Within the past five to ten years, the United States has gained attention as a growing force in world soccer. There are more players taking their games to the top flights of world football, including the English Premier League and the German Bundesliga. With a football legend in Jurgen Klinsmann managing the US national team, we could see a rise in player performance for the United States at the international level. Having noted this, youth player development and skill is a question needing an answer in how it will reach the level of the top teams in Europe and around the world.
Until approximately five to ten years ago, club soccer was considered the best way to improve all aspects of a player’s game and was the highest level of play for youths. The Olympic Development Program (ODP), a national organization devoted to finding the best players from each state in each age group, has traditionally had some of the best coaches one can find in the US. Many of these coaches played in notable leagues around the world, some even at the international level. The country has four regions, where players from each region go to regional camps based on their states. After the 40 player regional pool is picked, the best players from each region are sent to the national pool, granting them the opportunity to be a part of the US Men’s National Team pool. This way of choosing the best players in the country has dwindled with the newly established soccer academies around the US. For the most part, these academies are growing out of many original US clubs. In a sense, academies are a combination of club and ODP. They have slowly been draining the once-strong clubs of players, and will soon take over as the next step in US soccer.
As a former club and ODP player, I am excited to see this new transformation in US youth soccer, but I continue to believe that it may not be a step towards matching other country’s youth development programs. In Europe, players are spotted at an early age and placed into a true football academy. The players are watched intensely throughout their growth as players. They are gradually cut from the programs until the very best players are left. These youths play almost the entire year, and attend school at their academies where they train for football. This prioritizing of football is what allows them to develop into the players that we admire in the professional game. Unfortunately, it would be difficult to register the idea in the United States because of established college soccer. College takes time away from training, and many young college-age players are already professionals in Europe. This allows them to devote a significant amount of time to the game, in contrast to the United States where players spend less time on the field and more time getting a college education. A college education is valuable, but it is clear that the majority of European players are more skilled than American players in all aspects of the game, and the education is something they are willing to give up. I believe that for the United States to match the rest of the world in skill, we will need to build academies of this nature.
I am hoping to see a change in the way the United States approaches soccer throughout the next decade. The US has the potential to be a power in the most popular game around the world, and it is not far from reach.