With the 11th season of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy on the horizon this August, ussoccer.com sat down with new Boys' Development Academy Director, Aloys Wijnker, who will oversee all technical aspects of the Boys’ DA after transitioning from his role as a U.S. Soccer Coach Educator. Before working in U.S. Soccer’s coaching education department, Wijnker served as the Academy Director for Dutch club AZ Alkmaar, which was twice named the KNVB's Academy of the Year in 2015 and 2016.
ussoccer.com: How would you evaluate where the Development Academy is at now versus where you would like to see it in the future?
Aloys Wijnker: “A few weeks ago, I read an article about the M.L.S. They are now in their 22nd season and are more mature. When I compare M.L.S. with the Development Academy, which is currently in its 10th season, I see two programs that continue to evolve and build for the future. Like the way we develop as people, 11-year-old kids tend to start thinking on their own and wanting to make their own decisions. As the support system for the clubs, the Development Academy is like the parental figure who wants to provide guidance to their kid’s decision making. For me, the big thing I would most like to see is Academy clubs taking initiative and being confident making technical decisions. We, as U.S. Soccer, will continue to guide them and help them with our back-office support, but we need the people involved with the day-to-day operations of the clubs to make the right decisions, for the future of player development.”
ussoccer.com: Tell us about your background and how that will help you make an impact on the continued growth of the Development Academy?
AW: “Most of my experience comes from working in and with youth academies. I was first a coach, but I have mostly worked as a Director, where I was heavily involved in the development process of players. In my role, not only did I oversee many teams, but I also focused on building the right environment.
“In my 10 years as an Academy Director, I had the opportunity to see the development and what is going on overseas, specifically in the Netherlands. I expect that with my experience, knowledge and what I built there, that I can share it with clubs over here. This last year, as an instructor for the U.S. Soccer Academy Director course, my experience allowed me to get to know the soccer landscape of the U.S. much better. With all of this combined, I think I can have an impact on the clubs and on individual persons related to improving the development of players.”
ussoccer.com: How did your role as a coach educator prepare you for the Academy Director role?
AW: “By leading the Academy Director's Course in 2016, I established great relationships with many of the Boys’ Development Academy Directors. These relationships have allowed me to continue to understand the landscape. I am still gaining experience and I am lucky to have guys around me like Tony Lepore, Jared Micklos and the rest of the Development Academy staff. The TA’s have and will continue to elevate our knowledge and understanding of the U.S. Soccer landscape. This will allow us to know what is happening and what we can change, together. It's a collaborative effort.”
ussoccer.com: In collaboration with the Academy clubs, how can you influence or improve the level of coaching?
AW: “Our task is to influence the clubs, and more specifically, the leadership of the clubs. In most cases, that means the Academy Director because, in the end, he or she is responsible for developing the coaches in their club. We will continue to help create plans for that. One of the main areas of responsibility for a Director is to create, implement and execute the personal development plans for each coach in the club. By creating that plan, we improve the level of coaching. My goal is to influence the Directors, who will in turn influence their own coaches.”
ussoccer.com: What are the next steps for the Development Academy?
AW: “There are a few steps. One of them is that clubs must create their own identity. The identity may already be there, but they need to put it on paper. What is the club’s philosophy? What kind of club are they? What kind of club do they want to be? How do they want to play? What kind of players do they want to develop? These answers, are part of the philosophy that each club needs to build out. Because of this practice, clubs will better know who they are and who they want to be.
“The next step is then to create a talent development plan. How are you going to execute it? How are you going to get there? So again, step one is for every Development Academy club in the U.S. to establish their own philosophy. After that, they have to create and execute a plan to develop that philosophy. We (Technical Advisors and Academy staff) are there to support them, and advise them, but they have to create their own philosophy.”
ussoccer.com: Why is it important that clubs develop their own identities, philosophies and plans?
AW: “It's important because we need to create ownership in the clubs. By ownership I mean that they make the decisions, they create their philosophy and they make their plan, instead of us. As a club, when you can create your own plan and own philosophy, your motivation is 100 percent better than when someone else is telling you what to do. That is why it is so important that the clubs, and the people in the clubs, are responsible for that process. We are there to guide them and to help them, but they must develop that themselves. It's like coaching. Instead of a coach telling players exactly what to do, we believe that we have to develop players who make their own decisions on the field.”
ussoccer.com: How do you plan to help clubs achieve this?
AW: “Together, with each of our Technical Advisors (TA’s), we will provide guidance and support to share our ideas. We will do that by not only conducting sessions where we bring all the Academy Directors together, but also through individual contact between Technical Advisors and the clubs.
“First, we will collaborate on next steps, through communication and presentations. We’ll also do this around each of the Development Academy showcase events, where we will bring in all the Directors and then we will explain our plans. The next step is for TA's to visit clubs and support them in creating their plan and in creating their philosophy. We have created a timeline of what we want to achieve every year, in collaboration with the clubs.”
ussoccer.com: What are the key components of Academy environments that lead to developing players?
AW: “First, you need to have a philosophy. Getting back to the talent development plans, each club must answer the critical questions, “How do you want to play?,” “What kind of players do you want to develop?” Each club needs to have an identity. When you work in an organization, in an Academy, you need to have a plan on paper. Once you have the plan laid out, you have to share it with the coaches and support staff.
“The second step is that you need to have good, qualified coaches with a lot of knowledge, understanding and experience. You need proper resources. This includes fields, lights and opportunities to train when weather conditions are poor. This means having indoor facilities to be able to train when necessary. For those clubs reaching the U-19 level, they must have a full pathway plan for their players. What is the plan and strategy for players to progress to Zone 3* after U-19? Is there a relationship with a professional domestic team? Clubs need to have a next step in the pathway after the Academy for their players. It is not over once they reach the U-19 level. The relationship between an Academy and a pro team is really important. The final goal is to develop world class players who can compete at the highest levels.”
* Zone 1 (age 6-11), Zone 2 (age 12-17), and Zone 3 (age 18 and above).
ussoccer.com: The Development Academy recently announced plans to expand by 165 teams and one new age group (U-15). What’s the benefit of this?
AW: “When you have an Academy Club with teams in Zone 2 (U-13 to U-19) with only the U-17 and the U-19 divisions as the two combined age groups (U-16/17, U-18/19), it is a better player pathway. When you have players in a single age group who are, at a maximum, one year in age difference, it is a more consistent pathway. You also must account for relative age effect, where there can be a difference of more than two years in the biological age. When you bring players together who are in the same growth period, it is better for the development of the player. Instead of having two birth years in one age group, it is more logical to have single age groups, especially at the base of the pyramid (Ages 12-14).
“With 165 Clubs in the Development Academy, it's a lot, but if you look at the size of the country, it is still a relatively small amount. The larger objective is to see Development Academy clubs have a positive impact on their communities and local environments for affiliate clubs and non-Academy clubs in their areas.”