• Lou Vega

Steve Gans on the Development Academy's flaws, the alienating turf wars, and what U.S. Soccer should

Steve Gans  is in a unique position to assess the success and flaws of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Gans, who has served on the board of directors of a Development Academy club, FC Greater Boston Bolts, has also coached youth soccer, served in volunteer administrative positions, and has provided counseling for youth clubs and for pro clubs in strategic partnerships with youth clubs. Before and during his campaign for U.S. Soccer presidency, which in February was won by Carlos Cordeiro, Gans went on a nationwide listening tour in which he got plenty of feedback on U.S. Soccer's influence on the youth game. Gans is also the father of two boys who played in the Development Academy. We spoke to Gans in the wake of major clubs leaving the Girls DA after its first season.

SOCCER AMERICA: You were unique among the eight U.S. Soccer presidential candidates in that you were the only one to join the race to replace Sunil Gulati before the U.S. men failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. How much of your decision to run was inspired by your ideas on how you as president might be able to improve American youth soccer?

STEVE GANS: I ran for two main reasons. First, it was to vindicate an important democratic principle, as the election could not remain uncontested for a fourth consecutive four-year term, and someone had to step up to challenge Sunil. Second, I felt that there was dysfunction within youth soccer and through and up to the men’s national team program (the production of successful national team players is inextricably linked to the state of youth soccer), and so it was initially a huge part of my presumptive decision to run. Meeting with so many youth state association presidents, board members and executive directors shed even more light on that dysfunction, and was confirmation that the time to run was now for the good of the game and for the good of the kids.

I knew that there was a fractured landscape and confusing player pathway. I knew that parents were confused and frustrated by the patchwork landscape of leagues and state cups, and inconsistent and untimely communication (in many cases) from their club DOC’s. I knew that pay-to play and associated travel was/is out of control. I knew that the current system was sucking the joy out the game for so many youth players. But many youth state association leaders expressed their frustration and opinion that, as to youth soccer, U.S. Soccer only focused on the top of the pyramid -- the U.S. Development Academy. Moreover, they shared their opinion that U.S. Soccer did not look down below the topline of 4 million registered players to engage in and solve the infighting for turf occurring below between sanctioning organizations, which was contributing to the confusion and dysfunction in youth soccer.

I came out of those meetings more convinced than ever that running to provide more engaged and better leadership was the right thing to do.

SA: The Boys Development Academy is now in its 11th season. In what areas do you think the Boys DA has been successful?

STEVE GANS: U.S. Soccer’s fundamental premise – that the training, coaching and competition in the Development Academy are generally superior to that in high school (and for that matter, most other non-DA clubs) -- is fundamentally correct. The technical development of many young American players is better for having gone through the DA. But that is not where the analysis and inquiry can or should stop. So commonly with U.S. Soccer a linear approach is instituted (i.e., “this is how they are doing it in Belgium, and we must adopt that whole cloth”), without regard for what makes the U.S. different. We are indeed producing more technically sound players, but at a great cost. So we are producing more technically sound players, but many of those players come out of the DA robotic in playing style and/or having lost the passion and joy for the game. Understanding why that is is a sociological inquiry which is essential to moving U.S. Soccer forward.

SA: What would you say the Boys DA's main flaws are?

STEVE GANS: I sat on the Board of a DA club for 5 ½ years, and I was a DA parent for 7 years. My pretty consistent experience was that U.S. Soccer would introduce another more restrictive rule every half year or year, no doubt aimed at making the boys more professional, but which instead had a deleterious effect. My impression was that U.S. Soccer was making those decisions from 30,000 feet in a conference room in Chicago, and was out of touch with those in the trenches who could provide essential feedback to aid in informed decision-making.

One example in this regard which I discussed during the campaign was the implementation of the restrictive FIFA substitution rule in the DA. U.S. Soccer thought they were creating more professional “game ready” players by employing this rule. Instead, it was just another more restrictive and joy-sucking rule, which contributed to the “death by 1,000 cuts” experience of a good many boys in the DA.

Think about it for a minute: in regular club soccer, if a coach substitutes a player either for tactical reasons or to give him/her a pointer, that player can return to the game. DA players know the real FIFA rule in this area, they don’t need to play under it at U-14. As it is, many boys would come to me on game days and say “The Cornell coach is here to see me, the Tufts coach is here, and if I have two bad touches in the first 12 minutes, I will be pulled.”

As a consequence, many boys play “safe” and inhibited, with no risk-taking and no expression. And by the way, if U.S. Soccer’s intention behind the rule is to get boys to get off to a fast start and have their heads in the game from the get-go, that message can be delivered on a case-by-case basis other than by this suffocating rule (i.e., via a coach’s decision). The FIFA substitution rule is just one of a series of ever more restrictive rules issued by U.S. Soccer during my seven years as a DA parent, which served to suck the joy out of the game for young players, and which in my opinion evidenced how out of touch U.S. Soccer has been.

Other flaws include:

Too much travel, which contributes to burnout. Ban on high school play, which is a huge alienating factor, contributing to players losing passion for and ultimately even resenting the sport. Not enough monitored standards for coaches and DOC’s, many of whom emphasize winning over development, in an effort to build their own coaching resumes rather than truly focusing on what’s best for the young players.

In my experience, by the end of the system at U18-U19 if there are more than six players on a DA team who are still happy players, then that is a lot. Why should that be?

Lionel Messi went to one of the most serious academies in the world, yet look how he came out: a player who plays with passion and joy, and who had his original passion for the game preserved. Many if not most American boys come out of our no-name DA academies as players who have lost that expression and joy. Why should that be?

SA: How could the DA be run in a way that addressed some of the problems while still achieving its goal of producing "world-class" players?

STEVE GANS: The ethos of the DA should change to one which focuses on ensuring that players who go through the system maintain their joy and passion for the game. The lack of joy for so many American youth players was an early and constant theme of mine during the campaign. Other candidates kind of co-opted it, and it became almost a trite refrain after awhile. But that does not detract from the fact that it is a very real and essential issue.

The DA should of course be demanding, but it should not be as alienating, divisive and joy sapping as it is for so many young players.

My father came from Germany and passed on his passion for soccer to me, and I in turn passed it on to my two sons. Noah and Josh, who have been immersed in the sport their whole lives, as players and fans. Noah played in the DA for seven years, but my wife and I looked up prior to his U-18 senior high school year, and realized that he was losing his passion for playing, and was generally miserable. The dedication to the DA and its opportunity cost (no high school play, a somewhat less than normal social life) yet presented something most desirable: admission to the college of his choice.

Noah originally committed to a leading D1 college, and the admonition in our club (complete with examples) was that college coaches will not let one leave the DA or they will likely pull their commitment. We were thus left with a torturous conundrum. Noah had come so far and sacrificed so much to be in this position, and to risk it now would seem illogical. On the other hand, he was clearly miserable, and it was painful to see. Of course, the love of our son won out, and we jointly decided that Noah would leave the DA for his final season, for a chance to experience high school soccer and to get back that happiness. I haltingly called the recruiting coach with the news, and to his credit, he OK’d the move.

Noah thus played his last season for his high school and for a regular non-DA club in the spring, and by doing so, he got his joy for the game back. As a college freshman this year he helped lead Brandeis (not the school to which he originally committed) to the final four and was named one of New England’s top freshman players. He loves the sport again, and his playing future is relatively unlimited. But it would not have happened unless he had left the DA as he did.

Another personal story is even more stark and illustrative. A boy I once coached named Conor also played seven years in the DA. He remained in the DA for his senior year, but by the end of the experience he was so alienated and unhappy that he decided not to play college soccer at all. Can you imagine? All that dedication and sacrifice as a youth player, but the DA had sucked the joy of the sport from Conor, and he presumptively decided to give the game up. I took Conor to breakfast and told him that when he got some distance from and perspective on the DA he would get his joy back. Conor did not play college soccer his freshman year, but by the end of the first semester he had the passion for the game back. He is now a happy and successful college player at Colby College.

These are but two examples. U.S. Soccer’s myopic and attenuated perspective is harming the development of many players. You can’t play this game at a high level if you are not a happy player. So “joy” -- far from being a soft term for pampered kids -- is an essential component to developing elite young players and ultimately national team players.

So what can U.S. Soccer do? For starters:

Liberalize the restriction on high school play. Roll back some of the other needlessly restrictive rules which choke the joy out of the game for so many youth players. Reduce the travel demands, which also lead to burnout. Mandate some freestyle play in most practices to let kids express themselves, and to reduce some of the regimented robotic development which occurs. Establish strict standards for coaches, so that coach emphasis on team harmony and development is prioritized over the coach’s career personal agendas. Coordinate and work together with state ODP programs. Players are being missed from states who do not have a DA club.

SA: If we agree that: For some players it's beneficial to skip high school soccer, but for others it's a sacrifice that's not worthwhile in the long-run -- how could the DA balance that?

STEVE GANS: U.S. Soccer has to liberalize the restriction on high school play, so that it is a choice for all players at the outset. If it is not, it will lead to burnout and indeed in many cases, actual resentment of the sport. In its myopic view, U.S. Soccer over-discounted the significant fact that playing high school sports is a quintessential America experience, and denial of that experience has some important detrimental effects.

I think what is key is that every kid gets the choice, and is not automatically forced into the dilemma of the DA opportunity having attendant to it the substantial opportunity cost of no high school. Prior to entering 9th grade, I asked my son Noah if he wanted to stay in the DA or play for his high school. At the time, reasoning that the quality of play in the DA was superior, he immediately chose to stay in the DA, and said, “Why would I want to play high school?” I continued to check-in prior to every high school year, and Noah’s answer prior to 10th grade was similar – DA all the way. But when I posed the question prior to his junior year, Noah said “Well, it would make no sense to leave, as I have come this far.”

That answer was a distinction with a huge difference, and in hindsight, it represented Noah’s tepid cry out that he was losing his passion in the DA for playing the sport. He was being recruited by many colleges, and so inherent in his answer was a pragmatism that he had gone through the process for so long with the goal (i.e., admission to a top college) in sight, such that it would be foolish to upset that process, irrespective of how wistful he was about missing the high school experience. But it is clear that over time he realized that he was paying a big cost and missing out on a quintessential high school experience: representing your school and playing with your close friends from your formative years. The experience of walking around your high school but not being recognized for what in many ways defines you and related to which you have dedicated countless hours to reach an elite level, is inherently alienating.

It may dawn on them early in their high school years or not until the end, but I believe that many youth players start to resent the DA once they realize the huge cost they must pay to be part of the program, and then thereby lose some joy for the sport.

To further illustrate U.S. Soccer’s misread of this situation, I would site a few more examples. Noah played senior year only for his high school, and the fear that somehow he would lose his technical edge by not playing in the DA for those three months went unrealized. Noah did not lose any technical sharpness or abilities, and indeed, I believe the less refined and more physical nature (athleticism over technical skills) of high school soccer actually enhanced his readiness to be a college player, as it rounded his game off.

Moreover, if U.S. Soccer’s focus (basis of the FIFA substitution rule) is to create players who are better prepared to be professionals, then I would submit that the high school game milieu does a better job in this regard then does the DA. To wit, the typical DA game (especially in the fall when there are few college coaches scouting) is attended by 40 white-knuckled (intense but simmering) parents and one USSF observer. The atmosphere is, to put it mildly, pretty sterile. Contrast that with many high school games which, at least in the game against the school rival, is apt to draw hundreds of fans or more.

Learning to play in front of a large crowd is a huge part of elite player development. Noah started as a freshman in the final four this year, and the moment was not too big for him. I would submit that having played in front of hundreds of fans in an electric atmosphere vs. a high school rival during senior year better prepared him to play in front of thousands of fans in the college final four than did the DA.

It is true that while some DA kids would choose to play high school soccer, others would choose to forego high school, but the point is that providing the choice could go a long way toward helping preserve enthusiasm for the sport. Liberalizing the high school playing restriction should be a top consideration of U.S. Soccer.

SA: When I queried U.S. Soccer in February on whether it was accurate that less than 6% of A, B and C license coaches are Latino, I was told that the coaching course application's ethnicity question is voluntary -- and that U.S. Soccer has not tracked the number of Latinos going through its coaching schools. In a nation in which 25% of the population under the age of 18 is Hispanic I would think a national governing body would be interested in such of demographic information. What's your opinion on that?

STEVE GANS: I would absolutely agree with you that U.S. Soccer should be interested in such demographic information, and if I had become president tracking the number of Latinos going through U.S. Soccer coaching schools would have become a priority. We have a disconnect across the board with the soccer-rich Latino community, and we should do everything we can to bridge that gap, and to make U.S. Soccer more inclusive.

SA: One of the aims of the DA was to provide less expensive youth soccer for the nation's elite players. The MLS clubs do fund their DA clubs, but obviously it's a struggle for most youth clubs in America to alleviate costs for their players. How would you gauge the DA's success at making elite youth soccer less expensive?

STEVE GANS: The pay-to-play issue is of course out of control, and the cost of playing youth club soccer makes the opportunity prohibitive for many deserving players; and that is a terrible shame. U.S. Soccer cannot just mandate that each non-MLS DA club scholarship every DA player, as the majority (if not all) of such clubs simply could not afford to do so. In addition to scholarships based on financial need, there is a movement in many DA clubs to provide playing merit-based scholarships. For instance, I recently drafted a model Merit Scholarship Player Agreement for a DA club. However, as well intended as it may be, this development has its own controversy, as economic relief for the best players means that the costs of running the club fall more heavily on parents of players in the club who play on non-DA teams, and that is not lost on many of these parents.

Overall, I don’t think that the skyrocketing pay-to-play fees issue is specific to DA clubs. Rather, it is an issue throughout youth club soccer, and I believe that U.S. Soccer could do a better job making clubs accountable, or exposing clubs who are overcharging, such that market forces would actually lower these accessibility costs.

SA: U.S. Soccer launched the Girls DA in 2017 under different circumstances than the boys, including the fact the ECNL was well established, and now we've got the Girls DA competing with the ECNL for the nation's top players and clubs. This hasn't gone well so far for the DA, as some top clubs who did join the DA have already announced they're pulling out. How would you suggest U.S. Soccer go forward with the Girls DA?

STEVE GANS: The close timing of the establishment of the Girls DA and then the Boys ECNL was a little troubling to me, because without more, it kind of appeared to be two competitors matching shots across the bow, and if that was the case, then once again focus on the kids was lost in the shuffle, and the kids lose out. Now that the Girls DA is here, I would simply say that if the restriction on high school participation is an excruciating and painful one on the boys side, it is even more so on the girls side of the DA.

As on the Boys DA, I would recommend that U.S. Soccer liberalize the restriction on high school play as to the Girls DA. And as a central focus of mine during the campaign was solving the disruptive infighting between sanctioning organizations within youth soccer in America, I would suggest that the DA and the ECNL talk about where they have common ground and perhaps can come together in order to eliminate some of the confusion and alienation caused by such turf wars, and thereby put the focus back where it belongs: on the kids and on the successful development of youth players.

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