Before stepping onto the field for a match, U.S. Soccer Development Academy teams can spend weeks preparing.
At North Meck SC U-15/16, the players trained three to four times per week and played futsal once a week through December and January, working within the confines of training to focus on improving technical ability, team concepts and speed of play. They also watched video and learned to play as a unit.
That level of preparation wasn’t always the case at the youth level in the past, where playing a large amount of games – against good or bad competition – was seen as a more important role in development. Since 2007, U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy has provided an environment to create a better balance, one that values increased and more effective training, and playing fewer, but more meaningful games.
The culture has started to change and coaches such as North Meck SC Technical Director Craig Conger have noticed a difference.
“You can see even in drills that we do now, compared to the sharpness and quickness we saw in December, it’s night and day,” said Conger about the increased attention to training over playing games.
The improved balance between the number of training sessions and games not only allows players to concentrate on developing and sharpening their skills during practice, it enables them to test what they’ve learned in a competitive match.
Through the eight weeks of training, the anticipation was building as North Meck was anxious to get into a regular routine of weekend games. His players were ready to show what they’d been working on.
“We’ve been training so much, and we’re going to continue to train more than we play so we definitely don’t take games for granted,” said Ben Steen, a central defender for North Meck SC who also serves as the team’s captain. “We get really excited for game day.”
That training paid off with two wins in their first two division games: a 2-1 win against Richmond Kickers on Jan. 29, and a 3-2 win against Virginia Rush AJ Auxerre the next day.
Being prepared is especially beneficial when the games increase in significance. Division games are the only ones that count toward automatic playoff qualification. Combine that with the local rivalries that develop, and the importance of divisional matches increase exponentially.
“Now in the fourth season of the Academy, we’ve really been able to develop some healthy rivalries with teams in our division,” explained Conger. “That definitely adds even more importance to what our players are doing, and really gives them a good sense of what a pressure-filled environment feels like.”
Conger hopes that the players can take advantage of their experience playing in high pressure divisional games that also receive a lot of attention from college and national team scouts. Though it doesn’t exactly mirror an international tournament, getting comfortable in a pressure-filled environment can often separate good players from great players.
For players within the Academy, the opportunity to separate themselves might come during a U.S. Soccer Training Center or youth national team camp, but first it has to come in a high-level Academy game, where prospects are often noticed by U.S. Soccer scouts for the first time.
As North Meck SC and other Academy teams get into the heart of their division schedules, the ability to improve and perform consistently becomes more and more essential. Whether the hard work equates to a place in the Academy playoffs remains to be seen, but more quality training sessions coupled with more meaningful games certainly continues to raise the bar for all the members of the Development Academy.