All photos courtesy of Philadelphia Union and YSC Academy.
In April of 2010, after working in alpine skiing for 40 years, including the previous seven as USSA Director of Coaches Education, I switched sports. I began working for a Major League Soccer (MLS) club, the Philadelphia Union. At that time one of the newest clubs of the expanding MLS. While I continued to consult with a number of alpine clubs, both in the west and east, and participated in a variety of USSA coaches education conferences around the country, my primary responsibilities continue to be as Director of Sport Education for the Philadelphia Union. In essence, I’ve straddled two sporting cultures for the last ten years, focusing the majority of my time on U19s and below.
Because the Union ownership was and continues to be strongly committed to continual learning, I have been fortunate to travel the world researching the best practices in youth development, including sport science conferences in Japan, Turkey, all throughout Europe and the U.S. These trips also included visiting many soccer clubs in Germany, Holland, and spending six days at the Real Madrid Academy in Spain.
With all of this in mind, as I start my 51st year of coaching, I thought now would be an opportune time to offer my thoughts on comparing alpine junior development with soccer junior development. What can we learn from the number one sport in the world – football (or soccer in America) – at the elite youth development level? And, I use the word elite intentionally as my comments will focus primarily on that select group of athletes striving to make the transition from the junior ranks to professional national and international competition.
Because there is so much ground to cover, I’ve taken the liberty of dividing my comments into two parts, the first presented now. In Part 2, I will offer some ideas on changing the American alpine development paradigm. For now, I will highlight areas of comparison.
Two International Sports: Skiing and soccer are similar in that they are truly international sports with the primary “show” being in Europe. Even for Central and South American players and the rest of the world, the best of the best players are recruited to play in Europe. And, they want to play in Europe – the money and media exposure are there and the challenge!
While the immediate goal for all our Union juniors is to play for the first team, the ultimate goal for many is Europe, and, of course, the U.S. National team during World Cup qualifying and competition.
International Youth Development: I cannot state more emphatically that international youth athletic development research, resulting in improved training methodologies, is only accelerating. For example, the MLS in partnership with the US Soccer federation commissioned Double Pass, a leading European player development consulting firm to extensively access and audit MLS academies over a four year period ultimately providing MLS a clear picture of where and how to MLS academies can improve (resulting in a 150 page document).
In addition, MLS created a partnership with the French Football Federation (FFF) to promote the exchange of best practices and experiences in youth development. The FFF provides MLS youth academy coaches a 14-month world-class training and certification program. Twenty American coaches will spend months in Europe observing either a French, German, or Spanish club, as well as extensive classroom, on-field instruction and coaching evaluation, at a French club. (Note: After Brazil, France produces the second most international soccer players, 1740, in 132 leagues worldwide, 948 playing outside of France).
This also means that the requirement to innovate, by all MLS academies, has increased dramatically. And, in the case of the Philadelphia Union it has responded – the Union is recognized to be the leader in player development within MLS. In the last seven years, 30 Union juniors have signed professional contracts, either with the Union or other professional teams. For those that do not sign, there is 100% matriculation at NCAA Division I colleges/universities.
Philadelphia Union Development Model – Leadership: From the beginning, the Union has been at the fore front of innovative training. The Union’s development goal has been to raise the bar every year, demanding more from our coaches as well as our players. Our leadership is international: Ernst Tanner, Philadelphia Union Sport Director, is from Germany, Union Academy Director, Tommy Wilson, is from Scotland, the first team Manager (Head Coach), Jim Curtain, has spent many months in Europe observing top clubs. Plus, a number of our junior coaches are European as well as Brazilian.
Philadelphia Union investor / owner, Richie Graham, is an ex-Burke Mountain Academy racer and soccer player, travels the world frequently visiting the top clubs. He has extensive international contacts from Europe to South America.
No matter the sport, there must be an urgency, a passion, an overwhelming driving force within club leadership and the coaching staff to create a development environment that encapsulates the best practices from around the world. In Europe, close proximity fosters intense professional competition, either by their national leagues, or between the famous well-known clubs, or the extreme nation vs. nation qualifying every four years for the FIFA World Cup. It’s difficult to match this roiling environment for either of our American sports, separated by the Atlantic.
MLS Development Structure: Every MLS team is required to have a junior academy underneath the professional team(s). I say “teams,” as most MLS clubs now have a second-tier professional team that plays a full 30 match schedule in the United Soccer League (USL), a vital development step. If you will, the Europa Cup/NorAm level in alpine terms.
Comparison #1 – USL and the Clear Path: There are 115 teams playing in three USL levels. The USL Championship level has 35 teams representing MSL clubs, as well as regions and cities that have a vibrant soccer community but not an MLS franchise. The critical point for our discussion here is that the USL filled a developmental void – a vital step was missing for an elite U19 (or younger) athlete making the big professional jump to a first team.
College historically filled that void but the quality and condensed season of the college programs did not fulfill the developmental needs of the elite junior athlete preparing for and transitioning to a professional career. Just as the Europa Cup/NorAm are designed to bridge the gap for senior/junior racers to the World Cup, the benefits of the USL, for our Philadelphia Union Academy, has been dramatic and worth review:
- Elite Union Academy U15 and U17 athletes routinely practice, scrimmage, and even play for our Union II USL team. All against older, faster, more physical and highly skilled professional adult players, and the result has been to dramatically accelerate their development. Again, coaching is one thing, but to actually see and struggle with what it is going to take to play at a professional level is invaluable. Given the opportunity, having the support and confidence of the coach, elite juniors can now “play up,” in a well-timed incremental progression. As one Union coach said, “They will respond, do not underestimate them, and we will find out for sure who has a future or not, all with our club help and guidance.”
- A key factor today is that all Union coaches now have complete confidence in our elite Union juniors and the training program implemented. This is critical, from the MLS professional “first team” to the U9-U12 pre-academy, everyone must believe in the philosophy and process. Everyone must also be open to change – both personally and professionally – always seeking to improve. If you become complacent, you are going backwards.
Comparison #2 – FREE Program: One critical difference between alpine skiing and soccer is, when the MLS launched the club academy initiative in 2007, it strongly encouraged academy programs be offered for FREE – “the future for American soccer is linked to the idea that there must be equality of access!” The result –the 10-month program: including uniforms (washed everyday), boots, training, travel, coaching, medical care, technology, analytics, etc., are all free! The age groups are: U-17, U15, U-14, U-13, U12, which totals between 115-125boys, or more. The budget varies by MLS club between $3 – $4 million annually.
However, the free program comes with a price – there are no participation guarantees for our Union juniors. They are evaluated “subjectively” every year, and on average the bottom 10% (or more) are released every spring. They return to their original home clubs. This is the standard world model for soccer development. It’s tough, but the reality at the elite level is that the athlete must continue to improve or be dropped to a level more appropriate for their development. Are some talents lost, sure, but soccer has the advantage of the numbers game, the talent pool is deep! Finding the truly exceptional is still the ultimate talent ID objective.
High school education again varies by MLS club, some have started their own academies – for example the Philadelphia Union’s YSC Academy – while most have developed relationships with existing local public, private, or online high schools, which may also be an additional budget item. Like skiing, the top MLS clubs are moving towards their own educational options, allowing more daily control for greater specialized individual training protocols to match their highly recruited athletes.
Comparison #3 – Race to the Bottom: As stated above, young soccer athletes continually face the prospect of being cut. Today, the selection protocols have become more sophisticated, expanded beyond testing the typical physical attributes of speed, agility, and soccer specific skills, to name just a few. Now, the top professional clubs, regardless of nationality, routinely administer psychological profile evaluations, plus test for sport specific decision-making skills, utilizing extensive interviews with elementary school teachers and early coaches, and finally reviewing family competition histories for a more complete profile.
Regardless of the current research which states that selecting athletes at ages 8-10 or 12, especially prior to puberty is, at best, a roll of the dice, European clubs continue the “race to the bottom,” searching for the next superstar. In 2007 in France, the age of selection tryouts dropped from 15yrs old to 12! “Their professional world starts by developing brain football intelligence – the complete player – a balance between the physical, mental, technical and tactical skills.”
In America, we may say it’s a cruel system but it’s no different than what happens every day in a less structured environment on an inner-city basketball court, for example. In soccer, the relative age effect (REA) is taken into account, the “late bloomer” is watched, and even protected, if the skills are apparent, and the heart and attitude are positive. (See MLS Soccer Statistics below)
Comparison #4 – European Soccer Culture: During my six days at the Real Madrid Academy, I asked a question about soccer being part of every Spanish child’s DNA, being part of their basic instincts, they know the game, like we know our American football. The answer from the Real Madrid head of junior development was, “That has changed, children don’t play in the streets as much, parents are too worried, and also too many distractions , so we now have to teach the skills and tactics of the game, which is new for us.” Welcome to our world I said. But he said, “Don’t worry for us, it is still in the Spanish blood, they know the tactical game better now from watching so many TV matches, but lack some of the creative, innovative technical skills of the street game, learned the hard way by playing against older and faster and better players.”
No matter where I watched soccer training in Germany, Holland, England, or Spain, the pure fun of playing always came through. Yes, some days in a cold 42degree drizzle, even the most committed 16yr-old was tested, but the desire to learn, to try something new they just saw in their hero, to see if they could master a drill, or outplay an opponent, came through, you could feel it.
One May, several years ago, I watched the Feyenoord U19s (Netherlands) train at the end of a 10-month season. I expected burnout but was amazed at the energy level, the spirit and laughter, and the obvious passion for their sport. At that time, their facilities were way below any of the German clubs we visited, and could not even match the top ski clubs in America, and yet, for the recent 2014 FIFA World Cup, they had 11 players out of 23 for the Dutch national team (and made the semifinals). I asked why the success? The answer: “Our players come from Rotterdam, a hard-working-blue-collar port city, unlike Amsterdam, or Ajax – the rich and most famous club of Holland. Our boys are driven, they love the game and are proud of their lower-class roots.” Again, only possible because it’s free!
Union Culture: Philadelphia and Rotterdam are alike. The Union work ethic is a blue-collar badge of pride versus the more-glitzy financial capital New York City to the north. One’s culture becomes one’s identity, you must embrace it as your mission. No matter the sport, a club’s culture will determine a successful program or not.
Comparison #5 – Soccer Coaches Education: For the Philadelphia Union (and all MLS clubs) the level of coaching certification required is much higher! We have a number of coaches who have their UEFA Pro A License, the highest certification in Europe. It takes years to accomplish. For one American coach it took seven years, involving yearly trips to Europe and the final product was a 250page document! Currently we have nothing in skiing compared to this.
As one head coach of a German Bundesliga team said: “There are no secrets in soccer anymore, everything has been tried, everyone has access to the latest sport science and data analytics, now you must keep an open mind, always keep learning, seeking critical personal feedback, collaborate whenever possible, and remain humble, I don’t have all the answers, keep pushing for excellence, if not, you will fall behind in a hurry.”
I cannot underscore his comment enough. After traveling to Europe, sometimes twice a year, to attend both the European College of Sport Science and the Leaders Performance Institute (London), I can say unequivocally the urgency and pace of coaches education is ever increasing. To work in a major European club means that you are required to continually seek higher levels of certification or are aggressively pursue continuing education.
Comparison #6 – College Soccer: When I first began working with the Union in April of 2010, the college player was actively recruited by the then 16 MLS teams (currently there are 26 MLS teams, with projected growth to 30 in two years). Despite continued growth for soccer across all areas, MLS college recruitment reached a pinnacle several years ago and has declined rapidly. Last season the Philadelphia Union sold all of its six MLS draft picks and did not select one player. Why? Because, the consensus was if a college player was not ranked in the top five they were not good enough, our Union juniors were better.
Just like NCAA skiing, NCAA soccer development suffers for a number of similar issues: The limited competitive season – too many matches in too short a period of time resulting in less practice/development. The level of play – intensity, skill, and speed – is just not high enough to adequately develop MLS caliber players. AND, most importantly, with the growth and improved quality of MLS youth academies, the result has been that the limited resources are going towards the highly recruited junior athlete. In the end, it’s a better long-term return on a club’s investment then selecting an “unknown” college player. Plus, like skiing, colleges are recruiting more and more foreign players, reducing the number of available American roster spots, further hindering U.S. athlete development.
Finally: While there is no comparison between soccer and skiing is terms of the number that start when they are young, both are similar in how hard it is to transition from the junior ranks to the professional world. Both sports are also alike in that, at times, it may not be fair and/or the opportunities are not equal. Skiing is more objective – the clock doesn’t lie – while soccer is much more subjective – “why was he selected and not me?” – but for both, making the elite level demands incredible sacrifices, a long-term commitment, a passion that is tested daily, and injuries are always an ever-present possibility. However, regardless of the costs, it is part of human nature to strive beyond one’s reach, as we pursue our dreams by testing our limits everyday it’s not for everyone.
MLS Soccer Statistics: I offer the following MLS statistics as further information on average ages, nationalities, and in comparison with the English Premiere League (EPL) and the NBA.
MLS Age Averages:
2019 – MLS roster size 26:
24.12 FC Dallas (youngest),
25.84 Philadelphia Union (Two juniors have started, 3 more are on the first team)
27.16 Seattle (oldest).
2020 – Philadelphia Union II (USL) – average age 18.3. Three Philadelphia Union Academy U16s debuted this year, playing against 18-30yr old’s. All players are twenty years or younger, an intentional commitment to support junior development.
2018 – Total 667 players: 295 Americans, 372 Foreign players representing 81 nations (note: active rosters total 636 – additional players are carried).
Canada is first with 34, Argentina 2nd. with 27, and only two European nations are in the top 10 for foreign MLS players.
English Premier League average age:
Source: Sky Sports 2019-20, team average age (20 teams, roster size varies approximately 50):
Youngest team 24.8
Oldest team 28.0
Youngest player is 17yr, 287days old.
Nationalities: England – 64% on the highest team, 15% on the lowest team, Liverpool 34% (recent EPL season winners).