Building Football Factories In The US
By Marc Serber
In England, West Ham is known as the Academy because its youth system produced the likes of Frank Lampard and Joe Cole.
In Spain, Barcelona’s La Masia is the current standard the entire world looks up to after the famed school churned out Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, and an entire group of homegrown players that swept everyone before them despite dwelling in an era dominated worldwide by purchasing power (look no further than their eternal rivals’ Galacticos policy).
In the US, the academy system is still too young for any club to be dubbed America’s version of “The Academy” or “La Escuelita,” as Racing of Uruguay is known.
Still in its infancy, the project being undertaken not only by MLS clubs, but youth clubs around the country are striving to reach the standard set by the old world.
Among the soccer minds leading the charge is Chivas USA U18 coach and Fox Soccer analyst Keith Costigan.
As a youth player in Ireland and in England with Luton Town as well as an observer at Liverpool’s academy, Costigan has intimate knowledge of the system in the UK and the growth of the American project to develop players for the professional level.
The philosophy in the new world has shifted to match the ideals of youth development worldwide. State, regional, national titles and personal accolades are no longer the hallmark of a successful club or its players.
“The idea of the Academy system is to get all the players that have shown they have the ability to play at the next level together,” Costigan explained in a phone interview. “The goal is to develop the top talent in the country and get them ready for the next level. US Soccer is heavily involved. They have us recommend players for the national training centers and which individuals should be involved with the national team.
Costigan admits that the US is not there yet, the USSF is still “developing exactly what the structure should be. Not all teams have the same resources at hand in terms of players and coaches but so far the US is happy with the development structure.”
“Our goal at Chivas USA is to develop as many players as we can that are ready and able to jump into the MLS and to provide a good base for the first team to build for the future,” Costigan continued.
“We want to implement a style of play, make our guys tactically and technically aware. The competitive side in you wants to win, but ultimately we as coaches are judged by how many players we move forward. With that said, if you develop good players, then the results will come.”
As the standard set by La Masia recently, it is important that all players within the club understand the tactics being developed from the first team to the youngest squads so that players moving up the ranks can fit seamlessly without having to learn a whole new style of play.
Understanding a club’s ideology is paramount for players hoping to make the jump to the next level. Costigan and his staff are developing a high pressing 4-3-3 formation where the wingbacks are integral to the attack. The midfield three must be interchangeable with the central midfielder, the creative fulcrum of the attack.
“We are going to play out of the back and have our midfielders get on the ball. If teams want to stop that, then our guys have to learn to play through it. They need to go out with the mindset that if you want to play at the next level you need to play the right way.”
Therefore the development of the player is not just in his own personal technique, but the ability to understand the system and, perhaps most importantly, to problem solve.
With all that said, the US is obviously not quite there yet. Part of it is just time. Academies around the world have existed for years while at 22 Bill Hamid is still the first Academy player signed by DC United.
Question about the retention of players throughout the system remains as well as how to make sure that those players promoted to the first team don’t fall by the wayside. One such example is RSL’s first homegrown signing, Donny Toia, who never made a first team appearance and now plays in the third division.
The US still has a bit of a Freddy Adu problem. Whenever the next big thing comes along the media demands to see them and the coaches hands are often tied. Protecting young talents and keeping them grounded is a skill the US youth system has yet to learn.
“The system is a lot more entrenched over there [in Europe],” Costigan informs, ‘If you’re a youth team player, you’re not obliged to talk to the press.”
“The minute there’s a good player in the US, we want to talk to him and jump on him and there’s nothing the coaching staff can do because of the media hype.”
“We need to protect the young players better here by getting our arm around their shoulder and keeping them away from the limelight. At Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson nurtured players like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes by shielding them from the press. Ferguson also had a strict hand over them and kept them grounded. Everyone says where’s our Messi? Where’s our Messi? But we just need to let our players grow.”
For Costigan, one of the biggest differences between the US and across the pond is that academies have no protection of their players. That means they can leave at any time and the clubs get no compensation for their efforts while in places like England and Spain, the kids are under contract.
Josh Perez just left Chivas USA for Italy’s Fiorentina while across the way at the Home Depot Center, Paul Arriola snubbed the Galaxy’s youth set up to join Mexico’s Tijuana. In other countries, such moves would at least come with a transfer fee which would serve as remuneration for the part these clubs played in brining these players along.
“We can’t lose these young players we are developing for nothing,” Costigan laments, “especially when its only halfway through the process.”
Despite the growing pains of implementing a system designed to compete with the best developmental schools in the world, Costigan is confident with the progress made across the 50 states.
“I think we are getting closer to being like other countries. Over the last few year’s Liverpool’s mindset has been very similar. LFC realized that after Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, they hadn’t developed any more world class talent and that was a problem so they turned much of their focus to youth.”
“The structure of development academy is to try and bring all the best players together to one place have them play together and move the best ones on to the next level.”
“US Soccer has built that kind of system over the last few years and you will continue to see results.”
Just how confident is Costigan about the continued progress of the academy system? His belief in the project, not only at Chivas USA but across the country is strong enough to echo the sentiments of Austin Aztex coach Paul Dalglish:
“Many people in the US, including players, presume the standard of the academies in Europe are better but in many cases they aren't,” remarked the son of Liverpool legend ‘King Kenny.’ "We have some outstanding young players in the US and some fantastic academies. Soccer in this country is flourishing in the younger ages and as coaches we must convince the players that they can achieve all their dreams right here. US soccer have put together a great system. We just all need to believe in it and each other more.”
Back in Southern California and the belief in the staff and its vision is strong. “Chivas USA is working hard at recruiting the best talent and making those players even better,” says Costigan with a quiet and yet subtle confidence. “We want to be known as the Academy that will make you ready for the next level.”
First Southern California and then the country. As Chivas USA like the rest of the 80 Academies in the US strives to become a football factory so that the fans on the terrace can one day echo the sentiments of the West Ham faithfull, referring to their American club as “THE Academy.”