TOUCHLINE ARTICLE: More Than One Way to the Top!
By Gordon Miller, VYSA Technical Director
There is more than one Path to the Top
By: VYSA TD Gordon Miller

Note: Just as we were going to press, word came in that not only did five Virginia teams make it through to the finals in US Youth Soccer National Championships in Dallas TX, but two Virginia teams-  McLean U15 Boys and Loudoun U16 Boys-won it all! With BRYC U14 Girls, Mclean `96 Girls and Loudoun U17 Boys all finishing 2nd. A huge congratulation to the clubs, players and coaches of these organizations!

In the ever-changing and somewhat confusing landscape of the US soccer community, there are more and more leagues, programs, and academies cropping up staking claim that their “way” will help a player rise to the top. They tell young players that their pathway will put them on the road to “being seen” and many of the supporting marketing campaigns state that they have the best training methods than any of their major competitors. However, countless examples both domestically and internationally, have shown us that while there are certain successful characteristics that are shared amongst elite level athletes, there is no, “for certain” clear cut pathway to success. Here is a startling fact: The top twelve year olds very seldom turn out to be the top 19 year olds. Players mature at different rates, thus allowances should be made to encourage and foster an environment that allows all to reach their maximum potential. If the selecting out of players happens at too early an age then we would all be doing a disservice to all our young players.

Recently, at the Euro 2016, the French Men’s National team finished in 2nd place dispatching the current World Champions Germany 2-0 along the way. Five of the teams’ most influential players developed their skills through different channels; not in the top French academies like the world famous one at Clairefontaine, but in the lower regions of French soccer, the semi-pro ranks or outside the country all together. For example, N’Golo Kante, the 25 year old midfielder who was toiling in France’s third division three years ago was recently purchased for 32 million pounds by Chelsea.

Other members of the French Squad- Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezman, Dimitri Payet and stalwart defender Laurent Koscielny-all apparently slipped through the cracks, either falling short of academy standards or for being considered too short (Barcelona’s Iniesta, Messi and Xavi proved that theory wrong). 12 out of France’s 13 goals came from Griezman, Giroud and Payet with Griezman winning the tournament’s golden boot with 6 tallies.  Astonishingly, none of the aforementioned players had a single appearance on the National team before age 23. Furthermore, most did not become mainstays until after they turned 25.  In fact, Griezman was rejected a couple of times as a teen by some of the top French Academies.  Arsene Wenger, the French manager at Arsenal states, “I think that to be able to make the most of your talent, at some point, you have to go through something difficult.” The French examples above clearly support that sometimes adversity can positively attribute to your later success.

The Academy systems have long since been a popular and proven for churning out large numbers of professional players.  Credit goes to the French academies for 1998 World Cup French win along with other professional players integrated in major clubs like Barcelona and Bayern Munich, to name a few. Regardless of the quantity of players produced through the academy system, the knock on them is: they tend to produce the same type of player over and over.

In the United States, there are numerous examples in both the Men’s and Women’s game where players have taken different paths, yet arrived at the same place. 

On the Men’s’ National Team take these players for example:

  • Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, and Geoff Cameron played ODP in Region I
  • Clint Dempsey (TX) in Region III
  • DeAndre Yedlin for Washington State’s ODP from 2006-2009
  • Kevin Coleman (five years in VA ODP) was spotted in an overseas Region ODP tournament and is now playing for FC Kaiserslautern in Germany
  • Christian Pulisic came out of Academy club PA Classics
  • DC United’s own Bill Hamid and Andy Najar (Anderlecht and Honduran National team) were developed inside DC United’s Academy program run by Nolan Sheldon
  • Clarence Goodson has 46 appearances for the men’s national team, currently with San Jose Earthquakes, was not apparently good to play for his state team.

The US Soccer Developmental Academies are producing more and more players for colleges and National teams. Our latest roster of the U19 Men’s National team has 17 of 22 players coming out of the US Academies.

On the Women’s team all 18 players, named to the 2016 Olympic roster, have been in the ODP program in varying degrees. Yet, if you take a closer look, it is not all that clear cut.

  • Megan Rapinoe scrapped her state’s ODP after one year because it was too far away
  • Mallory Pugh, with Real Colorado, won the ECNL division in 2011
  • Christen Press played in Sweden
  • Ali Krieger briefly touched on her state’s ODP and eventually honed her skills in Germany

While the paths to the top may be different, the traits and human characteristics are remarkably similar -passion and love of the sport, persistence, humility, dealing with adversity and the overwhelming desire to train all the time. Tops players train more than they play in games. They practice on their own and in different environments with players of various ages, skill and coaching staff. Furthermore, the challenges and adversity these players inject into their training and overall experiences are a vital ingredient to their rise to success at the highest playing level.

Whatever the path that players take to excellence, the drive must come from within. Not the parents, not the enticement of a scholarship, not the prospect of playing for the country, but always for the love of the game and the desire to improve.

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