Featured, September 2014, U.S. soccer

European Youth Academies In US: Changing the Development Landscape?

Emerson Hyndman will have a great deal to say about US Soccer success in the future. But so will kids who develop at home.

Emerson Hyndman will have a great deal to say about US Soccer success in the future. But so will kids who develop at home.

David Tenenbaum

15 years ago, the United States Soccer Federation designed a plan to get their country to the final of the World Cup. The USSF was so confident in this plan that they set a deadline of 2010 to reach the final. 2010 came and went, and Ghana had slammed the door on the USSF’s plan for global soccer domination. It’s true that the USA had matured into a greater soccer nation by 2010, but not to the extent that the federation had hoped for, and there didn’t seem to be a very concrete plan to specifically develop talent for the national team and professional level into the future, aside from throwing money at the problem.

Enter Jurgen Klinsmann, the USA’s (then) new coach who was hired to change US Soccer from the top down. While the headline grabbing moves like the exclusion of senior players like Landon Donovan from the 2014 World Cup squad as may be seen by some as an example of Klinsmann’s reforms, there are other, more subtle changes that will have a longer lasting and further reaching influence on the future of US Soccer.

More specifically, I am talking about the US Developmental Academy program. Though the USDA program officially started in 2007, Klinsmann’s policies have seen it grow to be the focal point of US player development, at least under the current plan for growth. Given the healthy skepticism surrounding Klinsmann’s managerial tactics, particularly at the World Cup, these technical youth institutes may be the tipping point of Klinsmann’s legacy.

As opposed to past initiatives like the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, the USDA system is rather de-centralized and made up of many different youth clubs. All of these clubs have been vetted by the USSF and were selected for their ability to develop talent. As of this writing, 88 clubs have been “USDA approved” at the U13/14 level, with a similar but smaller number of clubs being approved for higher age groups. The idea is these clubs have shown in the past they have the infrastructure and human capital to succeed, so in return for working with the USSF to develop players, they are basically getting advertised by the USSF as the best clubs in their respective areas. Indeed, these clubs are expected to operate a little differently, and they are certainly expected to focus more on developing players before  winning trophies, an issue that has harmed US youth development in the past and continues to do so.

USDA clubs, like the Texas Rush (above), pave the way to easier access to US youth teams.

USDA clubs, like the Texas Rush (above), pave the way to easier access to US youth teams.

In addition, USDA clubs are given certain benefits – and responsibilities- by the USSF, and their players should reap the benefits. They are seen more often by USSF scouts, which increases opportunities for talented players to break into the national side scene at the youth level. It’s worth noting here that Klinsmann has also overseen a homogenization of tactics and philosophies of the various United States national team youth sides. This should allow for an easier transition through the youth and eventually senior teams for young players, and may translate into the US developing a style of play reflective of the vast diaspora that is its culture.

For all the good the USDA is doing, another trend has recently emerged.. European clubs are opening academies in the US, or they are sponsoring existing youth clubs. This trend doesn’t conflict with or threaten the USDA or USDA clubs, and in time this new trend will probably be closely linked with the USDA, but these clubs add an additional nuance to the world of youth development in America. While the “sponsorships” of various American youth sides by European clubs is nothing new, and indeed many USDA clubs have a European sponsor or affiliate, there are only a handful of academies in the US that are directly run by a foreign club.

Indeed, FC Internazionale, arguably the second most popular team in Italy, have just recently opened an academy in South Florida. Jurgen Klinsmann even took time out of his pre-World Cup preparations to baptize the new academy in a Youtube video. A few weeks after that, I had the opportunity to drive down to the academy and meet the staff.

The head trainer of this academy is former Inter and Italian national side defender Riccardo Ferri. He is assisted by two younger coaches, who are also involved with the logistics of running the academy. When I visited, the academy did not yet have their own space, and they still do not, instead using the facilities at Ponce De Leon Middle School in Coral Gables. Obviously the site was very apropos, as Inter and other clubs have come to America looking for a fountain of (talented) youth.

Former Inter and Italian national team man Ricardo Ferri heads Inter's new youth academy in Miami.

Former Inter and Italian national team man Ricardo Ferri heads Inter’s new youth academy in Miami.

The obvious advantage with this academy, and presumably with any academy run directly by a successful European club, is the coaching. While Signor Ferri’s English isn’t very strong – we spoke in Italian mostly – one of the younger coaches serves as a translator, and the ideas that Riccardo is communicating aren’t exactly limited by language: soccer is a universal language, a physical Esperanto. Riccardo worked with the older kids, while another coach, Sergio De Feudis, worked with the youngest of the children, many of whom appeared to be in their first few years of elementary school.

At the time of my visit, the US had just been eliminated from the World Cup, and the latter stages of the World Cup were still raging. Thus, World Cup fever was still very alive in the United States, and this excitement was evident in my conversation with Riccardo. “Little by little,” he noted “the World Cup has brought interest, therefore, we have to transmit this enthusiasm.”

There was also an additional enthusiasm, an enthusiasm from Riccardo and the other Inter Academy staff about building their academy from the ground up. While Inter are a large club with a global presence, the academy is still brand new and must establish itself on the local and national scene.

Riccardo sketched out the plan for me, in a general sense, as follows: “We want to be competitive with all the academies in Florida, not just in Miami. In 3-4 years, we want to be leaders in Florida. Leaders not only in the sense of [having] superior players, but [in being] a school different than the others. Where we teach soccer the Inter way.”

Riccardo uses the metaphor of a team as an orchestra to illustrate the club’s philosophies on developing youth “We want to create synergy, a group synergy. The coach works, it’s like an orchestra, he says “do re mi fa” and they say “so la ti do.”

This is music to the ears of those who are frustrated with US youth development, and yet in many ways these European academies are no different than any American club. While Inter – like many academies – offers a handful of scholarship to means-limited players, they still have to utilize the infamous “pay-to-play” system. The academy is associated with Inter but still needs to be economically self-sufficient, and thus our friend pay-to-play comes back. As Sergio bluntly explained “We have to charge kids to keep the business alive. We have expenses.”

A handful of Everton America youth in Connecticut...

A handful of Everton America youth in Connecticut…

It’s pretty obvious that the academy, and any self-sufficient youth club, would need to charge players. Pay-to-play is an unfortunate – and hopefully one day non-existent – part of the US youth development infrastructure. To be fair, it’s not like club teams are getting television revenues or particularly lucrative sponsorships, without a wealthy benefactor there’s no other way to keep an academy running without income.

This aspect could change in time, as the Inter academy’s future plans included expansions to other parts of Florida, and then perhaps elsewhere in the US. Additionally, the academy plans to one day be recognized as an official US Development Academy. The optimist in me imagines the Inter Academy as disrupting the youth club scene in Florida, and rising to prominence. But the optimist in me bases that for the most part off of Riccardo Ferri’s pedigree and the fact that Inter have a fair bit of experience in developing players.

Still, one might fear that the European academies are geared less at developing youth and more at growing the brand of a club within the US. A glance at a fixture list of summer friendlies in the US and it’s obvious to see that foreign clubs are trying to expose themselves to American fans. Indeed, Inter took part in the International Champions Cup the past two summers, and had they made it to the final of this year’s competition in Miami, the students of the Inter Academy would have had a chance to meet the senior side.

Other clubs are opening academies too. Barcelona, for example. Coincidentally it is also located in South Florida, in Cooper City. Boca Juniors are even getting in on the fun, having opened an academy in Long Island, New York. Ditto England’s Everton, whose “Everton America”  play in Connecticut. Certainly it can’t hurt to have these organizations dipping their toes into the US talent pool, but it might not be much of a boost either.

It’s far too early to speculate on the success of these clubs. It’s not even clear what metric the parent clubs are using to judge whether the development clubs stateside are a success. As US Soccer fans, developing youth to the point where they can be noticed by the parent club in Europe, or a professional club here in the US, would probably be considered a grand success. But for the academies, turning a profit and creating a fanbase would probably be considered just as much of a success, if not a priority.

At the very least, youngsters are being exposed to experienced coaches, in Inter Academy’s case, a coach who has played at the highest levels including the World Cup – and coincidentally, against the USA, in 1990 in Italy. When we spoke about the 2014 US World Cup campaign and his old teammate Klinsmann, Riccardo said that Jurgen had done “all he could with his material.” If these foreign academies, and the US Development Academy system, are a success, perhaps one day the US coach will be blamed for not doing enough with the talent he has, and not credited, as US coaches often – rightfully – are, with getting the most out of a side that isn’t necessarily the most talented.

2010 (and 2014) came and went without the US lifting a World Cup, but the USDA system has no hard deadline for success. Instead, it’s supposed to plant the seeds for organic youth development and growth in America. We can’t know if that has happened yet, but the answer will get clearer as each day passes.

David Tenenbaum is Editor-In-Chief of JuveFC.com and devout fan of the United States National Team. He hails from South Florida, but currently lives in Tallahassee. You can follow him on Twitter: @DTenenbaum

Daniel Seco