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Italian invasion should help U.S. develop youth.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Wednesday, May 13, 1998) -- The Italians are invading the United States, trying to develop youth talent in the Kansas City area in a program that could have far-reaching implications.

Lazio, a top-level Serie A club from Rome, plans to bring three coaches to a pilot series of training camps this summer, according to international software consultant David Longstreet of suburban Blue Springs, Mo.

He said Lazio's long-term investment in the program could approach $20 million. "Most soccer people agree we need to do a better job of developing our youth players," he said. "We have talked long enough in this country about doing it. With Lazio, we will have coaching expertise from one of the best soccer programs in the world. . . They are held in the same regard in development as Ajax (Amsterdam, Netherlands)."

"We are very excited," Lazio youth program general manager Gianpiero Persichetti said. "We like the Kansas City area because it has the greatest percentage of children playing soccer in the country. We want to work with little children. We need to build from a low level."

Following the initial series of summer camps, the plan is for Lazio, in consultation with Kansas City Soccer Society, a community-based soccer group designed to bring support to the project, to form a series of teams next spring in under-12, under-14, and under-16 boys and girls categories. They would be coached by Lazio youth coaches and would compete in tournaments throughout the United States and Mexico. The following year, the under-17 teams would tour Europe and Latin America.

Under-12 teams are to be added every year.

Lazio plans to begin building a world-class soccer facility in the fourth year, to be used by the Serie A team as a training facility in June and July between the spring and fall seasons, according to Longstreet, who has two children, including a 12-year-old son. The team would tour the United States, Mexico and Canada, playing Major League Soccer and other elite teams. The youth would have access to the facility the other 10 months of the year.

The under-19 team in year five, under the timetable, would participate in European tournaments, with players evaluated by the Lazio Serie A team. Select players then would be moved to the Lazio under-21 team, if warranted.

By year 10, "at least three graduates (both boys and girls) of the Lazio USA youth program will be playing for their respective U.S. national team," Longstreet said. "That is the goal."

"This is a positive thing," Lee Summit North High School coach Tim Richardson said. "There is a need for our top amateurs to be challenged more. The intensive training with the higher demands can't help but improve players."

Added Rockhurst College coach Tony Tocco: "We have to get our kids earlier. There will be huge support for this in the area. It's the only way to develop the support. Lazio is willing to put money in the program, a lot of it. It's a great idea. The training, the lure of big money eventually (in Europe), this will help younger players stay longer in the sport."

Why is Lazio interested? "Lazio believes they need to develop players outside of Italy," Longstreet said, "because many 16-year-old players make more (money) in Italy than MLS players in our country."

"We want to work very closely with the Kansas City community," Persichetti said.

Lazio is fifth this year in Serie A, generally regarded as the best soccer league in the world.

Sign-ups for the program are being taken now, some from as far away as Chicago. Information is available from the Kansas City Soccer Society, 2207 West Walnut, Blue Springs, Mo. 64015 (telephone: 816-213-7814).

The United States Soccer Federation is studying its youth soccer development program.

Observers long have said that full-scale development of young players is impractical due to U.S. cultural emphasis on education, particularly college, but others say the United States will never be a soccer power until there is full-scale development efforts starting much younger -- ages 12 and up.

Major League Soccer is chipping away on the top (older) end with the Project 40 development program, which encourages top prospects to consider turning pro and getting education at less-elite colleges on the side. On the lower (younger) end, the Olympic Development Program has its supporters -- and critics as well, who complain about the selection process.

The USSF has instituted an under-14 developmental program with training camps, etc. Strong summer league competition covering several states is embraced in a proposal by United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues (USISL) President Francisco Marcos.

The schedule for the first series of Lazio camps, with size limited to 32 children:

July 6-10 -- boys, ages 10-12.
July 14-17 -- girls, ages 10-12.
July 20-24 -- boys, ages 12-14.
July 27-31 -- girls, ages 12-14.
August 3-7 -- boys, ages 14-16.
August 10-14 -- girls, ages 14-16.

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