Inside Minnesota Soccer contacted US Soccer for an explanation on the decision. IMS also interviewed Tim Carter, Director of Soccer at Shattuck-St.Mary’s as well as Manny Lagos, President of the Minnesota Thunder, for their reflections on the decision.
Earlier this month I reported that the USSF had rejected MTA and Shattuck Academy in their efforts to come aboard the Development Academy program with each organization fielding a U-16 and a U-18 team.
IMS has learned through Neil Buethe, U.S. Soccer Media Relations Director, that the Minnesota clubs were 2 of 250 clubs that applied for acceptance into the Development Academy this year. According to Buethe, 5 teams had been accepted from those 250 applicants.
John Hackworth, Director of the Development Academy (DA) confirmed those numbers saying, “We had over 250 clubs apply to join the U.S. Development Academy program this year alone, but our expansion plan was to bring in a small number of new clubs. For the start of the third year of the program, we ended up accepting only five new clubs, so while we feel that both MTA and Shattuck Academy are quality programs, they didn’t receive an invitation this time around.”
I asked Hackworth if it was unusual for an Academy to be turned down the first time it applies and to be accepted at a later time. Hackworth responded that it wasn’t. “That is not unusual,” stated Hackworth. “In fact, that is more the norm. I think that will continue to be part of the process as we look to improve our program.”
Buethe said that there could be a point down the road where the USSF actually puts a ceiling on the program. “We haven’t decided yet,” said Buethe. “We now have 79 clubs with the 5 new clubs joining. With 2 teams for each club that’s 158 teams, which is no small matter to manage, but that is a possibility in the future and something we’re talking about and trying to figure out.” Buethe went on to say, “We want to allow as many clubs and teams as we can to develop players. The program is less than 2 years old so we’re still learning, improving, tweaking and trying to figure out the best way to run the program.”
I asked Hackworth to explain the selection process. He stated, “There is a thorough process that we go through to determine which clubs will be selected and invited into the Development Academy. When possible, we also go as far as doing site visits to evaluate the clubs, which is something I personally did with both MTA and Shattuck.” He also commented, “There is a committee and we diligently review each applicant, using a specific list of criteria that allows us to rate each application.”
Hackworth did not supply me with that criteria although there are guidelines on the US Soccer website. In that regard I asked Buethe if there were any rules that stated a club could not be discriminated against because of distance, something that had been rumored in the rejection of the two Minnesota clubs. Buethe said there were no specifically written rules regarding such things but that USSF works hard to make sure that discrimination by location does not happen. He stated, “If a team in Montana shows they are worthy of becoming a DA team we will find a way to make that happen.” He cited several Colorado clubs that are a distance from other teams. He also said that the DA is constantly trying to move and rearrange teams in their leagues to allow new teams to join.
Hackworth also stated that he was very supportive of the MN Thunder sponsoring an academy. He pointed out, “In our initial study of how to create a true player development system, we concluded that professional clubs must play an integral role in this system.” He went onto say that he was equally supportive of Shattuck.
Hackworth concluded by saying that the two Minnesota clubs can apply for admission again next year. He said, “Both clubs can continue to improve the environment for player development by ensuring that they are doing what is best for the individual growth of each and every young soccer player in their programs.”
Tim Carter is the Director of Soccer at Shattuck-St. Mary’s. Carter spoke to IMS and gave us his thoughts. “I do think that the decision may have been based on the fact that they just don’t see the volume of players coming out of Minnesota. For now, I think we just need to continue to get better. This is a chance to continue to improve our academy. We need to improve not only the quality of our soccer playing, but the quality of our soccer played.” Carter explained, “We need to improve the quality of our opponents particularly in the fall high school season.”
“I don’t look at this as a rejection,” said a confident Carter. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s when.”
Manny Lagos, team president for the Minnesota Thunder programs, proudly said, “John Hackworth gave us his stamp of approval. I think it came down more to the economy and administrative side.” He continued, “I still think there’s a little disrespect towards Minnesota on a national level in that some clubs might not be able to see how two clubs from this area could get that sort of program. That also means that they don’t know about Shattuck’s great program and how they draw kids from around the nation and not just from Minnesota.”
Lagos said that in the end, these MN clubs are still working to get better and that was true with the Thunder Academy. “I think the model of what we’re trying to do with this program is more important than being accepted by the Development Academy,” stated the Thunder president. “It’s that model of the pro connection, the PDL, the model of players at 16, 17 and 18 being ready for either high level college, PDL, USL-2, USL-1, MLS, or Europe that I think we’re spot on with. So if we keep continuing to work on that, to Tim’s (Carter) point, it’s not a matter of if, but when.”
Lagos did point out that we’ve not produced the amount of pro or college level talent that we should for this state. “We don’t produce enough high level players vs how many boys we have playing soccer in the state of Minnesota,” stated Lagos. “This is not a knock against ODP or anybody who commits their lives to developing good players in the state, from any community club coach to so many people who are working with these youth. It’s amazing to commit that type of time and energy to the development of these players and it’s not easy.” He further explained, “When you get to a very high level, there’s a very small amount of kids that actually make it to the professional level so it gets tough. You’re also dealing with these problems at several levels. We still haven’t figured it out in this state but remember, US Soccer is still trying to figure it out nationally. ODP was developed to try to identify players from a system over 25 years ago. Now that we have a couple of stable professional leagues, now that we have a system in place to make these kids feel and act more like a professional at a younger age, I think that’s where we will see if Minnesota can actually change the pattern and start catching up and developing better players.”
Lagos also explained that the Development Academy model should be used in the training of youth players, explaining that less games, more high quality practices with higher competition, is the model that is used world wide to create great players. He spoke about that pro model that is used in Europe and said, “When that model is used, the players learn to raise their level of play in practices and step it up another notch for games. By the time these kids reach the ages of 18, they’re mature and stepping on the field for teams like Manchester United and Arsenal.”
I asked Lagos about a quote from USSF Staff coach Roberto Lopez, who in an interview last January with Inside Minnesota Soccer, said that he felt that not only does the Development Academy improve the player, he felt it has improved the coach as well. This is principally because of the FIFA rules that are followed with 7 substitutions but players are only allowed into the game once. Lopez stated this makes for a better coach because he must also learn to manage his time and his players better. He said with higher competition, it also taught coaches how to play for the away draw which is much more like real international and professional club competitions and as the games are more intense, one needs to actually consider the away game as well as travel into the strategy. Lagos said he couldn’t agree more. “There’s no doubt that when a coach goes from playing a youth tournament every weekend or playing 5 games in a weekend with unlimited substitutions, he’s thinking about how to manage his guys from Friday though Sunday and how to get to the championship. In the new model, coaches are now managing their players like a professional coach — like coach Gramenz (Don Gramenz -MN Thunder head coach). How do I train on Monday versus Tuesday versus Wednesday winding down to a weekend game with travel? It’s a very professional way to go about it. Again, at 16, 17 or 18, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be like that. These kids are developing mentally and physically and are ready for it. The coaches need to be ready for it as well which will in turn make better players.”
With all that said, Lagos says he still doesn’t believe there is one set way to develop a player. He said, “I’m very pro American, and I believe in the American mentality. I believe were going to produce some great soccer players in this country.” He continued, “The Brazilians are Brazilians, the French are French, and there is no one formula for success. We’re not going to develop great players if we play like Brazilians or play like the French. The reality is, good coaching and development is what’s going to create great players.”