This feature is part of The Academy Way

PLAYER DEVELOPMENT IS AN INEXACT SCIENCE AND TEAMS in the United States must task themselves with finding the best talent in a sporting landscape like no other on the planet. The country has unrivalled infrastructure and is home to the most massive sports leagues in the world and yet, unearthing true footballing talent is harder as players within the United States have to combat the realities of a closed system that does not compete in the global football market competitively. Players in youth teams often find themselves balancing potential professional contracts with scholarship offers – the classroom and a college degree at a reduced rate often wins out, thus delaying a potential professional’s career for a few years. Those years are not recoverable in world football.

In world football, by the time a player is nearing his eighteenth birthday, he’s either a professional player or he damn well better be on his way. In the US, that same player is balancing decisions on whether to embark on a career in Major League Soccer that doesn’t pay well compared to the more illustrious leagues abroad and even as well as some of  the corporate jobs an expensive college education could guarantee.

However, the dialogue within the US Soccer Development Academy structure mandated by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), whether it is the right or wrong way to produce and exhibit talent, is the major structural path for players to utilize. For some players, the ultimate goal is to use the sport to earn a free education at university level, which for Major League Soccer academies, might not indicate success in the way that the world sees true player development.

According the FC Dallas Academy’s website, their system “… is driven by the game and its players, coaches and referees. This game-centric approach allows for long-term development to occur through a deep understanding of what makes players successful around the world. As the sport of soccer grows in the United States, young players in our country need the proper environment to compete against the world’s elite.”

The US Soccer Development Academy program provides the optimum developmental environment for the nation’s top youth soccer players, coaches and referees by emphasizing development through quality training and limited, meaningful competition. Currently, FC Dallas has three Development Academy teams: U-13, U-14, U-15, U-16 and U-18 boys teams referred to as the FCD Academy. At the heart of the FC Dallas Academy philosophy is preparing players for the first team to compete in Major League Soccer.”

Buzzwords like “elite”, “academy”, and “optimum” aren’t rarities in U.S. soccer discussions. In fact, those are words that people want to hear. The FC Dallas Academy finds itself in a hotbed of American soccer in Texas, a state that hosts the prestigious youth tournament, Dallas Cup, and that boasts an immense cultural hotbed with strong Hispanic representation. As it stands, the FCD Academy is a prime position to dominate the academy setup and churn out homegrown talent to the first team in alignment with its core philosophy to “prepare players for the first team to compete in Major League Soccer”.

The goal, it seems, is to produce MLS-grade talent, which it does well. As of December 1, 2014 the FC Dallas Academy has signed 13 homegrown players to play with the first team. According to the Academy website, “FC Dallas Homegrown players logged an MLS high 4,607 minutes or 14 percent of the team’s total minutes in 2014 with 61 combined games played and 50 starts. Homegrown midfielder Victor Ulloa became the first homegrown player in franchise history to play over 2,000 minutes in a single season in 2014.”

Since the FC Dallas Academy joined the US Soccer Development Academy in 2008, it has enjoyed a successful spell in both the U-16 and U-18 levels. Both age levels have made the USSDA playoffs in each season and the U-18s won the US Soccer Development Academy National Championship in 2012. In terms of international representation, 28 FC Dallas Academy players have appeared with the youth national teams for the US, Canada or Mexico. FC Dallas Academy alumni, Kellyn Acosta (pictured) and Danny Garcia appeared in the 2013 FIFA Under-20 World Cup for the US. Richard Sánchez captured the U-17 FIFA World Cup with Mexico in 2011 and featured in all seven games in the tournament and later went on to represent Mexico in 2013 at the Under-20 World Cup.

Naturally, strong academies test their development against international competition with FC Dallas Academy players regularly playing against Liga MX youth teams. The real test is not so much about the wins and losses column, but the experience of playing in tournaments like Bolivia’s Tahuichi Mundialito, the AEGON Future Cup in Amsterdam, and numerous friendlies against European academy teams.

For academies in the United States, success has to come in the form of the baseline player exiting “the factory”, so to speak. All too often, the youth game is evaluated in absolutes, which leads to the necessity to measure success at the player level at this stage. The FC Dallas Academy, like most USSDA’s, includes a pre-academy program that follows a format as a directive of USSF and limits the amount of travel for the younger age group. Training at the academy levels takes place over a 10-month season whereby players are evaluated on their tactical and technical abilities.

Most academy products, contrary to what many within the system want to believe, will not be professional players. The academy system may not produce the type of player that takes the pitch for the world’s best teams, but it has helped organise and channel the talent in one of the country’s biggest and most diverse metropolitan areas. The task of putting players in positions they can be seen is imperative to the game’s growth in the United States.

The FC Dallas Academy does that to great effect and measuring success indicates that the American game still has a way to go in terms of realistically competing and producing the type of players that not only enhance the domestic game, but could thrive in the top world’s top leagues. What the American game needs is to put players in positions where they will be seen by teams and scouts that are equipped to continue whatever developmental path is right for the players.

At this stage of the academy concept in American soccer, progress is still measured in both college scholarships earned and players advancing through the ranks to the first team. From a global perspective, the number of professional-ready players will continue to grow as will the allure of attending college on a scholarship.

By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3