Grading the Academy: Evaluations Aim to Improve Style of Play and Development for the Long Term
The U.S. Soccer Development Academy was established in 2007 with one key focus: train the country’s best youth players in a challenging environment that will prepare them to become the future elite players in soccer in the United States. To ensure that the quality of play and the standards at Academy clubs continues to improve, the Development Academy implemented a grading system by which each club is evaluated.
“We’ve established a grading system for the Academy clubs simply to hold them a little bit more accountable in what they’re doing year round,” said U.S. Soccer Youth Technical Director Claudio Reyna. “It’s something that’s done abroad in other countries, and we feel by giving [the clubs] a grade, it inspires them to get better in many different ways.”
The Academy technical staff members evaluate each club ten times a year, with two formal evaluations at the mid-point and the end of the season. Those assessments contain eight key components and more than 100 sub-criteria, though the most weight is given to the categories of player development and style of play.
“Style of play and player development is what we’re really focusing on, and we can’t overemphasize the importance of how teams are trying to play, from playing out of the back, through the midfield, and moving the ball quickly,” Reyna explained. “Technically as well: improving on our passing and receiving. I think that’s probably the biggest technical aspect that we’re behind on in this country is simply passing and receiving.”
Training Environment also comprises 20 percent of the evaluation, and Administration, Facilities, Fundraising and implementation of the Respect campaign are worth 10 percent each.
“It’s a holistic evaluation,” said U.S. Soccer Director of Scouting Tony Lepore. “We look at not just the technical criteria, which are weighted the most, but also the administrative and the structural [criteria], including things like facilities and how they manage the rosters.”
The end-of-year evaluations were made public for the first time following the 2010/11 season. Reyna thinks that having the grades publicly accessible only helps open the line of communication between U.S. Soccer and the Development Academy clubs on what they can do to progress.
“This is for the players, to make the clubs better, and that’s it,” Reyna said. “We feel that it gives us a good platform to go and speak to these coaches and these clubs about how they can improve. It allows us to have a clear dialogue with them in terms of what they’re doing really well, what they’re doing okay, and what they can be doing better at.”
Evaluating the clubs is ultimately designed to promote a long-term model of style of play and development. One of the things U.S. Soccer is advocating is for teams to increase the age distribution on rosters and to base their structure on successful international clubs like Barcelona and Arsenal.
“We think the top international clubs give us a really good picture of where we want to get to, and they’re the leaders right now in youth player development,” Lepore said. “A defensive approach doesn’t develop players for our national teams, so we want to emphasize an attacking style of play.”
The ultimate goal of the evaluations is simply to improve the clubs in areas where they may be lacking. Lepore said he has already seen progress in several categories.
“Some of the positives we’ve seen are the improvement of everyday training environments and with managing the rosters,” he said. “We’ve seen improvement with the overall level of players in the Academy.”
At the end of the day, the Development Academy aims to produce talent for the national teams, so the evaluations are in place to further enhance the players’ development.
“Hopefully out of the grading process we just improve the product and the quality,” Reyna said. “That’s why we’re doing it. Every decision we make is for the benefit of the players.”