SW Q&A: Development Academy debutants PWSI eager to seize opportunity
On Saturday afternoon Prince William Soccer, Inc. will mark a piece of club history as they play their first-ever match in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, a major milestone in the Northern Virginia club’s rise from recreation-oriented league to regional youth powerhouse.
Led by the club’s Director of Soccer and DA head coach Mike Cullina, PWSI will host Bethesda-Olney at their Howison Park home in their opening match in the DA’s Under-13/14 age group. And while the Courage are only competing in the DA’s youngest bracket for now, they hold long-term ambitions of becoming full members on par with B-O, D.C. United and other major clubs across the Mid-Atlantic.
Designed and operated by the U.S. Soccer Federation to gather and groom the nation’s top youth players for future professional and national-team careers, the DA has rapidly become the most selective youth competition in the U.S. and Canada and PWSI’s entry is the product of a long quest to prove their developmental credentials.
While they can expect to face a steep learning curve in terms of competition, Cullina and his staff are eager to see how their growing player pool – which has already sent several prospects to United and other top area programs – handles the new challenge. SoccerWire.com spoke in depth with Cullina about the move to the DA earlier this year.
SoccerWire: How did PWSI’s entry to the DA come about? What does it mean for the club?
Mike Cullina: We’re excited for the players, but it’s just one piece to the puzzle. We’re really happy about it.
I kind of championed the cause of working with U.S. Soccer, developing the application, using some past experiences to make some adjustments in our programming where our model would fit with what U.S. Soccer was looking for….it’s an ongoing process, of course. I think it’s taken pretty much the entire time I’ve been here to get to this point.
As a club, there was a transformation that started a few years ago, of becoming a bit more centralized. I think the one thing we’ve done is to further that, but be less about team-based programming and more about individual-based programming. Some of that transition is more of a challenge than others.
U.S. Soccer’s development path is, it’s an individual player that gets recruited to college or makes the high school team or gets selected in the draft, or gets an opportunity to play in Europe or gets brought into a national team. It’s not the team that does that. The team may be the vehicle for competition, the team may be the vehicle for training and development, but it’s the individual player who ultimately is on their own path.
SW: The federation is notoriously demanding about standards for DA members. What were some of the other challenges this presented to PWSI?
MC: The academy is a difficult model for many clubs to work under, because it’s a birth-year model. One of the things we did early on was to develop pre-academy training, where we are training multiple teams together: younger teams with older teams, older teams with younger teams, and providing maybe a little bit different perspective, maybe, than the teams were before, where I think each coach and each player, manager kind of looked at their team as a unique entity underneath our umbrella.
I tend to look at our players as individual members who are on teams. And I think that’s important moving forward, because development academy will certainly have an extension to the rest of our programs, but even among the 80 or clubs that are playing in the DA, even with their development programs, it’s a small percentage of the kids that are full-time players in the academy.
So what does that mean for the rest of our program? What does that mean if we take a roster of 16 or 18 full-time players, what does that mean for the 19th-best player? To me, it becomes critically important that we develop a program that continues to push that kid along. In the past, maybe if you were on the second team, that’s just where you sat for years. You didn’t have a chance to play or train with the top team, or they didn’t move you up at age X to train with older players.
SW: Where does a U-13/14 DA team fit into PWSI’s wider developmental plan? Do you see a path to membership in the U-15/16 and U-17/18 divisions?
MC: The DA is one small piece of it. We’re really excited about it, we’re really excited about our younger players who have that to look forward to. But it can’t be our sole program, and that’s why a little bit more of a player-first environment makes sense to me, than the team-based model of you joining a club as a team and the parents are driving all the decisions for the players. I don’t think that moves the needle forward.
I think some of that is still to be determined. There’s no guarantee of [DA play for] the 16s and 18s. We certainly are only joining the program because it is our goal to pursue a full academy program in Northern Virginia. We think that that void is there. Hopefully by this decision from U.S. Soccer they believe the same thing, and our conversations with them have been that this is the first step in the full academy returning to this area. How that comes about, I think is to be determined.
Obviously part of it is us providing the proper competition, the proper administration, all the things on and off the field that are important to US Soccer. But I think it’s also going to require a collective group working towards that opportunity for the kids in this area. It would be a challenge, though not impossible, for Prince William on its own to move into the full academy, and just based on past experiences that I’ve had, I think it’s best for everybody if we, over the next few months, or year, or couple of years, work towards some cooperative programming with other organizations for the full academy. That path remains to be seen.
Our focus right now is on 2014 and ’15 with the U-14 academy, Prince William providing that environment for the kids not only in our program but in the area that want a chance to challenge themselves there. But it is certainly our goal to be part of the full academy at some point in the future.
SW: U.S. Soccer must’ve noticed the number of talented kids you helped develop who subsequently moved on to other programs like D.C. United’s academy system.
MC: There’s no question, if you look at other [Development] Academy rosters in the area, how many Prince William kids are there. So that’s certainly had something to do with it. Not just at our club, at other clubs there’s kids that deserve the opportunity to play in the academy.
We didn’t apply for the full academy, by the way – we only applied for the 14s … We’ll find out in Northern Virginia whether or not we can create an an environment that makes sense for the academy to come full circle here.
SW: Any closing thoughts?
MC: I would just hope that anybody who’s been at PWSI either currently or formerly – players, directors – share in our excitement and celebration. [DA membership] is due to their hard work and their investment in current players and former players – building a history of developing players over decades.
This is obviously very exciting for the club. It’s a wonderful opportunity for our players, it’s a wonderful opportunity for our coaches, who will develop in this environment as well. And we’re certainly very excited and committed to not just this – this is just one piece in what we’re going. This is a result of having the right approach and the right focus, not the reason. I don’t look at this as something where all of a sudden now things are going to change – I think this happens because they have. Because of the people that have come before us and worked so hard with our kids.