first international trip. The 98 cycle is a really talented age group. With this core group we brought 20 players and they’ve shown that internationally they can play with anyone. They can even dominate by playing the right way. It was a chance to apply our style of play on an international level. I think the result is not the most important; the players would probably say they were disappointed with the result against Croatia. I think the key thing was that the trip gave them the belief and confidence that they can play with the top footballing nations.

“It was the same with the recent tournament in Mexico City. The U-15 National Team staff handed the group off to Richie Williams and his staff because they are starting residency in August. The team made it to the semifinals again. They are beginning to put together solid consecutive performances and they are learning. I think both experiences gave them a lot of belief and a lot of confidence in their ability by playing the right way. Now it’s important for the players to realize there is still a long way to go. Part of that is they have to take responsibility for their own development pathway from here. That’s the exciting part; they have a long way to go before they really reach their full potential.” Describe your role as the Director of Scouting for U.S. Soccer.

TL: “As Director of Scouting, I oversee scouting for the U-14 through U-18 and the U-20 Boys’ and Men’s National Teams. As part of that, I supervise eight full time Technical Advisors located in key markets throughout the country and about 100 per diems that make up our scouting network. Along with the Technical Advisors, we oversee, we support, we push, we scout, and we serve as compliance officers for about 10 Development Academy clubs each. There are now about 100 academy members, including the U-14 age group. We get to know them intimately and provide the technical direction for the U.S. Soccer Development Academy league.

“Another big part is that we run Training Centers throughout the key markets and scout meaningful events. Last year as a group we collectively scouted over 2,000 matches and ran over 200 Training Centers. The idea is to connect this scouting network and the TA’s as closely as possible with the Youth National Team staff. As part of that, I oversee our database, which is the central location for every match report and every player evaluation. We have weekly scouting calls with the Youth National Team staff, and the Technical Advisors are part of the youth national team staff now. Every Youth National Team age group has a Technical Advisor as a head coach or an assistant, which strengthens that connection. We also have to oversee our video library of all the Youth National Team and Academy matches because we use video for a lot of our scouting now.” This fall marks the first season for the new Development Academy age group. Describe the decision to expand the Academy to the U-13/14 age group. What benefits does this offer?

TL: “The benefits are the same that we have at the U15/16 and U17/18 age group. We are applying the same philosophy and we wanted to apply it earlier in the players’ development process to a really key age group. It provides them with a structure of more training, less matches, and more meaningful matches, all with the support and oversight from U.S. Soccer that I discussed when talking about the TA roles. Again, this is a really key age group. I think it can be considered part of the golden years of learning. We’ve seen all of the benefits from the Developmental Academy at U-15/16 and U-17/18 over the past seven years and are excited about the impact it will have on younger players to help develop important habits at an earlier age.” What changes have you seen on the field since the Academy required clubs to participate in a 10-month season?

TL: “We have a really clear and consistent pathway now. It’s not for everyone, but it’s for those that want to make the commitment and have the dedication and motivation to reach their full potential. We are seeing the benefits for players of continuously spending time in the best everyday environment. That’s what the Development Academy clubs represent.” You led a combine for five days in August for 64 elite players age 15-17 years old. What was the purpose of that event? Describe how the event was run and how it went.

TL: “It went great. I’d say it was a really successful first event. This was the culminating event for just over 200 Training Centers. The scouting process was a year-long process, we wanted to evaluate the top 97’s and some 96’s heading into the U-18 cycle. The timing was ideal. These are the players that make up the domestic pool of the U-18 Men’s National Team cycle. We felt like it was another good opportunity, in a good setting at Nike, to inspire players on and off the field. All of our TA’s were there and did a great job with the sessions, making the experience special and meaningful for the players.

“We had off-the-field education as well. The days were pretty full. We tried to make the best of every opportunity without taxing the players physically. We had two field sessions a day, meetings before each session, and evening meetings. Nike also brought in a guest speaker, Chris Wondolowski, which was a great opportunity for the players. We also did video with the players in the evening. We ran it very similar to any Youth National Team camp.

“From this event, we have now selected players that should be coming out for the first U-18 Men’s National Team camp. Some international players weren’t present, but one of the main purposes was so that U-18 MNT head coach Javier Perez feels like he’s ready to start the cycle. He now has a good grasp on his player pool and the players that we need to track throughout the cycle.” That event was part of U.S. soccer’s expanded Training Center program that was launched earlier this year in partnership with Nike. Describe this new program and why it is important.

TL:  “Nike has been a great partner and they have really helped us take the Training Centers to the next level. The Training Centers are important for player identification and evaluation. They are the pathways to the U.S. Youth National teams. We’ve been doing the single day Training Centers for many years now. We wanted to add multiday combines in key markets such as L.A., North Cal, Dallas, D.C., Chicago, New York/New Jersey, and Philadelphia. That’s where we started with the combines. The majority of players came through those combines and Training Centers heading into the national combine.” Last month we spoke with Keith Tozer about the role futsal can have in youth development. From your perspective, why is U.S. Soccer hosting futsal events for youth players?

TL: “It is great to have Keith Tozer as our resource as we implement futsal for the U-13/14s. He’s been a terrific resource. Keith has also done a few futsal coaching education symposiums for our Academy clubs. The futsal events that we will host are culminating events as a part of the mandatory futsal period, which is basically January to February for all Development Academy member clubs. We’re excited about the implementation of this futsal period for the 13/14s because we know it has tremendous value for the players’ development. It starts with their technical development and their comfort on the ball. Futsal is more touches; the ball is on the ground because it has less bounce. It has the small sided technical applications. It also has value in that it offers a young player freedom of expression, which is crucial in their development.” Within the Development Academy we often find ourselves focused on the development of the players. Can you explain the evolution of the coach in the Academy?

TL: “I think what we have seen is that the Development Academy is a great environment, a real environment, for coaches to develop. One of the trends we are seeing, which puts us in line with international standards, is that we are seeing more career youth coaches that are responsible for one age group. They are really able to focus and provide attention and time and address the details over 10 months whether that is on the field, or the planning, or the feedback given to players. I think the Development Academy has been a really appealing place for not only the top players, but now the top coaches are migrating to the Academy clubs. That includes former Men’s National Team players, professional players, and career coaches.” What are the key initiatives you have for your staff leading into year seven of the Academy?

TL: “I think a key change is that this year we move to a training requirement of four days a week for all clubs. Over 10 months, we have a ratio of four trainings for every match. The U-13/14 program is also a key initiative. We want to continue to grow the scouting network. We want to continue to amplify the Training Centers in the key markets. We want to add coaching education programming that is specific to the needs and requirements of a Development Academy coach. We want to continue to take steps forward with style of play elements that are consistent with our Youth National Teams and continue to adopt a philosophy and be more uniform throughout. That is a big challenge in a country our size, to get everyone on the same page and be really consistent; but we’ve made great strides there.” Can you expand on the coaching education for Development Academy coaches?

TL: “We are excited to be working closely with Dave Chesler, the Director of Coaching Development. We are in the midst of piloting a youth technical director course. We have had a few modules already, and we have an international trip planned to Germany in October. All of the TA’s are piloting the course, as well as a select number of current Academy technical directors that are located in key markets. They are partnering to pilot this course with the goal to roll it out within a year.” What messages do you have for youth coaches out there who may or may not be involved with the Development Academy?

TL: “I think the message goes back to how important it is for us to have a collective effort and realize that we all work for U.S. Soccer. It’s about helping our nation’s players be better rather than just coaching a team. As youth coaches, we need to recognize that we develop players, we don’t develop teams. Individual development is above everything else.”