Around the time the United States hosted the World Cup in 1994, the United States Soccer Federation set its sights on turning this country into a player on the world stage.
The nation’s results since then have been mixed, but with the creation of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy in 2007, those in charge believe this country is on the right path.
The Development Academy features 80 youth teams spread across the country with each team fielding Under-15/16 and Under-17/18 teams. A February 2012 decision to increase the seven-month Academy schedule to 10 months meant that high school athletes no longer would be able to play for both their Academy and respective high school squads.
Why the move? The short answer is that the United States Soccer Federation believes that the only way to catch up to the Brazils, Italys, Argentinas and Spains of the world is to go all-in on the investment in youth soccer.
The one thing that is clear is that the rule passed 18 months ago making kids choose sides is not going away and U.S. Soccer is committed to this movement for the foreseeable future.
“The goal is obviously to develop the best soccer players possible and I think most of the best players will be part of academies,” said Tab Ramos, a Colts Neck resident and a member of the three United States World Cup teams, including the 1994 unit.
Last fall, his son Alex played for Academy club NJSA 04 instead of for Colts Neck during his senior year. He will attend Iona College in the fall.
While the U.S. Soccer Development Academy program is still in its infancy, it has begun to pay dividends for some, not necessarily with spots on the Senior National Team, but in the way of professional contracts.
Of the 19 Major League Soccer teams, 18 own, run and fund their own U.S. Soccer Development Academy program, including the Harrison-based New York Red Bulls. At the start of the 2011 season, 33 Academy alums were playing on MLS rosters.
The fact that the U-20 World Cup team is made up entirely of Academy players is a bullet point about what the program has done for American soccer in terms of identifying the best players. However, that team got decked in Group A and failed to advance to the knockout round.
Part of it was a tough draw in Group A, with France, Ghana and Spain all advancing. But it also shows the work that remains for any attempt at cracking the upper tier of world soccer and why the future of the sport in this country will continue to rest outside the boundaries of local high school soccer fields.
“I think the Academies are already starting to pay dividends,” said Scotty Thomsen, a former Christian Brothers Academy standout who has spent time on the United States U-18 National Team.
During high school, he split time between the Colts and the New York Red Bulls Academy squad.
“A lot of those guys have signed professional contracts and are playing some pretty significant minutes in the MLS,” said Thomsen, who currently attends the University of Virginia. “The entire U-20 World Cup team came from Academy teams. I’d like to say our Senior National Team is playing very well right now and if things continue to trend this way, I think the future of the game here is capable of being very bright.”