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Looking Ahead and the Elite Player Haze

By Tim Bradbury, Director of Coaching Instruction, Eastern New York Youth Soccer AssociationTim_for_Web-small

In a brief article published by Soccer America last year, I noted the following:

“A unified youth soccer environment. When Crystal Dunn played, the only youth soccer program was US Youth. All the players played under one banner. This meant that it was much easier to get a high-quality group together. Through both the developmental process and adding players that wanted to be part of the program we were able to ensure that every session was competitive.

Ultimately this unified youth program led to the Rockville Centre Tornadoes playing in the only ELITE level league of the day – the now defunct US Youth Region 1 league. There are now more 'Elite' leagues than there are goals in the World Cup.”

With the recent news of the demise of US Soccer's Development Academy program, the haze and confusion regarding the elite player pathway has only increased. Now, we have MLS, ECNL, EDP, US Youth and US Club all trying to position themselves as the destination for the elite players. Confusion reigns.

You may be wondering why this is an issue.  After all, the women just won the World Cup. From my perspective it is important for the following reasons:

1) Every section of the soccer playing pyramid deserves to have the best developmental opportunity.
2) If we create true elite player development, we should be able to create both men’s and women’s teams capable of competing on the world stage.
3) If soccer is going to become the preeminent sport played by all, we need to approach the conundrum from all angles.
Like any good teacher, I believe every kid deserves unconditional attention and this includes the elite players.

So, assuming you also believe this is a situation that needs addressing read on.

At this point in time, it appears as though our best youth players will be dispersed across the following leagues:

A) Some type of MLS Development Academy version, with US Soccer's Development Academy now shut down.
B) ECNL – 10-month season for clubs that prohibit High School season participation. (In my opinion, I believe that high school soccer makes it impossible for players to fulfill their potential.)
C) ECNL league for clubs that allow players to participate in their high school season.
D) EDP league. 
E) Regionally based ex-US Soccer DA leagues that have not affiliated yet with either US Youth or US Club.
F) US Youth Soccer National League
G) US Club National Championships

For true elite player development, we need our best players to be training with each other and competing against each other. We need them to be challenged every time they train, in the best facilities and with the best coaches. With our best players spread over several leagues, how will this ever happen? How many of these leagues have any type of mandatory coaching license requirements? 

I have great concerns that some of the solutions being offered do nothing to target player development. For example, the idea of high-level showcase events where teams come in to compete from all leagues in some type of champions league event. Typically, these showcase or tournament events are run at a time when temps are high, after a long hard season when players are tired and, to top it off, have too many games in too few days for any type of sufficient rest and recuperation. These events may produce one final winner, but they will not aid in player development. In addition, any type of MLS Development Academy youth league is going to be haunted by the promotion/relegation issue and the lack of a nationwide presence.

I truly believe that for real elite player development, we need the following essential criteria to be in place

1) The best players get to train with and compete against each other on a regular basis.
2) Entry into and out of programs is a revolving door as players excel at different times.
3) These players get access to the best training facilities.
4) These players get trained by the most qualified and professional coaches who see coaching as a lifelong quest and craft.
5) Programs and leagues are designed with full knowledge and acceptance of best practices in periodization.
6) These programs maintain competitive integrity, i.e. promotion and relegation