The Development Academy has reached the midway point in its 2013-14 season. ussoccer.com caught up with Academy Director of Scouting Tony Lepore to discuss the recent Nike International Friendlies and Academy Winter Showcase in Florida and what to look forward to in 2014:
ussoccer.com: What were your overall impressions of the 2013 Nike International Friendlies and Development Academy Winter Showcase?
Tony Lepore: “We thought it was a great week – a really productive week. This was our biggest Winter Showcase event ever with the number of teams, the Youth National Teams and the Nike International Friendlies, so certainly a really big event and a lot of hard work went into not only preparing for it but making sure things ran smoothly throughout the week. You have to give a lot of credit to our Academy management team. Everything was smooth. It’s a great facility, beautiful fields, was the number of fields we needed and the weather cooperated. All that led to a really great week on the field. We were really pleased.
“We feel like when we look at this in terms of big picture, this is such a great opportunity where we have all our members together, to connect them with our Youth National Teams and connect them with the Federation and connect them with our Men’s National Team with a great presentation from Coach Jurgen Klinsmann. On top of all that, the most important thing is the players. We felt there were a lot of good matches – three meaningful matches for all the teams. The Technical Advisor group did a great job creating those matchups as we tier a lot of these based on market and talent pool. We feel like overall the quality is improving. We leave the week feeling really good about the progress, and we want to give the clubs a lot of credit for that. The clubs are working really hard to improve on all levels.”
ussoccer.com: How valuable was it having Jurgen Klinsmann on hand for the presentation and panel discussion with the Development Academy and Youth
National Team coaches?
TL: “It’s so important that we continue to strengthen that connection from the Men’s National Team all the way down through our youth teams and through our member clubs. Ninety percent of the Youth National Team player pool comes through the Academy clubs, so it’s really important. All of the clubs appreciated the opportunity to hear directly from Coach Klinsmann himself, and there was a really good panel discussion and question and answers.
“We always look at these events as coaching development opportunities. It’s so important that we all get on the same page. It’s so big that it can be a real challenge. I think it was another one of those great opportunities for us to create this collective effort and all get on the same page and look at some of the real issues ahead of us as we continue to improve.”
ussoccer.com: What did you and the Technical Advisors identify out of the Academy Select games, which have become a fixture during the Showcase event?
TL: “There are so many other valuable elements to the Showcase besides the matches for the clubs – and this is seven years now. The Showcase Select game has become a big part of it. It has great value. The most important thing is we’re recognizing and identifying the top talent from across the country, and it’s a really a great opportunity for them to showcase their talents in front of our Youth National Team staff. There have always been a number of players that use that opportunity to launch themselves into the Youth National Team player pools.
“With the ’97 game, it was a great opportunity for head coach Javier Perez to evaluate the talent that he hears about weekly, as he attends all of our Wednesday scout calls, and to put those players in front of him as he heads into his January camp and for monitoring throughout the rest of the cycle with that age group. And then also for Richie Williams, the head coach of our Under-17s, to sort of take a break from the job he had during the week in preparing his group for the international matches and to see the ’98s and even some ’99s that we’ve been tracking closely throughout the fall competition period through our scouting network, our Technical Advisors and Training Centers. I’m sure we’ll see a few players that will now get their opportunity at the next level with a Youth National Team call-up, so it’s a really important part of the week, a great picture of the depth of talent playing with our Development Academy clubs.”
ussoccer.com: What was your assessment of the Showcase games featuring the Academy teams against the U-15 and U-17 National Teams?
TL: “That was a new component this year. We had an odd number of teams and so we thought what a great way to round it out so everyone gets three matches and use the ’98s that didn’t make the Nike International Friendlies roster, plus some prospects, bring them to play three good matches against U-17/18 Academy teams, and the ’99s playing the U-15/16s. The timing was perfect there because that U-15 Boys’ National Team is going on its first international camp of this cycle to UAE in February, and Coach Hugo Perez was able to challenge and work with his core group and evaluate a couple new players in a really good environment. It was like an added camp for that group.
“It’s also great because the Academy teams and our scouts can now see what the level is there. We’re always sharing the qualities we’re looking for when identifying talent for our national teams, and they can see those players firsthand in a few different tiers. They can see what the top group looks like right now in the International Friendlies – the highest youth level – and then with the next group, the guys that are on the radar and who will continue to push for a spot in that group, and the same for the ’99s. We picked six Academy clubs for them to play that we feel would not only provide the national pools with a meaningful match but that are also really good examples for the other clubs to see and are approaching things the right way.”
ussoccer.com: What did you think about the environment and success of the U-17 squad winning the Nike Friendlies, with many players having come through
the Academy system?
TL: “It was great to watch the ’98 team’s performance during the week, and they should feel really proud of how they’re making progress. It was an opportunity to test themselves against some of the best footballing nations in the world and show what we’re all about. To do that in a really meaningful setting where there were a few thousand of their peers and our most important member clubs watching them and supporting them, they don’t get enough of these games. So I think it was really special for the players. This group of players, who I had the privilege of coaching during the U-15 Boys’ National Team cycle, is also a credit to the Development Academy system and their Academies. Their clubs should be really proud and we should all be excited about the future. Still, we need to be careful not to get over excited. They are on a good pathway and have high potential, but they still have a long way to go.”
ussoccer.com: Looking forward, the new U-13/14 Academy age group has finished its fall schedule and is now looking ahead to the futsal portion of the
season. Can you tell us a little bit about what’s in store?
TL: “This is the first year that we’ve had the U-13/14 age group, and we think it’s been huge. We’ve been able to take the philosophy that we apply to the U-15/16s and U-17/18s to a really important age group, and so far we feel it’s been a great start. Our clubs were ready. We’re excited about this transition period, which is a brand new component as part of their annual periodization and calendar. The clubs will go into a short break at that age group, and then they all start the futsal period. We are excited about implementing mandatory futsal because we know there’s great value and benefits from playing and training in futsal. It’s a total skill game and that is the foundation for playing success. We think it’s going to be enjoyable and extremely beneficial for the players, and so we’re excited about introducing that new element and feel it will only gain more momentum. This period will culminate with a futsal event in the major markets where all the clubs will come together to compete in a futsal tournament. We’ve had the regional event with the U-13/14s, where we wanted to minimize travel and hotel stays but find ways to provide clubs with a variety of competition. We feel the futsal events that will be coming in February will offer the players a great opportunity and be a valuable platform for us to identify talent.”