At the Development Academy Central Regional Showcase, the Toyota Soccer Center hardly provided a walk in the park. The weekend saw 102 games kick off as MLS sides and other top youth clubs clashed. A howling mass from FC Dallas' academy provided the loudest cheers amongst other spectators. U.S. Soccer scouts took in all the action.
It was Cincinnati United Premier's first time competing as an Academy club at a U.S. Soccer Development Academy event. Above all the noise of the season's first event, CUP academy director Scott Bower heard the Development Academy's mission ring true.
"They see the benefits of less games, putting more into the games and that the games are more meaningful. That's one of the big reasons why we really wanted to be in the Academy, to challenge ourselves against the best," Bower said. "We can break it down and spend more time with the players, so they're getting individual feedback."
The Development Academy is dedicated to creating world-class environments to produce world-class players. As the country's highest level of youth soccer and a U.S. Soccer player development initiative, the Academy provides a clear pathway to the National Teams. All of the Academy's attributes were on full display in Frisco, Texas. For first-time clubs like CUP and South Florida Surf, the Academy's principles were clearly in practice.
"It's not about the result, it's about how do we make a player better," said Eric Arbuzow, South Florida Surf academy director. "You're competing to better the game in the country versus win a trophy."
At the Regional Showcase, teams play three games: two mini-games and one full game. Mini-games consist of 25-minute halves while U-13 full-length games are 70 minutes and U-14 full-length games are 80 minutes. Academy showcase events don't have playoffs or a championship, games are scheduled to provide the most meaningful match-ups with the focus on team and player evaluation.
Results aren't posted or tracked at these age groups, not in-season or at events. The focus is on development. Every player on the U-13 roster is required to play at least 50% of game minutes per month, while all players on the U-14 roster must start at least 25% of games with their club. Over the course of the Academy campaign, this allows all players to gain the opportunity to progress towards their maximum potential.
"If you're playing to win a trophy, you're going to play players that get results, you're not going to play players in positions or take tactical approaches that are going to enhance development," Arbuzow said. "It's a showcase, it's not a tournament. I don't see a value of taking a medal out of here and going home."
For CUP, previous tournaments meant playing multiple games a day in weekend-long slogs through group stages, knockout rounds and multiple age groups brought in by every club. At Academy Regional Showcases, the focus is on U-13 and U-14 players, and only the players.
"The biggest difference is being able to meet with the boys in smaller groups and also in individual meetings that we have more time for," Bower said. "Five games in a weekend, the bodies start breaking down and the quality of the games isn't the same… that's not the growth environment we want for them. You've got to be able to play and then understand how to recover, take care of your body."
The Academy brings together the nation's top youth clubs, including 22 MLS-affiliated academes. A high level of competition is guaranteed at Showcases via hand-picked match-ups selected by the Academy technical staff. Between their own games, Arbuzow had the Surf watch the Showcase's other high-level fixtures. As a relatively new club, the learning opportunity was invaluable.
"Around our games, we scheduled time to watch the FC Dallas's, the Chicago Fire's," Arbuzow said. "Watching them play and being able to point out the descriptive things we tell our players, they're looking at it, thinking, 'Well, now it makes a lot more sense, because I can see it…' In training, you talk about it, talk about it, talk about it and then when you play against it, it changes everything. Because now a kid is thinking, 'you can play that ball, there is more space.'"
All of the games at the Showcase were also being watched by U.S. Soccer talent identification scouts, seeking out the next wave of U-14 and U-15 Boys' National Team players. The Academy provides a direct route to National Team programs, and it was noticeable in Frisco with scouts, Technical Advisors and National Team staff on each sideline.
For the U-13s and U-14s playing, it was their first major exposure to U.S. Soccer talent identification. Part of the process at the Showcase is getting the players accustomed to that environment. Every game at Academy events is scouted by U.S. Soccer Talent Identification. The on-site scouts provide open lines of communication with the Academy Directors and coaches to exchange valuable feedback on how players can improve, and what steps they can take to work towards a National Training Center call-up.
After gaining experience from their first Showcase game, CUP's players told Bower they felt like they needed to do something different on the Showcase stage.
"It's natural, when you see someone over there (a U.S. Soccer scout)… The boys felt individually that they were trying to do something extra to try to impress because they thought that's why they're here," Bower said. "The message we're trying to send them is that we want them to do what they're doing everyday back home, preparing them for this moment. The ideas, the principles, how we want to play is all the same."
There's also an atmosphere of respect amongst all of the clubs. Playing with the best breeds the best, and high-quality opponents help the clubs, and the game, grow. With the ground that Academy staff must cover, Arbuzow thinks it's important to have a dialogue with scouts and Technical Advisors about great players on other teams.
"Part of being in the Academy is helping U.S. Soccer overall. Everybody loves talking about their teams but for this to continue to grow and get better, you have got to look and say what does the other team have? What things do you like about them?" Arbuzow said. "We want to help grow the game in our area, whatever we can do. If we play that little 10-percent role where we are and everybody else plays it, it gets better everywhere."
While the teams competed against each other over the course of the weekend, and over the course of the 10-month season, the Academy has a common goal. It rings true through all of its activity.
"The idea of all this is for all the clubs to be better, be more competitive, do things the right way," Bower said. "We come here to compete with each other but we're also trying to build our National Team program. At the end of the day, we're actually working together to help all of our players get better."