U.S. Soccer Development Academy

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    WORLD-CLASS LEGACIES: PROVEN PLAYER DEVELOPMENT PATHWAYS AT SOCKERS FC, STRIKERS FC AND CROSSFIRE PREMIER

     

    For more than 30 years, David Richardson has been working to develop world-class soccer players. As the Academy Director of Sockers FC, he's seen players like Jonathan Spector and Jay DeMerit come up through the Chicago area club's youth ranks and blossom into U.S. Men's National Team stalwarts. When Bob Bradley became the first head coach of expansion M.L.S. club Chicago Fire in 1998, Richardson was at Sockers to welcome 11-year-old Michael Bradley, who was already eager to work as hard as he could to become a professional soccer player.

    As Richardson pushes to raise a new generation of world-class players in Chicago, the stories of those who came before are invaluable tools.

    "We have so many stories that we can tell our guys about players that are relevant at the next level," Richardson said. "Michael was with us at 11. We can talk about what his weaknesses were as a youth player, what his challenges were. He wasn't the top guy in some parts of his game. We look back at our history so we can use it as a tool for our guys to understand what they're going through."

    The same tales can be told at Strikers FC of Irvine, Calif., where players like Bobby Wood and Benny Feilhaber spent time as youth players. At Seattle-area Crossfire Premier, not only are there similar stories about players like DeAndre Yedlin, but alumni like Kelyn Rowe might be spotted training with the U-18/19 squad during breaks in the professional schedule.

    Even before the 2007 launch of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, these clubs' legacy of player development provided insight for the foundation of the player development pathway standardized by the Academy. All three of the clubs will play in live-stream feature games this week at the 2017 Boys' Winter Showcase.

    "It's about every day," Richardson said. "If you want to grow a flower, you don't fix a flower, you fix the environment around the flower. It's about the environment and it's about how you put that together. That's really the foundation of the club. From that, growth happens.

    At Sockers, Richardson has helped produce countless players that have taken the next step, whether to the National Team, the pros or the collegiate ranks. He attributes Sockers' prolonged relevancy to the club culture, coaching methodology and the everyday player environment. The definition of "academy" is core to the club's success as he strives to help every player reach their individual potential.

    "When you think of the word academy, you think of a school," Richardson said. "We're trying now to help the kids to a point where they move on beyond us. We want to make sure they have the necessary tools, skillsets, attitude, mentality, and mindset to really achieve at the next levels."

    It's a similar long road of holistic development at Strikers FC. A strong technical foundation allows players to advance their individual tactical abilities, and the soccer skills are complemented by heavy emphasis on hard work and staying humble.

    "It's very important that technically they're very good," said Sey Rosenstraw, Strikers FC Academy Director. "Those are the tools of the trade. Without that you can't execute the decisions that you make. Every step is important in that development. We try to have humble players. We don't want them to feel they've arrived before they've arrived."

    Since 2007, all three clubs have competed in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, the nation's highest level of youth soccer. Week-in and week-out, they match up against top clubs across the country, including the youth systems of Major League Soccer clubs. Unlike those professionally-backed academies, there's no first team at the top of the development pathway. That's not a detriment, but a benefit for Crossfire Premier.

    "We can have a long-term vision, we can look out five, eight, ten years. We can stick to a plan." said Troy Letherman, Crossfire Premier U-18/19 head coach. "We can look at some of the best practices from around the world, take what we can learn, adapt it to our environment and go on improving our players."

    The growth of MLS academies has challenged other clubs to constantly be at their best and continue to evolve. Letherman says it's a blessing to play in Cascadia alongside three top-notch MLS academies -- Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps.

    "The presence of the MLS academies is one of the best things that's happened to us," Letherman said. "It forces us to be better. We don't have a big name, a stadium full of people, a big regional draw like they do. We need to look for new avenues."

    Strikers FC competes in talent-rich Southern California alongside LA Galaxy and LAFC, while two-time Academy champion Chicago Fire is a frequent foe for Sockers FC.

    "You don't have to have a professional team to act and behave as a professional Academy," Richardson said. "We don't have one professional team that we have to guide our players into. We don't have one profile that we look for in our young players. There isn't pressure from above, but we put pressure internally on ourselves because we want to produce good quality."

    Without the need to develop players for a professional first team, clubs are able to further emphasize individual player pathways. For some, the next step is the professional ranks, domestically or abroad. For many, college is the next rung of the ladder. There's a freedom to prepare players for any number of destinations.

    "We look at ourselves as a launching pad," Richardson said. "The team for us is a tool in the process, it's not the ending process for us. We look at the players and say, 'What's the best pathway based on the profile?' We try to fit, try to make sure we help those kids with those next steps in that process.

    While the trio of clubs has a history of producing top-flight players successful at the next level, it doesn't make the pathway any easier. Richardson takes pride that at Sockers, the most is asked of the most talented players. Bradley practically lived at the Sockers facility in his youth days, coming early and staying late, rivalling the hours of the coaching staff.

    These are just three of many Academy clubs that have a bona fide legacy of high-quality player production, motivating their charges with tangible examples of success for youth players. As the Development Academy continues to grow in its eleventh year, the question isn't about the strength of the alumni base, it's "Who's next?"

    "The current players become the next storyline," Richardson said. "They're the next group of guys that write the stories. They become the next opportunity to tell how they worked and overcame things, how they were able to achieve really good things in the game."

    Article by U.S. Soccer 2017
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