With US Soccer Federation’s announcement of their new development initiative we can officially start the clock on Jurgen Klinsmann’s era as Technical Director. The naming of Tab Ramos as U-20’s head coach may has been the first high-profile decision, the new program which includes a sizable improvement in youth and three areas of focus: assessment, development, and competition, will be his legacy.
The announcement on Monday came almost a year to the day that Klinsmann signed his 4-year extension as US Men’s National Team Head Coach and was bequeathed the title of Technical Director. In that time, Klinsmann garnered more headlines with his criticism of Major League Soccer and their youth development than making gains inside the Federation. In the press release both U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati and Klinsmann referred to this move as step forward separating the eras. The first prong of the plan is an autopsy on the program’s past.
A consultant firm will be hired to assess the US program “against other soccer powers and gain a better understanding of where it currently stands…” Some of the issues with the US developmental system have already been identified and will be addressed in the two other elements of the plan, but this independent evaluation may be able to locate the overlooked cracks in the federation. The worst case scenario for the USSF and the soccer community at large is that the biggest obstacle to improvement lies outside their control. Most notable being state and federal child labor laws to prevent academies from gaining revenue from the selling of player contracts, which is standard practice in other countries. The absence of this revenue stream pushes development costs in terms of higher fees to the parents of the players. At least the Federation recognizes the cost of training as an issue and is committed to provide some relief to parents.
The second bullet point under the player Training and Development element established that USSF will increase the funding for the Development Academy Scholarship Program. While this scholarship assists with the several dozen affiliated academies across the country, the overwhelming percentage of the country does not have an USSF tied academy in driving distance. The cracks are filled by private academies (if you’re fortunate enough) without release for the pay-to-play model. Speaking to a college coach with links to a private academies, a parent could be spending up to $6,000 for training in hopes to at least recoup their investment in a form of a partial college scholarship. If student-athletes don’t play spring club soccer, there is almost zero chance to be recruited by a Division I school as college and high school seasons fall within the same time frame. If the Federation and a number of college coaches get their way, this problem may be resolved.
The press release named former Chivas USA President Nelson Rodrìguez as the National Team Advisory Services’ Managing Director in charge of negotiating the change in the college soccer schedule with the NCAA. As a former MLS executive Rodriguez is certain to have an eye on how the change to a protracted schedule will impact the MLS season. Nevertheless, it is a move advocated by many stakeholders including MLS and top college coaches. First and foremost it is a health and safety issue as frequently college teams will do a two games in a three day stretch, multiple times a season including the opening weekend of the tournament and the College Cup Finals. Despite Rodriguez being named as the USSF lead man, Klinsmann might have to use his platform as the Senior USMNT coach to force a resolution between the several stakeholders. It will be interesting to see if Klinsmann can build bridges between the soccer establishments rather than just burn them.
Klinsmann’s plan is not just an outreach to players and parents, but coaches as well. Two new levels of coaching licenses will be implemented one at the lowest (F License) and highest end (Pro-License). It is likely the new Pro-License won’t please many at most high profiled coaches. Of course their fees will be covered by their employer. Just like pay-to-play fees for parents, there is a border to entry with coaching licenses. The life of a soccer writer in the US may be the only thing less glamourous than the life of a professional soccer coach not in fulltime employment of a Division I school or professional club academy. Good news for youth coaches is the Federation has added new youth national teams with fulltime staff.
The final element on the planning started the youth evaluation process earlier with a U-12 program and fills in the gaps with a U-16 and U-19 teams. This creates two uninterrupted tracks odd and even birth year tracks from U-14 to U-20. With the U-12 program beginning in 2016, the full scope of Klinsmann’s program may not be realized until the 2030 World Cup. Of course, it would be absurd to believe this program as originally laid out will remain for 14 years or that Klinsmann would be the Technical Director for another 15 years.
All the previous movements were baby steps compared to what Klinsmann and Gulati have announced this week. A 50% raise in all the teams’ budget across the board and the commitment to lower the pay-to-play schemes are a big step forward. The US Soccer Federation is now in Klinsmann’s hands. Let see if he can fulfill the vision he laid out 3 years ago.