The U.S. Soccer Development Academy continues to look for ways to improve the talent that is being filtered up to the U.S. Men’s National Team. The Oct. 16 announcement that the Academy program will be expanding to the under-12 age group in the fall of 2016 serves as further evidence of that.
“We are very excited to expand and introduce the Academy structure and philosophy to the U-12 age group when players are in their peak learning years,” U.S. Soccer Youth Technical Director Tab Ramos told ussoccerda.com. “That age represents a critical stage in a player’s growth, and this move represents another important step in our expanded efforts to improve elite player development.”
U.S. Soccer has been revamping its development program since current national team head coach Jürgen Klinsmann was hired in 2011, modeling it after the European programs which have produced highly-respected professional players and successful international teams.
In the fall of 2012, a controversial rule was introduced which prohibited Academy players from participating in high school athletics. At the time, the Academy only had teams in the U-15 to U-18 age groups. In 2013, they expanded to U-13 and U-14, and U-12 is being viewed as the next step in the process.
According to U.S. Soccer, there are currently 88 clubs across the country with U-13/14 Academy teams and 79 with teams at the U-15/16 and U-17/18 age levels.
“It’s not a surprise,” FC Westchester director of operations Michael Mingione said of the U-12 announcement. “There has been discussion about it with the (U.S. Soccer) Federation, I would say for at least nine months.”
FC Westchester is the only fully-sanctioned Academy program in the Lower Hudson Valley, meaning that all of its age groups up to U-18 fall under the control of U.S. Soccer. Other local clubs, such as New York Soccer Club in Westchester and World Class FC in Rockland, only have Academy teams for the U-13/14 age groups.
All three local clubs have had U-12 programs in place for years and are awaiting word from U.S. Soccer about whether those teams will attain Academy status next year.
“It’s not our choice whether we get (a sanctioned U-12 team) or not,” New York Soccer Club director of coaching Christian Gonzalez said. “It’s the Federation’s choice. It’s our assumption that we will get it, but they haven’t confirmed that officially.”
The older age groups for New York Soccer Club and World Class Soccer are not associated with the Academy. Once they age out of U-14, those players are free to play for their high school teams. That trend has been glaring this season, with several high school teams adding talented juniors and seniors from those clubs.
“It’s a big decision that the kids make,” Mingione said. “What we’ve seen this year more than in years past is they have decided that they wanted to go back and play high school with their friends because it’s probably the last time that they’re going to be able to do it. We’ve seen an increase in the number of kids that wanted to go back.”
For obvious reasons, most high school coaches are opposed to the Academy rule. It dilutes the talent pool and deprives student-athletes of the opportunity to play with their peers and represent their communities.
But Tappan Zee coach Jon Jacobs has a unique perspective. Not only is he a successful high school coach, he’s also involved with coaching Academy players at World Class Soccer.
“It certainly effects high soccer when a number of the top players in the area cannot represent their high school teams,” Jacobs said. “At Tappan Zee, we had one of our top young players opt to participate in the Academy program at World Class this fall. On one hand, I would have loved to have had this player play this year in my program, but on the other, I do understand the opportunities that lie ahead when you play in the Academy.
“Playing and excelling at an Academy will offer players opportunities at the college level and beyond that they simply cannot get anywhere else. Players certainly can get to the next level through high school soccer and playing on very competitive non-Academy programs, but it is hard overlook the potential opportunities that an Academy can offer.”
The Academy’s expansion to U-12 means that players will have to make their decision at an even younger age now, but as Gonzalez pointed out, most club players have traditionally not played for their middle schools. It’s the idea of not playing for their high school teams once they get older which they find bothersome.
The main difference will be that the U-12 teams will now have to play by the rules of U.S. Soccer.
“By now being an Academy team, what that will do is essentially, A) It’ll be recognition, and B) The training regime will be a little bit different,” Mingione said. “It will be more frequent than what they’ve been doing and the level of coaching will improve. The head coaches will have to have a mandatory (U.S. Soccer Federation) B license. The kids will be better coached and follow more strict player development guidelines in accordance with U.S. Soccer Development.”
The end goal is to improve of the standing of U.S. Soccer around the globe.
“In light of the national team programming and the state of where it’s at, they’re under a lot of pressure to produce world class players,” Gonzalez said.