The British are coming, the British are coming! And so are the Spanish and Germans!
No, this isn’t a historical recreation in Boston’s North End. It’s the evolution of elite-level soccer training for young American athletes. A growing number of elite European clubs are bringing their brand to the United States and attaching it to existing club structures to form a bona fide youth academy or, in one case, building out a full operation itself.
Most recently, FC Barcelona, the reigning European and Spanish champions, and Arsenal FC, one of England’s largest, most established clubs, have announced that they will be opening academies in the United States in the coming months. Arsenal is scheduled to host tryouts for the first Arsenal Soccer School in the U.S. on Monday. The tryouts and academy will be based in Mt. Olive, N.J., and operated by a New Jersey-based extracurricular company called Summerfuel.
In its first year, the new Arsenal School said it plans to have teams from the U-6 to U-10 division, and expand forward from there.
Meanwhile, Barcelona has partnered with consulting group ISL Futbol to open its newest fully recognized academy in Charlotte, N.C., under the name FCBEscola. ISL Futbol was co-founded by Marc Segarra, Alex Isern and Mac Lackey. Segarra is the son of legendary Barcelona club captain Joan Segarra, while Lackey is an American entrepreneur.
The ISL partners have already operated summer camps in a number of locations across the U.S., enrolling a total of roughly 3,000 players. Officials said the new ISL academy is expected to reach 350-400 players in its first year, across all age groups up to the high school level.
“We have been operating in camps. That’s short. It’s intense, but it’s in your system,” Segarra told USA TODAY Sports. “We want to turn those short interactions into long ones. We want the players and families to really enjoy our system, and we want to have an impact on those players for a full year.”
Barcelona and Arsenal are joining a marketplace that is rapidly becoming more crowded, adding a sheen on one layer of the thickly tiered cake that makes up American youth soccer development. They join more established affiliates from European powers such as Liverpool FC and Bayern Munich, all of which are competing against traditional American developmental academies to attract the most talented, young—sometimes very young—soccer players around the country.
While there is no shortage of newcomers in the marketplace, some established leaders in the American youth soccer space are skeptical that any newcomers are delivering a new or improved youth soccer experience.
“It’s another waypoint on the development timeline,” American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) Acting Executive Director Mike Hoyer said. “There are people that will be attracted to that European brand. Will it make for a better soccer experience? That still comes down to the coaching that is delivered in that club.”
Marketing vs. player development
The new FCBEscola program and Arsenal Soccer Schools plan to expand their year-round academy operations in the mold of their summer camps, held in locations across the country. That expansion could model the existing spread of Liverpool and Bayern Munich, which currently partner with an existing U.S.-based club and have granted those club owners the right to partner with others around the nation.
That decision has led to a network of Liverpool International Academy America locations, starting with the club’s maiden foray in the American market in the Dallas market. Helmed by Peter Brody, the chief executive officer of Liverpool FC International Academy America, the Texas academy opened in 2006 and has since brought on partner clubs that have assumed the Liverpool name in the Bay Area, Michigan, South Carolina and West Florida. In total, the Liverpool International Academy America locations enroll 4,000 to 5,000 players across all age groups from U-6 to high school, Brody said.
“It’s definitely helped us compete in a very competitive market in Dallas,” Brody said. “It helps break through the clutter, you don’t have to explain to someone who Liverpool is. As long as its real, people really buy into it.
“We compete against some pretty stout competitors. In Texas we’re now one of the biggest, if not the biggest, club in the state. I give the credit to our people and the brand.”
Bayern Munich partnered with Global Premier Soccer (GPS), a Massachusetts-based soccer academy system that also has academy operations in 15 other states. The Massachusetts base serves as the hub of FC Bayern’s American academy operations and features teams across all age divisions. In addition, GPS oversees an affiliate program that has partnered non-GPS clubs in California, Arizona, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, allowing those clubs access to Bayern Munich’s “ID program,” which sets a high aim of identifying players with the potential talent to one day compete for a spot in the first team for the Bavarian giants.
Other international soccer powers such as reigning English Premier League champions Chelsea FC or Spanish Champions League semifinalist Atletico Madrid have American clubs with which they have formed partnerships, but those bonds are typically limited to image rights and co-marketing, with little coaching or culture oversight from the parent clubs.
All these burgeoning operations insist that they have one goal: Helping young American soccer players improve and develop as players.
“It’s not enough to just bring your badge and do different activities,” Segarra said. “We always say there is a very thin line between marketing and what you’re offering on the field. Those lines have to be very close to make all the people in soccer in America happy. You have to do the work you’re promising. … We just want to make soccer better for kids here in America. We’re focused on the kids for them to be able to be both better players and a better person.”
David Evans, the executive director of Arsenal Soccer Schools USA, said the savvy of American soccer parents makes it essential for any European imports to exude ultimate authenticity.
“The brand is what catches eyeballs, but (academy officials at Arsenal in England) genuinely care about the kids, too,” he said. “American parents are savvy. You have to back that up constantly, every day, every training session and match. We really have to have everything be spot on.”
Culture and curriculum first
Like most elite soccer academies, all the European club sub-brands come with a premium price tag. While only one academy was willing to disclose their annual fees, with the new FCB Escola in Charlotte planning on an average cost of roughly $2,000 per year per athlete.
The obvious question is what an athlete gets for that premium, whether they are paying a Barcelona, Liverpool, Arsenal or Bayern Munich affiliate. According to those who lead the clubs, the payback comes from an authentic soccer culture that is native to their clubs, and not to American counterparts.
“As a youth soccer club, Liverpool very much wants you to be an extension of them,” Brody said. “When our coaches get the opportunity to go and train at the Academy each year — and Liverpool send their technical staff over here every summer, too — one of the things our coaches always says is they don’t feel like they are an add-on. They feel like they’re a part of the club.
“The relationship is magic for us. … Liverpool provides us with the curriculum and constantly ask what they can do to help us get better. They define the Liverpool Way as focusing on ambition, commitment, dignity and unity, and we are able to do so many little things to honor that. All of our teams are named after Liverpool legends. We do a camp every summer called Camp Kop (named after a section of Liverpool’s Anfield stadium), where the kids go away to camp for two days and they learn how to sing You Never Walk Alone and all about the Hillsborough disaster.”
Curriculum is also key to ISL’s new operations in Charlotte, which follow Barcelona’s previous bridge to Florida, where it bonded with another club to establish the first FCBEscola in the U.S. Segarra made clear that the new club would follow the exact training techniques used at Barcelona’s legendary La Masia training center, instructed by coaches who were trained at La Masia and former Barcelona players.
Evans said Arsenal Soccer School USA will be the first American academy affiliated with a Premier League Club featuring only coaches who are trained and imported from that club itself. For its part, GPS operates a coaching exchange between its Massachusetts base and Bayern’s Sabener Strasse academy, just as Brody’s coaches do with Liverpool.
The coaching and curriculum is what creates authenticity, each program said. Differentiated coaching and training methods can make a difference, but each academy also sites an additional silent bridge that also provides a powerful lure to prospective players and their families.
Lookin for a ‘Powerball Player’
The connection between the powerful, visible European clubs and these American academies might be forged in paper first, but its enough to provide a distant, dream possibility: The opportunity to make the jump to the academies’ European counterparts and, eventually, a spot on that club’s first team.
Critically, none of the American academies has explicit rights to sign any potential stars unearthed in their academy teams. That hasn’t stopped parents from being excited about the potential for their children to break through, or the American academies themselves for ensuring that there will be the chance for players’ exposure overseas and in front of academy decision makers.
“The way the club works, with recruitment, scouting and anything with the full-time youth academy and scouting runs independently of the soccer schools.” Evans said. “But Steve Morrow, who oversees the performance of all international partnerships, and that group are supportive of what we’re doing. If players demonstrate the appropriate hunger and desire and talent to be successful they will definitely have the chance to be seen.
“Of course, unless they have European passport it’s extremely hard to get to the United Kingdom, but it’s still all part of what could be a fantastic byproduct of this entire process.”
Fittingly, as the Liverpool Academies have been operating for the longest continual period, they are the American programs that have had the most success in exporting talented American players, limited though it may be.
“There’s this Powerball moment possibility that the one in a million kid gets spotted,” Brody said. “We’ve actually had two kids that have been ID’ed, that the Liverpool coaches have seen in the spring camp they run every year, and they’ve been invited over to train with the academy for a week. Neither has progressed beyond the initial week tryout, but they earned a chance to try out over there on merit, and that was a tremendous opportunity in itself.”
‘We haven’t seen an impact’
While the emergence of academies with a direct connect to Europe might breed excitement, the AYSO says it hasn’t seen any indication of measurable growth in soccer participation because of the new choices available to soccer parents.
Rather, Hoyer likened the emergence of the new European-affiliated academies to “corporate consolidation” within the larger elite youth soccer space.
“As a net effect, the youth player count has been flat or declining as far as players registered with U.S. Soccer,” Hoyer said. “We haven’t seen an impact that way, and the level of competition we haven’t seen an impact, either. In many cases, these clubs took over existing clubs so it almost serves like corporate consolidation.”
Hoyer also noted that there is a burgeoning opportunity for both European-affiliated and MLS-affiliated development academies as the U.S. Development Academies shift to small-sided soccer training and matches, a move that will transform some established clubs to a new format. Those looking for a full-field developmental experience could very well be drawn by the big brands suddenly in the market.
Regardless of what draws them, Hoyer was fairly dismissive of the new academies’ ability to deliver a product that is transformationally better from what is already available.
“For us, it’s not a big concern,” he said. “They’re trying to attract parents that will open up their checkbook to any big name that comes in front of them.”
To an extent, those leading the new European academies might not even disagree. Evans, for one, was quite forthright that the Arsenal Soccer Schools experience won’t be for everyone. Yet he insists that for those with which it does resonate, it could be much more than simply a way to improve soccer skills.
“The Arsenal proposition is not for everyone, but for people who want to be in a football culture that is different from anything else that exists right now, we’d love to have those people come.”