The United States Soccer Development Academy recently completed its 10th season and local soccer coaches question whether the Academy has been a worthwhile venture.
Despite some skepticism, the Academy is preparing for the inaugural season on the female side.
The mission of the Academy is to, “Impact everyday club environments to develop world-class players,” according to their official website. A philosophy of increased, and more focused training, along with less total games that are more meaningful are some of the areas of focus for the Academy.
Development Academy teams must train a minimum of four days per week with one rest day. A team will play between 25 and 30 league games per season including six to nine games that are played at showcases. If a team were to qualify for the playoffs, they can expect to play up to three additional games.
Elizabethtown Area High School girls soccer coach Keith Renner said that one of his many concerns about the Academy is their claim that there are fewer total games. The Elizabethtown girls high school season totaled 22 games, including a deep playoff run.
“I don’t know what less total games means because when you’re talking 30-plus games, that’s less total games than what? That’s a high number of games. It’s a lot of games, but it is over a spread out period of time, but it is a lot of games. There is a lot of traveling with those games as well. Teams that are playing locally are going to play in New York, Virginia and New Jersey,” Renner said.
The Academy season is held from September until mid-July each year. The Elizabethtown girls soccer 2017 schedule is set to run from Aug. 22 until Oct. 11.
Manheim Township middle school girls soccer coach John Shetromph does not believe that the Academy season should overlap with the high school season, “It’s not in the best interest of the player,” he said.
Another point on contention for Renner is the Academy’s rule that does not allow athletes on Academy clubs to participate in non-Academy competitions.
“To maintain a focus on training, Academy teams do not play in any other leagues, tournaments, State Cup competitions, ODP or All-Star events without written permission from the U.S. Soccer Development Academy staff. Full-time Academy players can only participate on their designated Academy team, with only one exception: National Team duty. Development Academy players for all teams must choose to participate in the Academy full-time and forgo playing for his high school team,” the Academy website states.
This rigid rule has lead Renner to question why the Academy is not more flexible in the way that they handle allowing athletes to participate in high school athletics.
“It would be great if they would start to form relationships with some of the high school teams and allow exceptions. I’d like for them to come out and evaluate some of the high school programs and say, ‘Your high school program has this, this, this and this. You have a good high school program or a program that meets our criteria that we say is going to help develop a player.’ If you play for E-Town and you meet the criteria then they should grant an exception so you can play for your high school and come back to play in the spring,” Renner said.
Elizabethtown’s leading man did acknowledge that there are some high school programs that are weaker and this exception would not impact whether it be to a lack of proper coaching or lack of skilled players.
“I could see why it wouldn’t make sense for some high schools, but if you are going to a high school where you don’t have competition or players around you to make you better, you’re not going to want to play there anyway,” Renner said. “You’re going to want to play for the Academy if you love soccer and you’re really good at it and the girls around you aren’t. It would be nice to work together rather than just exclude.”
Shetromph differed with Renner’s proposition and did not believe that the Academy should evaluate high school programs.
“How do you deal with the Academy saying that you don’t have a program that is worthwhile? How would that go over?” Shetromph asked.
The Development Academy touts professionalized coaching as a benefit of the program. All Academy coaches are required, at minimum, to have a B license. Academy directors are required, at minimum, to have an A license. Licenses are issued by the U.S. Soccer Federation.
In order to obtain a B license applicants must be 18 years of age, have held a U.S. soccer ‘C’ license for at least 12 months or have three or more years of coaching experience at any level, are currently coaching/working in an appropriate soccer environment. The total duration of the course is listed as taking four to five months to complete.
Renner said that he and his entire coaching staff have coaching licenses which could be one of the requirements to allow for an exception from the Academy.
“We’ve all been coaching for a long number of years and there’s no secret to it. Everybody’s coaching developed differently and had different experiences, different starting points and different reasons why they got into coaching. No one person is the same as somebody else. You can always learn something from a coach if you talk to them. Always,” Renner said.
Additional areas that should be considered for exceptions, according to Renner, are number of years of coaching experience, a demonstrated ability to show that former players have gone on to play at higher levels and that past teams have proven to be competitive.
“If you can show all of that, how is that different than Development Academy? How is that any different from someone trying to develop kids or a program? I think it’s all the same, but you’re saying it differently,” Renner said.
A factor that cannot be ignored with youth athletics is the growing time commitment that is necessary to play a given sport. The NCAA released a study in January of 2016 that analyzed the student-athlete experience at the Division I, II and III levels.
The percentage of Division I male athletes that specialized in soccer by the age of 12 was the highest of any sport at 68 percent. The numbers were very similar at the Division II level as 67 percent of male athletes specialized by the age of 12. Tennis was the closest at 56 percent. The Division III level saw 59 percent of male athletes specialize by age 12.
Statistics for women playing collegiate soccer were not much different. At the Division I level, 62 percent of female athletes specialized by age 12. Division II had 64 percent and Division III had 57 percent.
The study also examined the number of student-athletes that played on a club team, or a similar non-school team, during high school. Ninety-three percent of men playing soccer at any collegiate level reported that they had and 95 percent of women reported the same.
The male rate was the highest of any sport and the female rate was second behind gymnastics at 99 percent.
The combination of these factors is what leads Renner to question whether or not the U.S. Development Academy has been a success since its inception in 2007.
“Nothing has really been shown to anyone that what is happening in the Development Academy program is making a difference for players or for teams or for our national program. There’s been nothing documented that says this is working because of this thing or this thing. I don’t know that you can put your finger on one or more things that are going to make us stand out as a country over another one by having a program like this,” Renner said.
Beginning with the 2007-08 season, 19 alumni of the Academy have earned a call-up to the men’s national team. A total of 1,250 Academy players earned youth national call-ups. More than 160 former Academy players have played Major League Soccer.
The Academy website also states that U.S. Soccer has provided $2.13 million in scholarships to 1,523 Academy players since 2008.
“I believe that kids are going to get noticed whether they were in a development program or outside of a development program. They will get noticed,” Renner said. “How many days a week they train, how many meaningful games they have is nice if you love soccer and that’s all you want to do, but I think it takes away from development when all you do is one sport or only have one trainer.”
Shetromph shares Renner’s concerns about player development including their ability as a leader of a program.
“Playing sports for a community is huge. If a better player is taken away from a high school group that means they don’t get to have a maturation process as a leader because they’re playing with other highly skilled players. The high-school side is a great thing that these kids don’t get to experience. Walking down the hallway and being a hero is a wonderful experience and you don’t get that with a club,” Shetromph said.
He also analyzed the overall sports landscape and, in his view, soccer is the only sport that has this “problem.”
“No other sport has something like this. The only one affected is soccer. If it was all right to do this, then why aren’t other sports doing it?” Shetromph asked.
The Manheim Township coach also recalled a conversation that he had with two-time FIFA World Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist Julie Foudy.
“I spoke to her at a clinic about a year ago and asked her point blank what she thought about the Development Academy. Her reply was that her high school experience playing soccer were the best memories that she has,” Shetromph recalled. “She said, ‘I played for the U.S. national team for 18 years. High school soccer certainly didn’t mess up my development.’”
The U.S. Development Academy did not respond to questions by press time.