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Increased U.S. Soccer competitiveness starts with youth development.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Tuesday, July 28, 1998) -- The United States Soccer Federation is talking about Project 2010, fueled by millions of dollars of Nike support, as making the men's national team a contender for the World Cup by that time.

That's just 12 years away.

Many believe "contender" is quite a jump. "I do believe being increasingly competitive by 2010 is realistic," said D.C. United coach Bruce Arena, under consideration to succeed Steve Sampson as national coach.

Key to the program is massive training for elite teenagers, with 16 to 20 top 16-year-olds scheduled to start a year's residency at Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, Fla., this fall or early winter.

College programs get criticism for not advancing the careers of elite soccer players. But that may not be fair. The roots go a lot deeper (younger). "This opinion . . . that our 16- and 17-year-olds are as good as any in the world . . . that's not the case,'' Major League Soccer deputy commissioner Sunil Gulati told Soccer America. "At age 16 we can compete -- physically -- with some of the teams in CONCACAF. But as their players mature physically, and ours do not mature technically, we slip behind. We need to increase the average technical ability of our players across the board . . . We need players who are more comfortable under pressure in games."

"From age 16 on our players need to be in a different sort of environment, a professional environment, where they are treated in, and respond in, a professional way."

This means year-round training camps for national teams starting with under-17s as well as heavy summer and vacation training for players in the 13-16 age group. A necessary later component would be overseas training as a major part of Project 40 -- basically for college-age players -- in conjunction with MLS.

And, most importantly, it means more emphasis on attracting Hispanic and African-American players to soccer.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at jlangdon@gns.gannett.com.

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