By Mia O’Neill
As soccer in the United States continues to grow, emulating the European game has become a primary goal among top American teams.
As a result, there’s been a surge of investment in youth soccer development in recent years. Following the models of Europe’s biggest clubs, Major League Soccer teams have turned unprecedented attention toward their academies, offering promising youngsters highly-structured technical and tactical training with the goal of producing players for their first teams.
The objective of the MLS academy system is to provide a direct path to professional soccer with affiliation to a club, said Dave Sanford, operations coordinator for the D.C. United Academy and head coach of the club’s under-12 team. To Sanford, professionalization of youth soccer in the U.S. has been huge.
“For us, [the difference] is pretty evident,” Sanford said.
He cited the importance of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, in which MLS academies and other top youth teams play, in showcasing and developing talent on a national level.
College coaches are also seeing a difference. Sasho Cirovski, longtime coach of the top-ranked Maryland men’s soccer team, said he’s noticed a significant rise in the level of players he’s recruited in recent years.
Cirovski said that the American game “has improved almost exponentially,” and attributed this in part to the work of academy systems.
Because of their proximity, the D.C. United academy and Maryland share a special partnership. Five of the Terps’ 11 starters in their 2-1 win over Hofstra on Oct. 21 were United academy alums.
“Having multiple kids that knows us, and we know them, works very, very well,” Cirovski said of his program’s familiarity with the academy.
But although academies have helped the men’s college game, there’s doubt among club staffs as to whether the college route — even that of top-tier Division I powerhouses like Maryland — is of best service to top prospects coming out of academies. At United, Sanford said, the primary objective is to develop players ready to compete at the highest level of the game: the profressional level. He said college soccer is seen as a secondary option, but added it can be a “great option” for players who may need more time to develop before going pro.
Those who make it straight into the pros from youth level are still a minority, but it’s a trend that’s growing. Following the model of famed European academies like Ajax and Barcelona, renowned for giving their youth a chance, Sanford said “homegrown” players are of huge pride at United. He pointed to recent examples like Chris Durkin, who, at 16, made his debut for the first team this summer. Bill Hamid, current United starting goalkeeper and 2014 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, is also a homegrown player.
If players do well within the academy, Sanford said, they’ll have their chance to prove they deserve a shot with the first team.
Sanford said the key is to get kids into the club earlier. It’s more challenging for older players coming from other systems to adapt to the rigors and specific style of D.C. United academy training, he said.
One criticism of the academy system is that there’s too much focus on development and not enough fostering of competitiveness in young players. Cirovski said he thinks players coming to his team from academy environments “don’t get enough of the competitive intensity” required to perform in front of thousands of people.
But Sanford said that the challenging nature of the training itself nurtures competitiveness and ability to perform under pressure.
“We strive to put kids out of their comfort zone,” he said. “That promotes growth.”
He added that new academy players consistently comment on how fast-paced the training is compared to their previous teams.
Additionally, Sanford said young players face considerable challenges logistically. Training is, at minimum, three times a week, not counting travel to matches and possible long-distance commutes from home to practice. But he said it’s vital at D.C. United that the academy be a nurturing, as well as competitive, environment.
Sanford believes feeling connection to the club is important. Part of what makes United’s academy system special, he said, is that youth players train side-by-side with the first team on the RFK Stadium grounds.
In addition, Sanford said the United academy employs a specific coordinator who helps the kids with homework, SAT prep and “all aspects of social welfare.”
They also work to ensure that the best players can come to United regardless of their economic situation. Though United’s academy is not yet fully-funded like some MLS youth systems, Sanford said there’s a significant “scholarship spectrum” in place, and they do everything they can to make sure deserving players get a place in the academy.
“We’re never going to turn a [qualified] kid away that wants to be a part of D.C. United,” he explained.
He added that most academy players have had extremely positive experiences with the system.
“We find that most kids, when they come here, end up loving it,” Sanford said. “We don’t really have a problem with losing players once they come.”