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US Soccer Development Academy: The story behind the USMNT’s success

After missing the 2018 World Cup, the USMNT’s ‘Golden Generation’ take on Wales, England and Iran in the 2022 World Cup

Roddy Cons
Estados Unidos en la final de la Nations League
David Leah

The data is in and it makes for good reading for fans of US soccer. In the last couple of years, the number of Americans playing in top European league has shot up. Seven in the English Premier League. Four in the English Championship. Six in the Bundesliga in Germany. Four in LaLiga. Two in Serie A. Three in Ligue 1 in France.

And not just any players: young players. The future of the USMNT appears to be in good hands. And to understand why, we need to look to the past and specifically the creation of the Players Development Academy (DA) in the United States.

The DA was created by US Soccer in 2007 with a view to helping the sport in the United States continue its move out of the so-called ‘Dark Ages’. Only a few years prior to its foundation, organisation and professionalism were conspicuous by their absence in youth soccer stateside.

Youth clubs were standalone entities which had no clear pathway to senior professional clubs, while young players did very little training during the week and instead played lots of competitive matches at weekends, which were not considered to be useful.

10,000 hours of deliberate practice: the key to development

A chain of events which begun with a review of the youth soccer system in the US carried out by former Portugal and Manchester United coach Carlos Queiroz in the late 1990s ultimately led, with some intermediate steps along the way, to the creation of the DA, whose main objective was – and is – to get young players doing as much ‘deliberate practice’ as possible.

What does ‘deliberate practice’ constitute? Rather than training once or twice a week and playing a vast number of games at the weekend, players train every day where possible and play one high-quality match at the weekend. The 10,000 hours ruleis very much the emphasis here, with US Soccer working with Anders Ericsson, the Swedish professor who researched the concept, in the early stages of the DA’s development.

A short time after launching, the DA comprised of more than 100 clubs – some affiliated with professional franchises, some amateur – and covered six ages groups. Elite youngsters, who had the possibility of obtaining scholarships, wanted to be involved, while scouts knew that this was the place to pick up the nation’s most talented young players.

Criticism of the US Soccer Development Academy

The programs run by clubs and regions were strictly evaluated by technical advisors, who constantly gave feedback on everything ranging from administration, facilities and training environment to style of play. And it is in this last point where the DA was met with criticism.

These technical advisors found that players were being overcoached, all taught to play in the same 4-3-3 system and unable to solve problems for themselves when they were prevented to them on the field. The DA’s goal of “cultivating players who could play in any game model” was not being met.

Former U15 academy coach Jim Barlow believes that academy games are now “very tactical and they seem to lack some of that juice…there just seems to be a little bit of that old-school missing.”

Good, old-fashioned competitive spirit may not be what it was, according to some, but the advancement in tactical development does seem to have created what are, essentially, better soccer players on technical and tactical levels.

There are other criticisms of the DA program. Youngsters are forced to make huge sacrifices in the slim hope of becoming a professional soccer player, while the prioritization of soccer means they may fall behind in school or other areas in life.

USMNT 2022 World Cup roster: 17 members went through the US Soccer Development Academy

For US Soccer board member and CEO of US Club Soccer Mike Collina, meanwhile, “the expense of the sport and the amount of travel is to the detriment of a vast, vast majority of players.” But for the small percentage who do make it, it sets them up for a life in the game and, in some cases, for a place on the USMNT.

Going back to those stats, 17 of the 26 members of the USMNT 2022 World Cup roster – often referred to as the ‘Golden Generation’ – came through the Developmental Academy. For them, those 10,000 hours of deliberate practice have paid off.

USMNT 2022 World Cup schedule

Monday, 21 November: USMNT v Wales, Al Rayyan

Friday, 25 November: USMNT v England, Al Khor

Tuesday, 29 November: USMNT v Iran, Doha


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