At the youth level, it normally takes a special set of skills to be able to compete against older players. Negotiating the physicality, faster game speed and quicker thinking required to “play up” isn’t something easily attainable for most 14- or 15-year-old athletes.
For the first time, members of the U.S. U-14 Boys’ National Team player pool are becoming full-time Development Academy members and, in a couple cases, are playing within the U-15/16 age group as 14-year-olds during the 2011-12 Development Academy season.
“Here in America, sometimes people worry about the physical aspect – that young players might not be able to compete with older kids,” said U.S. U-14 BNT
head coach and National Team technical advisor Hugo Perez, a former U.S. National Team member and veteran of the 1994 World Cup squad. “I look at it in a
different way. If they are talented enough, it will take them a couple months to adjust to the physical part because they have the technical part.”
Perez outlined how the integration of the entire structure of U.S. Soccer – from the Development Academy and U-14 BNT up through the Senior National Team – creates an ideal environment for players possessing the requisite technical skills to compete with older age groups to attain increased exposure to National Team staff and accelerated technical and mental development. This concept of players continually being challenged to move to a higher level has been at the forefront of the platform presented by U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
“They get challenged more,” Perez said. “When they’re playing against their own age, they’re the best and it becomes so easy that they’re not learning. When they play up it is better competition for them and their development mentally becomes much better because at older ages they are quicker so that means they have to think faster to be able to adjust to it.”
“If a 14-year-old is playing up and they can adjust, then the Development Academy benefits because now they don’t have to wait a year or two for them to develop into that level and you get more out of the player,” Perez said. “That’s why we feel it’s positive. The Development Academy coaches need to identify that the players are talented enough to be playing up. Then they need to be patient with them because they’re going to make mistakes. Once they get it, it’s going to benefit the whole program for the future.”
This year, U-14 BNT members George Braima (Crew Soccer Academy) and Joshua Perez (Chivas USA) joined the U-15/16 level as full-time players for their respective Academy teams.
Both Braima and Perez made 18 appearances during the 2011-12 Development Academy season as the youngest players on their teams and traveled to the Development Academy Playoffs this week at the FC Dallas Stadium Complex in Frisco, Texas. Chivas USA and Crew Soccer Academy participated in the event as part of the Showcase portion as neither team qualified for the Playoffs during the regular season.
“As soon as we feel a player is ready, for us it’s a priority to get them up into a more competitive environment because the highest level is what we hope they achieve – the Youth National Team and eventually the senior National Team,” said Billy Thompson, head coach of Crew Soccer Academy’s U-15/16 team. “To replicate what that is like physically, speed of play and competitively, we can accomplish that by playing those guys up.”
Having the positive support of coaches, advisors and staff will help players transition and adapt to training and playing at a more competitive level where they’re expected to listen, learn and grow as people and players.
“There’s always a learning curve where players make progress and at some point when they’re challenged a little more their level drops, but they push through and figure some things out on the field and progress back to the same level and start to adapt more,” Thompson said. “That’s where they make their most progress.”