Waking up America

It's taken a long while to get through, but football is developing at a rapid rate in the US.  Throwing money at players in the Autumn of their careers is one thing, but getting an agreed 'grass roots' programme is another.  Welcome to IBWM, Nick Rosano.

There is no doubt Barcelona’s La Masia youth academy is exceptional, and this summer, the football world witnessed the yield of a world-class youth program on the game’s biggest stage. Eight of the 14 players that earned playing time in Spain’s victory in the World Cup final came out of La Masia, including the creator and the finisher of the lone goal.

Thousands of miles across the ocean, here in the United States, we are not so fortunate as to have a program of that caliber, and if the day ever does come where a team from the United States can boast such an achievement, it is surely a long way off.

Slowly but surely, though, directors and coaches around MLS are beginning to take notice of the potential of the academy, with plenty of potential reward given the convoluted state of the country’s youth football programs. While some of these issues are ones that come naturally as a country such as the United States grows into its footballing shoes, many of the problems are unique to the country, having pursued a sports business model that differs vastly from the rest of the world, and they start right at the early levels of youth football.

In youth football, especially at the higher levels, the emphasis is clearly on building a winning team and while player development is important, it is not always first priority. Part of this is due to the fact that between 1984 and 1996 there was no outdoor professional league, while another part is due to the fact that since high schools and colleges benefit from having a successful athletics program, coaches often focus on hard work, physicality, fitness and constructing a cohesive unit, rather on than developing individual players. While this in itself is not entirely a bad thing, the problem exists that since many youth players play for both their school and their club side, they were forced to play up to 100 games per year, thoroughly exhausting many and hindering their development.

It is necessary, however, to recognize that some of the top prospects did get a chance to train in a more competitive environment, with the best young players in the United States recruited to attend the IMG Football Academy in Bradenton, Fla., to study and train. This initiative, started in 1999 and combined with the Generation Adidas project, was aimed at raising the level of youth football and to find potential national team talents.

While those programs were a step in the right direction and produced their fair share of prospects, including names such as Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore and Oguchi Onyewu, they still suffered from some of the same pitfalls that other youth teams did, namely a packed schedule and a relative lack of exposure to the professional game that one would receive while training with a top-level club. While professional football in Florida possesses a recent history marred by the collapse of two MLS teams, contact with the professional game was severely restricted by the NCAA, the governing body of college athletics and firmly committed to keeping an amateur system in the world of collegiate sports.

However, football administrators across the country have started to wise up. After managing only a point at the 2006 World Cup and with MLS teams routinely faltering in the region’s flagship club competition, known then as the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup, the league implemented a rule in 2007 that required each club maintain a development academy with teams in at least two age brackets and a full-time coaching staff. Furthermore, any players signed from the academy would not take up a normal roster spot when the team registered its players. The idea behind this initiative was to ease the burden on the top talents in the country by giving them more practice time in a professional environment while playing fewer games, but against better opponents, partly made possible by an easing of NCAA restrictions on contact with the professional game.

The system established in 2007 has already produced some impressive results, with four-time MLS champion D.C. United leading the way. The team has been dabbling in youth development since 2001 and now runs a nationally renowned program on a $500,000 annual budget, according to ESPN. That may seem like a paltry amount in comparison with the kind of money programs in Europe throw around, but in a league where each team’s wage budget is capped at $2.55 million annually (excluding the Designated Players, who are exempt from salary restrictions), it is an impressive total.

In September 2009, United signed academy product Bill Hamid as its first ever academy-grown player. Hamid, a goalkeeper who is now 19 years of age, has featured for the United States youth national teams and, injuries notwithstanding, has distinguished himself as one of the few bright spots in a dismal 2010 campaign for United. He was even linked with a move to Celtic before the start of the season, but saw his move derailed by work permit issues.

One D.C. United academy player for whom a move to Europe surely beckons though is 17 year-old phenomenon Andy Najar, who is already the subject of a fierce tug-of-war between the United States national team and that of his native Honduras. The lively winger, blessed with a deft touch and an immense work rate, has already scored five goals in 24 appearances with the senior team including one slaloming run that left defenders a decade older than him in the dust. Najar signed for the D.C. Untied academy in 2007 and, with the club taking full charge of his education in 2010, he has flourished in the professional atmosphere of a club as storied as D.C. United.

In August 2010, though, defending MLS champions Real Salt Lake took the academy idea a step further. Instead of reaching out to youth in the 75 mile radius prescribed by the league in its 2007, Salt Lake has been reaching out across six states in a search to bring in the best talent available to its facility in the Arizona desert. Academy director and former US international Greg Vanney has emphasized that the primary goal of the facility is not to put out winning youth teams, but to develop players with character and skill that will go on to have successful careers with the senior side or elsewhere in the professional game with an eye towards providing players for the national team.

Part of what separates academies such as Salt Lake’s from the existing IMG Football Academy is the sheer volume of talent the academy will be designed to take in. Whereas the IMG Academy started with 20 players and now takes in classes of 40, the Salt Lake academy will house up to 80 players, looked after by a staff with professional playing experience and the top coaching qualifications in the United States. Combine this with first team exposure, and you have a youth program unprecedented in the history of the United States, and it won’t stop with Salt Lake.

The idea of a residential academy has also been pursued by the Vancouver Whitecaps, who play in the ever-fluctuating second division and are slated, along with fellow second tier side Portland Timbers, to become the 17th and 18th MLS teams starting in 2011. FC Dallas, Colorado Rapids, New York Red Bulls and Chicago Fire, three of the more storied franchises in MLS, are also gearing up to establish their own residential academies, with Dallas and to a lesser extent New York already seeing some positive results from their own local academy systems.

With a country such as the United States that is developing at an accelerated pace in football terms, things are constantly in flux. It is difficult to predict just how much of an impact residential academies will have, but if the visions of those who believe in the system come to pass, then the football establishment will have transformed its youth program into one that can effectively utilize the immense talent base that is unique to the United States. There may not be a La Masia anytime soon, but even a project of that scale has to start somewhere.

Nick writes regularly for goal.com and you can follow him on twitter @nicholasrosano

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