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Commentary Aug 04, 2011

Club pass’ only one step in larger reform of U.S. youth system

By Chris Hummer

The United States Youth Soccer Association (U.S. Youth Soccer) announced via press release on Thursday that the organization has introduced the ‘club pass’ for member clubs who compete in the annual U.S. Youth Soccer National Championship Series.

What that press release does not say is the extent to which the change was motivated by the pressure the organization is feeling as a result of the rapid growth of the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), a development confirmed to National Soccer Wire via several sources with direct knowledge of last weekend’s proceedings.

“Absolutely, ECNL was specifically mentioned several times,” explained one such source when asked if the club pass change had anything to do with the Elite Clubs National League.

That source, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of backlash, continued, “[U.S. Youth Soccer] have committees on top of committees on top of studies looking for the simple rule change they think will put them on par [with ECNL’s offerings].”

If that is indeed true, those same U.S. Youth Soccer executives must be kicking themselves as they could have avoided the whole situation. It is widely known that ECNL founders went to U.S. Youth Soccer first with a request for sanctioning but were flatly dismissed, with very little attempt to discuss the details of the ECNL vision. They next turned to U.S. Club Soccer, who jumped at the opportunity, and have been an integral supporter of the organization – along with Nike – ever since.

The vision ECNL offered to both organizations and potential members alike was one conceived of by a group of directors of coaching from several of the top clubs in the country. It was a vision that wanted a national girls’ competition structure similar to what the United States Soccer Federation enacted with the founding of the Development Academy League (DA) for boys clubs a few years prior.

Consistent with that vision, the ECNL setup looks to play fewer, but more meaningful games, and to put players in a club system where winning is not emphasized nearly as much as the development of individual players at the younger ages. Like the DA, the ECNL looks for member clubs with a solid player development pyramid in place, and with a director making coaching hires and fires, not parents. Other requirements must be met as well, and the league’s competition structure is much closer to the international standard than traditional club or even college formats.

At the core of the ‘player development’ drumbeat coming from the league and its members is the ability for any player from the club who is age-eligible to play for any club team at an ECNL competition. In essence, a ‘club pass,’ whereby a 14-year-old player may play for an Under-15 ECNL team one day, a U-16 the next, and U-17 the one after that.

This is just the system that U.S. Youth Soccer has approved this week – sort of.

U.S. Youth Soccer calls their new ‘club pass’ option a major rule change, rightly claiming it will increase flexibility for member clubs who compete in the annual US Youth Soccer National Championship Series, which includes four regional championship events and the national event, where teams qualify from a variety of competitions in state, regional, and national leagues.

“The club pass will give coaches the ability to manage the development of younger players,” said U.S. Youth Soccer president John Sutter in Thursday’s press release. “Over the last year, the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships Committee has taken a hard look at the structure of the competition and with input from a variety of sources including coaches, member clubs, and U.S. Youth Soccer’s leadership, has recommended these changes to meet the needs of our members. The adoption of the club pass will allow clubs flexibility in managing teams for player development purposes, injury, high school participation, and balanced competition.”

Under the rule, a club may issue a club pass to any youth player who is a registered player of the club before the team is rostered for the state level of the National Championship Series competitions. A player can be moved from one team within the club to another after that player’s team is eliminated from the competition.

The release goes on to quote Sutter saying, “The club pass is a great example of how we are listening to feedback from our members and there are more exciting evolutions like the club pass to come…This year, we have held focus groups at the NSCAA, conducted phone calls and surveys, you name it we are actively reaching out to all levels of the youth community for input.”

That is all good of course, but most of the Directors of Coaching in the top clubs around the country will tell you they don’t need a thousand surveys and focus groups to tell U.S. Youth Soccer how to improve. Instead, they just need good coaches making decisions about competition structures and playing rules.

These coaches, this author included, believe the trouble with the majority of the American system of youth soccer is the overemphasis on winning at the younger ages of the process. These young teams are pressured to win because they know they need to stay at the top of their leagues and to earn the most GotSoccer rankings points (a flawed system, holding far too much influence over the fate of too many kids – but that’s another article). They need to win, and earn points to ensure they are getting in the tournaments when they matter – when college coaches begin watching.

And there is nothing in U.S. Youth Soccer’s new rules that will change that. The National Championship Series is still mostly a single-elimination competition, where an “upset” at the state level or a completely unfair draw at the regional level can send a team with a pedigree for national championships out of the competition early. Worse, such a loss can literally implode a team if its two or three best players leave for the team that beat them.

The new club pass rule should help in extreme cases, but the logistics of having to know which players to roster before your state cup even begins still makes it unlikely to be greatly utilized.

ECNL’s answer, and the similar model followed by the DA, is that you guarantee a club’s top teams will get to play in front of the top college scouts when it matters. And along the way, their competition structure emphasizes results over an entire season, not pinning all hopes on one game, nine months before the National Championships.

And that promise makes the goal of winning at younger ages much less important. Instead, the primary goal of younger players is simply to be good enough to make that club’s DA or ECNL team when the time comes. And logic tells you the best way to do that is to get involved with that club as early as possible and work your way up.

It’s not the be-all and end-all answer to youth development. Plenty of great players will still never play for a DA or ECNL team. But at their core, the vision of both the ECNL and DA provides a carrot to keep the best talent in one place from their earlier ages rather than chasing greener pastures of short-term bragging rights.

U.S. Youth Soccer has moved towards this end a little with this rule, but they may be better off focusing a majority of their future AGMs on the 90% of their membership that never makes it past round one of a state cup.

[ +Read U.S. Youth Soccer’s official announcement here ]

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