Thursday, June 3, 2010

Highlighting Youth Development in the US

As the World Cup draws ever nearer, major new outlets are increasing their soccer coverage, ranging from your basic US Men's National Team news to full World Cup team profiles, historical profiles, general interest stories, and other new, fresh takes on the sport.

One topic I've noticed creeping around the landscape recently is the major difference between the development of soccer players across the globe and here in the US.  For those interested, the New York Times Magazine is running a feature on the famed Ajax youth academy.  The article is fairly comprehensive and easily understandable for those who don't know the sport well (or don't know about the famed Ajax training method), as well as having enough interesting reporting and interviews to be worthwhile for those more knowledgeable.

There are a couple basic differences that the article highlights between the US and European approach, all well recognized by us in the soccer community in the USA.  Youth players in the US "pay to play," whereas the European academies are basically free.  US youth teams focus on winning, European academies focus on developing individual skill. US teams play tons of matches and tournaments.  European academies limit the number of games played and focus more on training sessions.

Certainly in other places across the world (South America, Africa) players develop on their own playing pickup matches, "sandlot soccer" if you will.  Of course Europeans expect their best players to be doing that as well, but doing it on their free time.  Which is key, because as a kid you still need your free time.  You're just a kid after all. 

The NYT Magazine article notes that some of this is changing the US, and MLS's youth academies are gradually transitioning to the European model.  The article highlights the DC United youth academy, including 17-year old breakout star in the making, Andy Najar.  Coincidentally enough, ESPN just highlighted the growing MLS academies, in particular Andy Najar, as the future model for US youth development.

The articles detail the debates about the Ajax model in the US, particularly how cultural differences regarding college education for athletes and the wariness of seeing clubs exploiting youths will take time for the US system to evolve into something that produces world class players.  I won't go into further detail, but it's certainly true that the US model needs to shift and that DC United gives a great example (its youth teams are very good both locally and nationally, and it is producing quality pros like Najar and DCU's starting 19-year old keeper Bill Hamid).

The NYT Magazine piece might overstate the nature of the stars Ajax currently produces, but it's worth a look and reading the perspective from scouts, coaches and players involved in the Ajax system.

As a little bonus, check out the highlight of Andy Najar's Open Cup winner last night against Salt Lake.  Too bad he's Honduran, but if the DC academy, or other academies in the US system, can produce more of this, the US National Team will be better off in future World Cups.

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