With a Year Under Their Belts, Minnesota Thunder Academy and Shattuck-St.Mary’s Look Forward to 2nd Season in U.S. Soccer Development Academy
Minnesota Thunder Academy’s Boys Director Rob Zahl and Shattuck-St. Mary’s Director of Soccer Tim Carter reflect on their first season in the Development Academy and look forward to the coming year.
The weekend of November 19th and 20th will see Minnesota’s two U.S. Soccer Development Academy programs back in action for the 2011-2012 season. The Minnesota Thunder Academy (MTA) and Shattuck-St. Mary’s School (SSM) will take on the Chicago Fire and Chicago Magic, with MTA playing its games at McMurray Field in Como Park and SSM playing at Parade Stadium in Faribault, MN.
While both teams are back in action there will be some changes for the programs after this season. Three divisions are going to a 10-month season this year. In the fall of 2012 all teams will go to the longer season.
“We move into a new year where everyone is looking to improve on the one before, and that’s always the case,” said U.S. Soccer Youth Technical Director Claudio Reyna. “It’s exciting for our staff, our Technical Advisors to start working with the teams shortly and hopefully they can improve from last year.”
“The clubs that are going to a 10-month season is the most important change,” said Reyna. “Planning for a 10-month season is something new for them, but will provide the players more time to train which is important for their development. Around the world, kids at the U-15/16 and U-17/18 age level play for 10 months and they train more than our kids, so this helps us close that gap. It’s an exciting move for the Academy clubs to commit more overall hours to this environment.”
The 10-month season will mean that Minnesota’s best soccer players will no longer be playing high school soccer next fall. The Development Academy season will overlap with the Minnesota State High School League season, meaning MTA players will not be eligible for high school play. The longer season is actually an advantage to Minnesota’s other Development Academy team, Shattuck-St. Mary’s School. In the past, Tim Carter, Boys Director of Soccer at Shattuck-St. Mary’s and the U-17/18 Head Coach, would have to go looking for teams to play scrimmages against in the fall which was not always an easy task with the college and high school season in full swing. SSM has never been involved with the high school soccer program in Minnesota. The longer season will allow his teams to play more meaningful games in the fall.
The first year for MTA and SSM brought mixed results for both clubs. “I told my boys (U-17/18s) last December, if we could finish the year at .500 I would consider that a success,” said Carter. “We finished the season 8-8-8.”
Carter says he knew going into his first season that because of the two-year delay of inclusion in the Development Academy, he missed out on recruiting some kids who otherwise would most likely have gone to Shattuck. He also knew the first year for the oldest age levels would be difficult. “It’s awful hard for the older age levels to understand what you’re going to go up against. For most teams that join the academy, the first is a learning year for everyone, players, coaches alike as far as what are the challenges you face. You can talk about all this but until you actually have had to travel and play back-to-backs, it’s hard. You are playing against other teams who have been involved in the academy for 2 to 3 years and they’re used to it. Although the comparison is a bit extreme, think about teams in England that go from Championship to Premiership.”
Carter said there are other factors that first year Development Academy players must adjust to. “The level of competitiveness within all the divisions is very high. Because of the nature of the length of the season, the number of games, travel, illness and other things, you will have ups and downs in a season.”
“Someone asked me what the competitiveness was like with the Development Academy and I compared it to what it used to be like to go to the USYSA regional championships before the Development Academy came along. Every game is difficult!”
“I felt our U-15s and 16s did well with the time we had to recruit for their age and the first year in the Academy. They actually did a bit better than the older group.”
Carter’s U-15/16 team finished with a very respectable 10-5-6 which landed them 5th in the Frontier Division. The U-17/18’s 8-8-8 record left them with a 6th place finish out of 8 teams in the Frontier Division.
The Minnesota Thunder Academy’s U-15/16 also had a good season going 11-5-5, leaving them 4th in Frontier Division. However, the U-17/18s had a rough season with a 3-14-4 record and came in last place in their division.
Director of Scouting and Technical Advisor for the Northeast Division Tony Lepore recently told U.S. Soccer in September, “We are in the process of sharing last season’s evaluations with all the Development Academy clubs right now and so one of the things I think is very clear heading into next season is we are raising the bar. Our standards for grading are now based on comparisons with top international academies. Headed into this season we are stressing improvement in areas like style of play, we need to see more Academy teams playing an offensive style based on possession and build-up.”
Minnesota’s two Development Academy programs were evaluated and that information was shared with the organizations. Rob Zahl, Boys Director for MTA, said because of those evaluations and areas of improvement the club recognized themselves last winter, a number of changes were made for this coming Development Academy season.
“I think the first year was a good learning experience,” said Zahl. “We improved from start to finish. But we obviously need to make some changes for this next year. Based on what we saw from other clubs and from our coaches we needed to make some improvements.”
“The U-15/16’s results were very good. They are a very athletic team and also moved the ball around pretty well even though the division we play in is very challenging.”
Like Carter, Zahl said that his older players struggled with jumping into academy play against teams who have been playing in the league for 3 or 4 years. “We need to make our rosters a bit bigger due to injuries and we lost one of our best players (Eric Miller) to college early on in the season.”
Zahl said they also learned that senior-itis sets in for the older players because they have so much on their pallet in their final year of high school. That’s another reason why he says MTA will expand this year’s roster, so players can take a weekend off if needed. Zahl said he had 19 rostered last year but a player went down with injury early leaving them with 18 and then dropped again when Miller left. This year he looks to have a pool of between 22-24 players.
“I didn’t figure we’d be rock stars our first year,” Zahl said. “I think what we did prove this past season is that our Minnesota boys can compete with everyone else in the country. But we do have to improve. We will do a lot more training together as a pool. We will have a lot more conversations with the coaching staff as a group and develop a style of play that will flow through the U-15s to the U-18s.”
“In addition, administratively we need to improve. From registration to field scheduling will all improve with a dedicated individual to do the administrative work this season. Last season much of that was passed off to the coaches and we need to have the best environment for our coaches to do what they do best.”
MTA has also made some coaching staff changes this season. Jon Lowery, Hamline University Men’s head coach, will return as the U-17/18 head coach. Donny Mark, who moved back to the Twin Cities from China last year, will join the staff as technical director and Tod Herskovitz, who has been with MTA since it’s inception, will take the lead as the U-15/16 head coach.
“Last year we ran this as two separate teams and that just doesn’t work,” said Zahl. “This year we will be running the two groups as a pool. There will be more training and improved training.”
Even though the competitive nature of the Development Academy was better than what Carter’s teams have experienced, he was still disappointed with quality of play. “Where I can sing high praises for the level of competitiveness I still say the quality of soccer, my teams included, across the board is not good enough – from a technical perspective that leads us to play better soccer.”
Carter says he believes the superior athleticism and competitive mentality of players can sometimes hurt them as they rely too much on those components and not enough on their technical skill and ability to think on their feet. “The competitive mentality and the athleticism of our players I rate high. But sometimes I wonder if those things are enough to carry us through. Quite honestly I don’t think it is. Based upon the skills of our players and the decisions they make, those are still the frontiers for us yet to achieve. There has been huge growth in the game and the Development Academy has been another huge boost to quality of the game. But far too often I see a change of possession because of poor controlling of the ball, poor striking of the ball or simply thinking too slow and moving too late. It’s that mental speed and the game intelligence, those are the things that I watched the players and said even though we’ve pushed the ceiling up we still have lots and lots of work to do.”
Zahl agrees with Carter. “We’re very organized, we’re very athletic. We still run into most players playing very direct as opposed to plotting their course. We don’t do enough of figuring out ways to break down an opponent through possession and combination. For the most part we still go from A to B as fast as we can. The technical side of things has to improve.”
MTA games will take place on November 19th and 20th at McMurray Field in St. Paul’s Como Park.
MTA’s U-15/16s play the Chicago Fire on Saturday, at 12:30 pm and face the Chicago Magic on Sunday, at 12:30 pm.
MTA’s U-17/18s play the Chicago Fire on Saturday, at 10:00 am and face the Chicago Magic on Sunday at 10:00 am.
SSM will take place on November 19th and 20th at Parade Stadium at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault, MN.
SSM U-15/16s play the Chicago Magic on Saturday at 12:30 and match up against the Chicago Fire on Sunday, at 11:30 am.
SSM U-17/18s play the Chicago Magic on Saturday at 10:00 am and face the Chicago Fire on Sunday, at 9:00 am.