As the U.S. Soccer Development Academy continues to evolve, clubs in Southern California have come together to raise the bar like never before in terms of player development.
Earlier this year, the 10 clubs in the SoCal Division of the Academy formed a new league, the Southern California Development Soccer League, to help support a better player development environment and move away from the traditional league model.
During discussions about the new league, the group determined ways to enhance player development initiatives even further and nine of the 10 clubs decided to move away from all other leagues and competitions – including high school – and commit to a 10-month Academy season in 2011-12. That pivotal move allows the players to focus solely on training at least three times per week with their Academy club and play just one competitive game per weekend instead of two.
“We had discussions with the Academy Technical Advisors about how to improve the Academy teams, where we were going with this program and these ideas,” explained Irvine Strikers Director of Coaching Don Ebert. “Once we started getting together to talk about these issues, it kind of just came together. We started talking about our options that are now available to us and then this idea just kept coming up.”
Though the clubs came together as an independent group to create this new format, the Development Academy technical staff has been in full support.
“We are 100 percent behind this plan for these clubs,” said Tony Lepore, U.S. Soccer Technical Advisor. “This decision was not taken lightly and we’ve helped these clubs work on their schedule to get it right. There was a lot of conversation during the whole process, but we are very supportive of this move and we’re very excited to help them any way we can.”
Lepore explained that this schedule, which will have the Academy clubs together from September through June, or July based on postseason play, has been the goal of the Academy since its inception.
“From the start of Academy program, we wanted to close the gap with the top footballing nations in the world,” he said. “[The 10-month schedule] is what a typical elite soccer player's schedule looks like around the rest of the world. We are incredibly excited about this. It’s been a long time coming.”
Chivas USA Director of Youth Development Sacha van der Most agrees that the new schedule was needed for the elite players in the area.
“We’d been playing games from September into December, then taking a three and a half month break and that’s just too much,” said Chivas USA Director of Youth Development Sacha van der Most. “For the development of the players it’s better if there’s continuity and if players are deciding that they want to try to make a career out of soccer, I think it’s better this way.”
With the improved training environments established in Academy clubs, more time spent with clubs will help the elite player even more, and Ebert believes that clubs across the country will be able to use Southern California as a model.
“I don’t think there is any doubt that in a year or two, this will be the model all Academy clubs across the country will want to be doing,” Ebert said. “That’s the ultimate goal. If every player who is committed to the Academy played this schedule, there would be one clear picture of what it’s all about."
The revised schedule also has room for more friendly competition dates that meet Academy technical standards. This will allow all Academy teams to participate in current youth tournaments such as Dallas Cup and international competition without crowding the Academy schedule.
“That’s the biggest thing, spreading out the games” said Ebert. “Everybody thinks ‘oh they’re young’ and of course the player can play two games on a weekend. But they were playing non-stop and I think it was starting to have a negative effect, especially on the top elite players. We saw a leveling off of the elite player and that’s the exact opposite of what this program was created for.”
Van der Most could see his team’s level of play dropping off when it was slated for a game on Saturday that was followed closely by a game on Sunday morning. Though there will still be a need for some double-fixture weekends for non-Division games, the Chivas USA coach is excited for his players.
“It benefits the players tremendously but it also benefits the level of the game,” said van der Most. “If you play on a Saturday and you’ve got a game on Sunday morning again, the level of the game isn’t going to be as high. We want this to be the top league in the country and we want to have the best circumstances for our players every time they step on the field.”
Overall, the Technical Advisors and coaches alike are excited about the idea of nearly year-round programming for clubs. Not only will there be a less congested schedule, as Ebert points out, there is now a clear level of commitment to these clubs and the Academy program.
“This will provide clarity and simplification for our players and their families,” he said. "They can now look at the Academy, know exactly what he’s committing to, exactly what the parameters and the expectations are. It wasn’t that way. We were all going in different directions and the preparation for all the teams here were different.”
Lepore recognizes that it is a high level of commitment for these players, but it’s a commitment that elite players have to make.
“Within the Academy, we deal with developing the elite soccer player,” he said. “There is no doubt focusing solely on their Academy team will enhance their soccer development. We’re talking about a group of players that want to continue at the next level, whether that is professional or college, which is still the destination for a majority of our graduates.”
Whether players in the Academy move on to college or into a professional environment, they have had the opportunity to grow within the best possible training environment.