WASHINGTON, D.C. (Tuesday, June 19, 2007) -- I was sitting with my good friend Grahame Jones, the veteran soccer columnist for the Los Angeles Times when the United States men took the field against Trinidad & Tobago at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., last week. Looking at the U.S. team, he made the spot-on comment "that represents the failure of (the) USSF (Federation's) youth development program. That team looks just like the U.S. did in the 1970s."
Grahame's point was that there are how many thousands of Latino youth playing and the USSF has not been able to develop any and bring them through to the national team. The group that took the field against T&T looked pretty much like the U.S. team of the 70s -- white and generally Nordic.
Certainly, there is now a good representation of African-Americans on the national team. Arguably, with Tim Howard, Oguchi Onyewu, DaMarcus Beasley and Eddie Johnson, the U.S.'s best goalkeeper, defender, midfielder and forward are all African Americans. But where are the representatives of the Latino community, especially since they represent one if not the largest number of youth players?
The youth development program in this country has been a concern of the USSF for a considerable time. When USSF president Sunil Gulati took over two years ago, he immediately set as his top priority the revamping of the youth program to ensure it reached out to minorities, making sure the best young players in the country received the high level of coaching necessary to develop their skills to the level of elite youth players worldwide.
Now, the USSF has announced the first step in revamping its youth program, but I'm not sure it is going to get them anywhere close to where they want to go, or need to go.
The announced new program is complex, but essentially calls for bringing up to 80 youth club teams into a new close relationship with the USSF. The assumption is the level of coaching being offered by the clubs will be raised through clinics, coaching training and financial aid from the USSF, and youth players will be closely monitored to track their development so the best can be brought into the national training programs and youth national teams.
There are a bunch of other rules and requirements, including that none of the players can be charged fees by the participating clubs.
The first 11 clubs have signed up: Atlanta Fire United Soccer Association, B\W Gottschee (New York), CASL -Capitol Area Soccer League (North Carolina), De Anza Force Soccer Club (Northern California), FC Delco (Pennsylvania), FC Greater Boston Bolts, Michigan Wolves, Nomads Soccer Club (Southern California), Players Development Academy (New Jersey), Seacoast United (New Hampshire) and FC Westchester (New York).
Gulati recently told SoccerTimes, "We're very pleased with the initial response. Some of the oldest and very best clubs in the country, the ones that traditionally win the big youth championships have either already signed up or are actively talking with us. I'm confident this program will involve the very best clubs in America.
"We need to shift the focus of our young elite players from an 'overburdened, game emphasis' model to a 'meaningful training and competition' model. This will ultimately lead to more success and will allow players to develop to their full potential."
In making the announcement of the first clubs signing up, USSF director of coaching education Bob Jenkins said, "We are very encouraged by the progress so far. The key component to the development academy is a focus from the clubs on doing what it takes to get their coaches and players focused on long term player development."
Which is well and good, I guess. Most experts looking at the current youth program have come to two conclusions -- the young U.S. players are not developing the technical skills youth in Europe and South America acquire and, secondly, with the vast numbers of youth playing soccer in this country, many of those with the most potential are missed, especially if they are minorities playing in inner cities and urban areas.
Developing a uniform level of coaching across this cross section of clubs has to be a positive and go toward alleviating the first problem. But how is this program going to be any sort of a step forward in identifying minority youth and bringing them into contact with elite coaching and bringing them into the national youth team fold?
Gulati stresses this is only a first step and that he thinks it is a big first step. Only time will tell.