Since his announcement as manager way back in 2011, Juergen Klinsmann has espoused a core tenant of bolstering the development process of American talent, domestically and abroad. Part of his program has most certainly been to encourage the rising stars of American soccer to ply their trade overseas, where coaching, facilities, and opportunities are second to none.
The pedigrees of clubs like Sochaux, Ajax, Southampton and a vast array of others are impeccable when it comes to polishing prodigies into fully formed professional stars. The future of American soccer, however, cannot be entrusted to foreign clubs and academies. Not so much because of any sort of xenophobia, but rather “they have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend.” Machiavelli’s quote from Chapter 12 of The Prince, of course, is intended for a more serious purpose, yet has perfect application in this case, and likely has led to the recently announced national training center in Kansas City.
Foreign clubs accept players for their own ends, not for the further development of any one nation’s talent pool. Were it the latter case, the English Premier League would have helped England produce far more trophies than the single World Cup it secured on home soil in 1966. Development on a national scale requires investment in domestic facilities, coaching, and opportunities, as well as a commitment from domestic clubs to similarly emphasize development of their own prospects. This has not been the American way, with the United States instead repeatedly attempting a one-size-fits-all approach.
The United States attempted a centralized development scheme in Bradenton, Florida at the U-17 level from the late 1990s on, with decidedly mixed results. Politics and a lack of nationwide scouting proved to limit the success of the U-17 team in its most important task, the identification and development of young American talent for the senior team.
While a great deal of attrition is expected when transitioning from youth levels to the highest level of international competition, the Bradenton experiment did little to expand the American talent base in a significant manner. It instead provided a microcosm for the travails of American soccer as a whole to come to the forefront.
This history makes the recent announcement of a national training center in Kansas City all the more intriguing, given the pitfalls of a central hub for development in such a large country. While standardization of coaching, refereeing and central location of the project will certainly be a boon to the American soccer machine, the current structure of the American soccer development in regards to academies militates against any real change in the development of American talent.
In most professional and amateur sporting organizations, continuity in the methods, tactics, and ultimate philosophy of coaching determines success or failure. Talent certainly makes a tremendous difference, regardless of sport, yet organization, skill on the ball, and a team’s ability to work as unit go much further in determining the success or failure of any given team.
And, in the United States at least, the ability to unify a team into a set philosophy molded around skillful attack and an organized defense is sorely lacking. Youth coaching varies widely in its quality and effectiveness. Coaches largely do not have any experience in soccer, lack a real grasp of the finer points of the game, and trend naturally toward employing spectacular athletes to run around slower opponents without taking the time to instill the skill necessary for these athletes to succeed professionally.
Providing a place for coaches to learn proper tactics and techniques presents the USSF with a tremendous opportunity to begin inculcating would-be coaches in proper, modern techniques that will allow their players to flourish. Hearing the same message, taking the same drills and coaching points back to their teams, and making contacts from across the country will begin to set a standard for youth instruction that is self-reinforcing.
If said instruction is especially effective and provides results, turnout to the clinics at this center will increase exponentially.
Furthermore, the training of excellent referees is an excellent step toward real progress in American soccer. Referees have long been the bane of American soccer fans, to the point of jokes about the quality of referees in MLS already being tired not 20 years into the league’s existence.
The greater instruction and training these referees receive, the higher the quality of officiating will be in youth leagues and, eventually, MLS. Learning the rules alongside prospective coaches will only allow for greater understanding between the two sides, a fact that will benefit the American soccer machine as a whole.
The most advantageous factor of this newly announced center is that its Kansas City location is accessible to a tremendous number of USSF’s target groups. Players, coaches, and referees from around the country will have minimal trouble reaching Kansas City by plane, train, or automobile.
While coastal players and coaches will certainly still have an expanse to trek, the distance is far less than that required to reach Bradenton or Carson, California, the current home of the U.S. National Training Center. The creation of this center in Kansas City certainly has some built-in advantages, as detailed above, yet fails to address the most problematic flaw in the American system.
The construction of this $75 million facility will be state of the art, featuring numerous fields, outside and indoors, as well as training rooms, a large hotel, and any number of conveniences. It will not, however, change the fact that currently, the vast majority of players employed by MLS are not organically developed.
Between overseas academies, college soccer, and independent lower division clubs, MLS teams have outsourced development to an alarming degree. Rather than attempting to fix a system that is inherently broken, the new soccer training center will merely provide a better set of facilities to train those prospects who have already been identified and partially developed elsewhere.
The most effective and efficient development system in the world, the German model, has been tailored to provide an excellent environment to train and develop players mentally, as well as physically. Rather than creating a centralized development enclave, the German federation set about creating a competitive, rigorous, and expansive academy system in its first and second tier of soccer.
The underlying foundation of the German way is the demand on youth coaches to achieve UEFA’s lowest level of coaching certification, while simultaneously requiring said coaches to act as scouts.
With some 28,000 coaches in this role, the German federation has a massive network of qualified coaches to develop domestic talent, with the same number of individuals able to pass along hidden prospects to clubs and country alike. Thus, at its heart, Germany has made a commitment to identifying and developing German players first, with deploying foreign players more of a luxury than a necessity.
26 of the players on the Champions League rosters of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in 2013 were products of this commitment. Germany won its first World Cup since 1990 last year, also a result of this commitment. A 7-1 demolition of hosts Brazil in a semifinal only confirmed the fact that Germany has, in fact, mastered the art of development. These are not accidents, but the results of a systematic approach to getting the best out of a talent-base.
The United States, by contrast, continues to rely upon spotty (or nonexistent), coaching at the most basic levels of youth soccer, with little in the way of serious opportunities available to those families unable or unwilling to participate in travel-team soccer.
A pay-to-play model is hardly the most effective platform to mold the young talent that abounds in the United States, especially when so many prospects come from homes with barely enough to eat, let alone pay for sporting opportunities. A newly minted national training center does nothing to alleviate this. USSF and those who run it must make a choice between continued outsourcing of developing young American stars, or take the harder road of cultivating a relationship and commitment with MLS to focus on bringing American coaching, facilities, and opportunities in line with the world’s elite.
Over a decade after realizing the old ways would no longer be effective, and developing a sound plan to rectify the deficiencies, Germany hoisted another World Cup trophy. The USSF must come to the same realization as Germany and find a new way to provide young soccer prospects the resources and opportunities they need to truly thrive. Soccer is such a new sport on the American landscape that it is easy to make significant changes now, rather than in a few decades when domestic talent continues to languish without proper coaching or training techniques. This new training center is a fantastic model for building training facilities at MLS clubs around the country, but will it make the American system better, or is it another $75 million white elephant?