Academies: Soccer's Roadmap To Success
While MLS wraps up its current season, the continuing development of soccer academies is heating up. Recently, I’ve been getting into a few arguments, let’s call them spirited discussions, about the role of the new academy system in the US soccer landscape. The recent decision by the Portland Timbers to look into joining other Major League Soccer teams in establishing an academy is apparently raising some hackles in Oregon’s high school soccer community. This is similar to concerns raised by many established clubs in other markets when MLS teams began to get serious about youth development. When the Timbers fully dip their toe in the water, I doubt it will be a completely antagonistic relationship. From the Timbers perspective, it might be worth breaking a few sacred eggs. It’s not likely their academy will be poaching a large number of players. There could even be a symbiotic relationship as the Timbers encourage more athletes to play high school soccer. From the college ranks, you don't hear Maryland's Sasho Cirovski or Caleb Porter of Akron complain when their best players are poached by MLS. They turn their focus towards their remaining players in a continuing effort to get the best out of all of their players, not just goals and victories out of their best players. High school soccer can serve multiple purposes: entertainment, socialization, exercise and as a net to identify some soccer talent that might have slipped through earlier cracks. As far as siphoning a few players away, remember the purpose of high school is to get your degree and move on with your life. Club soccer, and the academies to a greater extent, serves a more specific purpose in providing training to players with soccer potential. (Unfortunately, with many clubs it's more common to substitute the word 'cash' for 'soccer potential' - but this is being rectified through the academy system.) I appreciate the concerns for a changed high school experience, but I think it's a bit of a buggy whip argument against the automobile. These kids can still go to school, and still play at school. In rare circumstances some might be tempted to bypass their high school camaraderie for a more intense training regimen. This could actually help them in their real quest in high school, which is to learn how to learn and prepare for the real world by instilling discipline and order to their angst and hormone-filled lives. I understand some high school coaches might feel threatened, even some of the better ones. You have to take a look at the reasons for their reaction. Is it because their best players might leave? If a coach is truly committed to player development he knows the players that enter an academy system will have access to much better training than they can deliver in a high school system. It’s more likely that battles will be waged because the high school coach believes it would be harder to win. However, the soccer community has argued for decades about changing the focus from winning to development. So, would these complaining coaches really have their players’ best interests at heart? Portland just needs to take a look at a slightly older expansion franchise in Toronto to see the danger of inaction. By identifying and developing local talent, the Timbers could take a big step towards becoming a winning franchise. Eventually, even once-rabid Ontario fans get tired of supporting a losing team. Toronto’s increased emphasis on their own academy structure shows that they have learned the lesson themselves. Young players of today are benefitting as former players with international experience step into the coaching scene. Claudio Reyna oversees youth development for the US Soccer Federation. Former national team playmaker Tab Ramos is heavily involved in New Jersey youth soccer. Many other US internationals and former MLS pros are intensifying the development cycle by sharing their knowledge and experience with the next generation at all levels around the country. All of that is important, but there is still the danger that the easily identifiable physical attributes will determine who enters and progresses in the academies. I believe it’s better to take the smartest, most creative players we have and teach them fitness, rather than the other way around. In addition, the establishment of academies should not deter MLS teams and the federation from looking elsewhere for talent. Both the US and Canada are too large for a traditional model to get the job done by itself, especially with the numerous immigrant soccer enclaves that have blossomed in near isolation. But perhaps Alecko Eskandarian is right. The former US international and new Philadelphia Union youth technical director believes the academy system is committed to ensuring the best players are identified and developed. I hope he’s right. The future of US soccer depends on it. For Portland specifically, with every player that goes through their academy system the Timbers would be developing deeper roots in the community - not just providing an outlet for entertainment every two or three weeks. If these talented high school-aged players succeed in their quest for a professional career, the Timbers will benefit directly on the field of play. For those that might fall by the wayside, those players will still have their high school degree, and perhaps another chance to prove their abilities as a late-bloomer in the college game. They will also have gained valuable experience in the academy system to help in the next stage of life, be it college or a career. Most importantly, having worn the jersey it's likely these players will become something even more essential than a professional player, and that is a lifelong fan. The more of those that MLS teams develop, the healthier soccer will be.