Playing Up: Better Competition Means Faster Development for Young Academy Players
One of the important methods of player development the Academy can offer is the ability to have talented young players “playing up” against their older counterparts, providing an opportunity to accelerate their technical ability as well as their cerebral understanding of the game.
“It’s important for players to play up in their age group simply because it challenges them more,” said U.S. Soccer Youth Technical Director Claudio Reyna. “By playing up, we’re going to give a player a better chance to develop and speed that development up.”
McLean Youth Soccer and Chivas USA are two of the Development Academy clubs that have implemented the practice of moving players up an age group, and the coaches from both teams said the results have been positive.
“We’ve seen the benefits from this because our young players have really answered the challenge of playing up,” said Chivas USA Technical Director Greg Vanney. “They’ve been competitive in every single game, they’ve been fantastic in terms of their style of play and committing to the way we want to play as an organization and as a club.”
Reyna believes players should be tested against older players because the extra challenge helps to improve their decision-making on the ball.
“If the player can handle the physical aspect of the game, moving will provide him the best opportunity to think quicker,” Reyna said. “When you’re playing up against older, quicker, better players, you’re forced to think and not get by simply with your physical attributes.”
Chivas USA has several players in each of their Academy teams playing up, and Vanney said that those players have helped their teams win games and have even played better than some of their competitors.
“We’ve seen them developing their minds a little bit younger and sooner than they would have if they were still playing in non-Academy soccer,” Vanney said. “For all of them, we see the mental side of the game is developing a lot sooner, and we think that’s the key of playing professional soccer: being able to make those decisions quicker and being able to think their way through games.”
McLean had 10 players on its U-17/18 roster at the 2011 Winter Showcase age-eligible for the U-15/16 team. McLean U-17/18 head coach Ed Beach said that the players are on the squad because they perform well enough to earn that opportunity.
McLean believes moving the younger players not only helps them improve their skills and awareness, but it helps everyone on the team.
“I think for the players that are playing up, it improves their abilities, but also the players on age, it has them looking over their shoulders as well,” Beach said. “Here are young guys that are challenging and fighting for their spots, and it makes for a great chemistry and a great environment in training. It just makes it very competitive and helps the overall group develop better.”
For the players who do well in a higher age group and a more challenging environment, the improvement is noticeable. Chivas USA forward Ben Spencer plays regularly for the U-17/18 team despite being age-eligible for the U-15/16s.
“I noticed [the development] last week when Ben Spencer came down and actually played with his age, and everything was really slow for him, which is a good sign because we know he’s getting development by playing up at an older age,” said Chivas USA head coach Ted Chronolopous. “Everything kind of speeds up, and it makes it a little easier for him.”
It's that kind of progress that demonstrates the value of playing up, and why it remains an important point of emphasis for the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. The experience of playing up also adds one further benefit: preparing players at an earlier stage for the chance to play with the U.S. National Teams.