Friday’s announcement that the U.S. Soccer Under-17 Residency Program will end following the current semester marked a bittersweet moment for former U.S. U-17 head coach John Ellinger.
On one hand, the long-time coach is happy how the nation’s soccer apparatus has evolved. The U.S. Soccer Development Academy boasts 150 clubs throughout the United States and has grown to a point that was unthinkable back when the program launched in 1999. On the other hand, as the man that launched and helped cultivate the successful program in Bradenton, Fla., Ellinger is sad to see it go.
“I just had this conversation with [current U-17 MNT head coach] John Hackworth last week in Florida,” Ellinger told ussoccer.com. “It’s exciting to see that we’ve grown to a point where we don’t need Residency anymore and we can get through because of the Development Academy and especially what the M.L.S. clubs are bringing to the table. You also look at it and have some sadness to see it go away after the successes the program has had.”
“I remember when we were at a youth tournament and found out officially it was going to happen in May or June of 1998,” he recalled. “There were kids that weren’t sure about this. They had to leave home at 15 or 16 years old, and so there were some tears. This was the unknown. It was really down to finding a site where we could find 20 beds and good schooling for players, and it ended up all coming together at IMG in Bradenton.
“We became one nice, little group,” he said.
The U-17 MNT celebrates a goal at the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Championship in New Zealand
“It really was a tight-knit group,” said Beckerman. “We just clicked, and we all took on this mentality that we were representing U.S. Soccer and that we wanted to gain respect. We were a bit naïve in how important it was, but we really felt like we wanted to go into these soccer-rich countries and show them that the U.S. could play.”
Along with Beckerman, the first Residency group included future National Team stalwarts Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Bobby Convey and Oguchi Onyewu. Training daily in Bradenton, the group jelled together ahead of the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Cup in New Zealand, where the U.S. team barnstormed to a fourth-place finish after falling to Australia on penalty kicks in the Semifinal. Donovan and Beasley won the tournament's Gold and Silver Balls, respectively and all five of the above trio went on the represent the U.S. in at least one FIFA World Cup.
“They were already a good group of players any way, and I think they just formed a great bond as you would imagine any group in that situation would,” said Ellinger. “These guys in particular are still very close to this day, based on the fact that they were the first group and they experienced such success.”
Given early successes, eventually the program expanded to include 30 players in 2002, 40 the following year and reached its high point in 2007 when 48 players descended on Bradenton. The program’s ongoing final class has 32 players enrolled.
As players came through and World Cup cycles passed, Ellinger said he and his staff learned how to improve not only their coaching methods, but also the best ways to keep players on the right path in their development.
“I learned from the first year after they were done that some of the players that weren’t professionals had to go back into their high school environments and then graduate. Most of the high schools on the east coast had already played, so they couldn’t play high school soccer. The only thing they had left was their club teams. What we learned from that was that it was difficult to take these quality young players, saturate them in a daily soccer environment and at the end, after they’ve grown to get through qualification and a World Cup, put them back into nothing. They just had a crash and burn syndrome because they were saturated in soccer and then it just goes away. We did things like trying to graduate them early, get them done and into college early, and whatever we could do to get them there or with pro teams, we learned that and got better with it as we went along.”
Christian Pulisic celebrates his goal vs. Croatia at the 2015 FIFA U-17 World Cup
When Ellinger departed to take the head coaching job with Real Salt Lake in 2004, his assistant and current U-17 MNT head coach John Hackworth stepped into the fold to guide the program through 2007. He was followed by current Houston Dynamo head coach Wilmer Cabrera through 2012, and former U.S. international Richie Williams then held the post through 2015.
In all, the four men were responsible for bringing along the nation’s best soccer talent, sending 33 players on to earn caps with the full U.S. Men’s National Team and 10 that ended up making at least one World Cup roster.
Alumni who Went to a FIFA World Cup
Jozy Altidore, DaMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman,
Alumni with MNT Caps
Kellyn Acosta, Freddy Adu, Gale Agbossoumonde, Paul Arriola, Juan Agudelo, Greg Garza, Eddie Gaven, Luis Gil, Joe Gyau, Emerson Hyndman, Perry Kitchen, Eric Lichaj, Justin Mapp, Chad Marshall, Dax McCarty, Heath Pearce, Christian Pulisic, Santino Quaranta, Robbie Rogers, Rubio Rubin, Brek Shea, Danny Szetela, Anthony Wallace
“I don’t think I’d be where I am without it,” said current MNT striker and Residency Program alum Jozy Altidore. “It helped bridge the gap. Having the ability to train everyday with the best players available at the time, it pushed me to be better. I think it was very valuable for me in learning how to be a pro and take that next step as I transitioned into being a professional player.”
Jozy Altidore playing for the U-17 MNT at the 2004 Nike Friendlies
Both Altidore and Beckerman said that the decision to end the program is a sign of where the game is now in the United States. Beckerman has seen first-hand the work that’s being done in Real Salt Lake’s residential academy in Arizona.
“With these academies, we’re at the point that if we’re not right there the same, we’re pretty darn close with the rest of the world in terms of our U-16 and U-18 programs,” the RSL midfielder said. “These guys have a professional environment already in their backyard. Residency is probably the starter of all that, and now we’re at the point where the professional academies can sustain us and where we can have our kids on the same level as the rest of the world.”
And just as he was back in 1999, Ellinger is still part of the player development evolution in the United States. Now the Director for U.S. Soccer Development Academy club in Baltimore, the former U-17 MNT head coach is part of the larger setup that U.S. Soccer will rely on to fill the void left by the end of the Residency Program.
“Throughout the country now we’re producing players that are getting quality minutes as young players, and that’s great to see. It’s been almost 20 years since residency launched and I think that speaks to the success as much as anything, but to get to the point in the sport where we don’t need it is fantastic. It’s a great thing.”