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Fixing U.S. Soccer requires a repair at the youth level, and here's how to go about it

It’s been about eight months since the United States men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup on a muggy night in Trinidad and Tobago. But the dust has yet to lift on what was assuredly the biggest calamity in the history of the game stateside. Because the full upshot will not be understood for several more years, at least.

Only then will we get a sense of the impact and ripples this sporting disaster will have had. And just maybe something good will have come of it. Because sometimes a failure becomes a watershed moment that propels progress. And sometimes it’s written off as a fluke and nothing changes substantially.

It took Germany a decade to enjoy the fruit of the drastic reform it enacted after flaming out of Euro 2004, winless and humiliated for a second time in a row. But by the 2014 World Cup, they were champions. Their darkest days had, in the end, laid the foundations for glory 10 years on. It was a painful thing to go through, but the program was much better for it in the end.

When the Netherlands missed the 2002 World Cup, a realization set in upon deep and honest introspection that the atmosphere around the team had grown toxic. The players fundamentally didn’t get along with manager Louis van Gaal any longer, even though he’d ushered most of those players into the pro game while at Ajax. Adjustments were made and the Dutch had a good run of results from Euro 2004 through the 2014 World Cup – reaching the semifinals of major tournaments three times, the last time around under van Gaal, as it happens.

Following the failure to qualify for Euro 2016, however, the problem was ascribed to poor management by Guus Hiddink and Danny Blind, rather than any structural issues with an outmoded playing style and a talent pipeline that had run dry. The Dutch summarily failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup as well, before finally realizing that something was amiss and commissioning a series of studies and reviews.

Where will a first absence from the World Cup since 1986 leave the U.S.? And when it returns in 2022, or 2026 or 2030, assuming that it does, will it have gained something from it?

It’s too soon to tell whether the United States men’s national team program will have such a hard-won eureka moment from its failure to get to Russia. The early signs suggested that it wouldn’t, as then-head coach Bruce Arena and then-U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati both ascribed the enormous regression to bad luck – never mind that, at best, the Americans would have scraped through a CONCACAF qualifying series they usually dominated. There were no larger issues, they argued. It was all just bad bounces and ill-timed slumps.

Arena and Gulati are gone now. And the presidential race to succeed the latter became a referendum on the state of the American game. Gulati’s former vice-president, Carlos Cordeiro, prevailed, suggesting many within the sport aren’t convinced of any deep-seated failings just yet. How this debacle fits into the larger arc of the USMNT in the 21st century will depend on how long it takes for reality to overwhelm the status quo and meaningful changes to be made – the way all of the best programs have improved from their disastrous moments.

Over the long run, missing the 2018 World Cup could redound to the program’s benefit. But only if actual lessons are taken from it.

These stakes are high, but this is a long game. Yet if you look carefully, there are green shoots poking through already. Initiatives and new businesses and fresh approaches that could address the myriad ways in which our development of young soccer players remains weak. The answers, to fixing the systemic issues, to bettering national teams of the future, might already be in front of us.

The failure of Bruce Arena and the USMNT to reach the World Cup has stirred up questions about the youth levels of soccer in the United States. (Getty)

The pay-for-play problem is well-worn. Elite youth soccer, the most direct path to pro soccer, is prohibitively expensive. And it’s hard to get seen by the people who need to know you exist if you don’t participate. Whereas in most other countries youth soccer is either cheap or free, travel soccer in America will set you back at least four figures per season, if not five.

We know this. It’s a problem. Lots of people are working on it. Major League Soccer academies are mostly free now for their prospects. Lots of independent academies give scholarships. But this only addresses the monetary issue. And there’s a lot more to it than that.

The barriers to entry aren’t just financial. Elite youth soccer is a largely suburban pursuit. Which means that inner city kids aren’t just unlikely to afford it, because even if they can, or a rare scholarship materializes, the logistics remain daunting. Then there’s the complexity of it all, which can overwhelm before a ball is ever kicked.

After his professional career ended, Amir Lowery, like many former pros, moved on to coaching. Naturally, as a well-qualified soccer man, he wound up with a travel team outside his native Washington, D.C. But something struck him. “The makeup of the team, there was a real lack of diversity,” he says. “Both racially and socioeconomically. Our team didn’t really look like Washington, D.C., in my eyes.”

So he went looking for players who deserved opportunities in the inner city and began figuring out ways to get them into better soccer environments, invariably outside the city. Eventually, Lowery and Simon Landau began the Open Goal Project. They recognized that talented prospects in D.C.’s inner city were largely lost for the sport because they need far more than financial support. The problems are practical as much as pecuniary.

“As we started getting up close and trying to tackle the problems head-on, one-on-one with these players, we were seeing some really big issues that acted as a microcosm of things keeping low-income players from playing at a higher level early on,” Landau says. “Transportation issues. Language barriers. Financial constraints on the family and high cost for travel soccer.”

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The Open Goal Project began by identifying talented players who weren’t getting opportunities. But it didn’t merely help them to raise the funds to afford more competitive teams through various efforts. It also took charge of their transportation arrangements. Open Goal concerned itself with access and information, but also the quotidian issues, like rides to practice far outside the city.

And they helped to cover the many fees not even the scholarships usually take care of. They placed two female players on an elite club in a rich area. Their $2,500 scholarships only covered their participation fees, however. Then there were the $300 uniforms and another $2,500 for travel and tournament fees over the course of just seven months. The Open Goal Project found that money too.

Since launching in Dec. 2015, Lowery and Landau have placed 25 kids on better teams after identifying them. They have served some 250 young D.C. players in all, offering free camps and clinics in the city as well. Some players have already moved on to college soccer, although the program is mostly focused on 11 and 12-year-olds, which is a crucial time in a player’s development.

But they feel that they still aren’t doing enough. Because crowbarring inner city players into a system that isn’t designed for them is an inefficient solution to a sprawling problem. There are only so many rides they can offer to faraway fields. And it still doesn’t get to the core issue of access to coaching to the younger players. The separation between the haves and have-nots begins early on, without regard for their talent level. In the city, the coaches are parents or volunteers. In the suburbs, they’re well-trained and full-time.

So the Open Goal Project is launching its own inner-city elite club in the fall, fully funded in order to keep it free or cheap. It will be called D.C.F.C. and they hope it will provide an alternative in the city. To provide the proper coaching, and to offer the same opportunities within the city’s Metro network, where anyone can get to it.

From there, Open Goal Project wants to scale its program and try it elsewhere. “We’re looking at D.C. and really making an impact here,” Landau says. “Each city would have different challenges and populations.  But this is a problem other places too. Would our model work for every city in the country? We don’t know. We want to perfect our model.”

If it succeeds, it could go some way in addressing the pay-for-play model by offering quality youth soccer to communities that can’t afford to buy their way into the best setting. And while most of those players won’t have soccer careers of any consequence, some might.

“The Open Goal Project hinges on that core belief that if we’re not engaging everybody, we’re not engaging the best players,” says Lowery. “Ultimately, we believe that this project can help U.S. Soccer for the better.”

Perhaps the breakthrough will come from the outside. From someone like Giels Brouwer. Five years ago, right out of college, he started SciSports. He’d written his undergraduate dissertation at the University of Twente, in the Netherlands, about how a pro soccer team could improve its player recruitment through the use of data, retooling an old NASA algorithm for the selection of astronauts.

A few years earlier he had watched on, aghast, as the then-FC Twente chairman openly and unabashedly admitted in a lecture that the club signed its players purely on intuition. There was no data involved. Brouwer, a fanatical player of the popular Football Manager sim video game, decided he’d copy the game’s player database, which neatly grades every pro player in the world by dozens of physical and mental attributes, for real life soccer.

When a Twente scout called to ask him for tips on potential players, he decided to start a company.

SciSports now has more than 50 employees and counts 60 clubs, federations and agents among its clients, including PSV, Arsenal and the Belgian national team. A Silicon Valley darling, where investors are bullish on its chances to become a billion-dollar company, SciSports has built a database of 300,000 players. All that intelligence can help clubs identify obscure players that fit its profile or federations to find the most promising young talent that’s eligible for its program.

Brouwer has explained that his company seeks to remove the “static” from the stats clubs have at their disposal and to quantify the insights of scouts. “We tried to come up with a way to evaluate every player around the world with one universal index,” he tells Yahoo Sports.

Essentially, SciSports builds algorithms that process data from various agencies. Brouwer has compared it to Moneyball. It isn’t so much the accumulation of data as the lessons and models derived from it to properly value skill sets. “We use data from other data suppliers and we build algorithms to understand how the coach or scout can get new information out of the data,” Brouwer says. “We help the clubs with the scouting of players but also with their performance analysis based on data.”

A newer product puts 14 cameras in a football stadium which creates 3D data from camera footage. 3D data allows you to measure all movement of players, vertical as well as horizontal, including where they’re looking in cluttered situations like set pieces. This, then, offers a better understanding of what’s happening on the field, allowing SciSports to extrapolate just how influential a player is on his team.

The company is eager to break into the American market. “In the willingness to analyze everything that happens on the pitch, the American sports are way more evolved than soccer, and you can detect players way earlier,” Brouwer says.

He’s been in talks with some Mexican clubs and MLS teams on both coasts, he says, without identifying them exactly. But Brouwer believes his company’s greatest value could be to the U.S. Soccer Federation.

“If the U.S. had used it a couple of years ago,” he says of his model, “they would never have let [dual national] Jonathan Gonzalez play for the Mexican team. He’s the fastest riser of all U-21 players in our entire database.”

In their effort to remake American education, charter schools have never quite shaken controversy. But one such school is trying to rethink soccer education as well.

The Success Academy, the largest charter school system in New York City, serving some 15,500 students, is integrating soccer through the curricula of about 5,000 of them. The majority of Success students is non-white and poor, and only one in five applicants makes it through the lottery for a seat.

(Illustration via Amber Matsumoto)

Four years ago, it entrusted Boris Bozic with building a soccer program and finding ways of fitting it into the education offered with a pilot program of 25 students. Bozic, 33, was a product of then-Yugoslavia’s youth national teams, playing in the streets with his friends while his hometown of Belgrade was bombed and the sirens went off. Eager to get out, he made a tape from what sparse footage of himself he could find and sent it to a bunch of American colleges. He eventually wound up at Monmouth University on a full scholarship, but injuries cut his career short.

Naturally, he became a coach. But in every elite academy around New York where he worked, he noticed the same thing. “I didn’t see any kids of [non-white] demographic,” he says. “That was not the image of New York City.”

He talked Success founder and CEO Eva Moskovitz into his soccer idea and got started in a cafeteria, with the tables folded up and moved to the sides. He wanted soccer not only to get the kids moving and engaged, but to provide opportunities for top-notch development in the inner city. The program has since been rolled out in 22 of the Success schools.

Bozic believes in “creating entry points” for the game. Soccer is introduced from the first grade in a playful manner. From there, every grade in every school has its own team, offering more soccer outside of gym classes. And the very best players are invited into a competitive club team from under-9s onward. The oldest competitive team is now in the u-11 leagues, where it’s seen quick success.

The coaches are on the payroll as teachers who specialize in soccer. Bozic believes that this personal relationship, built from the first grade of daily interaction, is crucial. Because Success soccer teams can’t recruit, can’t hold tryouts. Students get into the school through a lottery. So coaches have no choice but to get the most out of players who happen to win a seat, to nurture whatever talent is there.

The charter system is now working to build more fields in New York City. More places to play will help advance its soccer cause. Because one of the sport’s endemic issues is a lack of real soccer infrastructure, whether physical or organizational, in inner cities.

From a coaching standpoint, he instructs students to take on opponents where possible, rather than compulsively pass the ball, as others dictate. He wants his players to express themselves. They’re young. They need confidence.

And Success has consciously worked to integrate soccer into the schools’ culture, with bulletin boards and jersey days devoted to the sport. Because in a country where attention of children is scattered across a handful of different hobbies and pursuits, soccer sometimes needs a little help pushing through the clutter.

“It’s very purposeful,” Bozic says. “Our kids are locked in. They want to be soccer players. They want to go for it. I want to show in this model that a school can do it right. It doesn’t have to be clubs and academies. Everybody talks about academies being free. That’s great, but what about everything before that? We need to get these kids on board.”

Ultimately, Success and Bozic have a dual purpose. “Pride and opportunities and access for these kids is our primary goal in teaching them soccer,” says Bozic. “But, obviously, after that, we do want to achieve results and we do want our kids to develop to be some of the best players out there.”

In the midst of all this innovation, U.S. Soccer doesn’t merely watch on idly. It has, for years, invested in and rethought its youth game. It started and expanded the Development Academy, and then introduced it to the girls’ game, bringing a national structure and standard to elite youth soccer.

It has also made strides by creating a scouting network and regional training network.

Recently, the federation introduced bio-banding in a four-club test group, allowing players to be grouped not by age but by biological maturity. This essentially ensures that players don’t have to play up in another age group if they’re more mature than their peers, at the risk of dominating on the strength of their early maturation, but naturally puts them in the ideally competitive environment.

In its youth development, U.S. Soccer has gone out of its way to innovate, and it’s now working to expand what it calls its licensed scouting program. By creating a licensure for scouting – historically a wild west of both sophisticated talent and gold-panning charlatans – it’s trying to expand and improve the network of eyes that can identify the best talent. Specifically, the federation hopes the youth clubs will develop their own scouting apparatus – like the Seattle Sounders, which apparently has two dozen of their own scouts –which is ultimately how the most players will be seen.

The clubs would do the work, as they do globally, with guidance on best practices from the federation. Because the USSF can only see so many players, and watch them so many times. Yearly, it makes about 3,000 game assignments to its system of in-house scouts, but that’s not nearly enough to keep track of the evolution of millions of young players. “We know that players develop at different rates and their performance trajectory is non-linear,” Tony Lepore, the federation’s director of talent identification says. “There’s a process to talent ID. We take a long-term view with our objectives.”

On a macro level, the federation is trying to get American scouts to speak the same language and aiming for “fact-based scouting” rather than opinion-based observations. But it will likely take a while to catch on, and longer still to produce results.

But then that’s true of all of this. The efforts made now won’t pay off for several years, and perhaps for several World Cups. Efforts are being made though. In large swaths of the American game, a progressive platform is already underway.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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