Thursday a couple weeks ago was a dreary night in Foxboro. As the sun came down, the temperature made its slow and steady descent below freezing. Rain fell in a continuous mist with sporadic periods of showers interspersed. To put it simply, if you had to brave the elements it was an evening to be thankful for Gore-Tex and a down jacket — two essentials I armed myself with in expectation of standing outside for a couple hours observing my first New England Revolution Youth Academy training session.
However, much to my delight, the teams —U16 and U18 — would be practicing in the Dana Farber Field House, an 80,000 square foot mega-tent that holds a full size NFL football field inside, right in the shadow of Gillette Stadium.
I guess sometimes it pays off to share the same owner as the mighty Pats (well not so mighty after Sunday’s Super Bowl).
As I entered through a side door, the session was already underway. The boys were going through a number of passing drills, four to a group, one player on each end and two in the middle. In a matter of seconds, a quick succession of passes had seen the ball zip from one footballer to the next.
Four players, four touches, one end to the other and not a wasted movement in any of it. Repeat, repeat and repeat again.
As someone who played soccer year round for the better part of my childhood and adolescence, it wasn’t a scene that was entirely foreign.
For anyone that’s played or observed their fair share of competitive youth soccer here in the United States, in the past, drills like the ones I witnessed are usually a warm-up, an exercise to get the blood flowing that even the coach hardly bats an eye over. My teammates and I would occasionally use the time to joke and catch up. In other words, it was the time for us players to dog it.
However, these exercises served as the centerpiece for much of the Revolution’s training session. Like many exemplary European academies, the Revs’ youth squads seem to put a very high premium on touches on the ball. The more, the better. For what seemed to be about half the training session, the boys bludgeoned the ball back and forth as if on a string, the only sounds the spare, measured instructions of Coach Scales and Assistant Coach Gary Hall and the relentless thwack of boot meeting ball. It was not until the very end that the teams got the chance to play a full-size game.
Missy Wade, a communications coordinator for the Revolution, told me that most practices follow a similar format. With three sessions a week and the rare friendly before the season starts in March, the academy takes a quality and quantity approach: quantity in high-tempo, high-performance training and quality in the matches they play.
This seems to be in line with the U.S. Soccer Federation’s outline for producing technically proficient players.
D.C. United President and CEO Kevin Payne, who studied player development in other countries at the behest of the USSF, had this to say to ESPN a few years ago: “I think the biggest thing we found, something that was very consistent [across countries], was that we had the ratio of training time to game time exactly reversed. In those countries that are so good at developing great players, for every hour of playing time, they sometimes have five or more hours of training time. We were doing the opposite.”
That frequency of training means a substantial time commitment for players, with some commuting from as far as Hooksett and Manchester in New Hampshire, about 75 miles north of Gillette Stadium. Yet it’s an opportunity few would pass up. Wade informed me that the academy is the only youth soccer program in New England to foot the bill for all of their player’s soccer-related expenses, including equipment, uniforms and travel. This is a strange concept to just about anyone who has played youth sports in the United States, where pay-to-play is the norm.
This largely accepted, and curiously American concept led me to think of how many youth prospects fall through the cracks in a system where a player’s family is saddled with the burden of payment. I once played for a competitive soccer club growing up in Oregon where one of our best players was a recent immigrant from Mexico. Still trying to get the hang of english, his family impossibly poor, for him playing soccer for a team was an indulgence, a privilege. Had the club not made an exception and our parents not helped out, an extremely talented player like that would have remained off the radar.
The Revs, and many MLS acadmeies, again take their cue from Europe, where clubs identify skilled players at a young age and invest in them. The few gems that surface from the spartan selection process then join the first team or are sold to other clubs for millions of dollars/euros/pounds/insert currency here. In the U.S. though, this endgame is years down the road. The USSF is betting the emerging Development Academy system will be a success, much like the academy heads who fund the footballing education of young wards at an Ajax or a West Ham United.
Many Americans have said this sort of system is exploitive and turns kids into nothing more than ball-booting, slide-tackling automatons. And in many parts of the world, maybe there is truth in that to some degree, but it’s also a system that is honest about its intentions — something that can’t always be said about profess…ahem amateur sports leagues that hide behind the facade of education and call their objectives honorable.
Yet I’d argue that ‘honorable’ is exactly what the Development Academy system is at this point. Reaping no real financial rewards and the path from youth prospect to professional yet to be homogenized, the benefits seem to go right to the players.
And though the boys I watched played with a focus and precision that belied their adolescence, they weren’t robots at all. They played with too much passion to be confused with the likes of that.