How the U.S. is Trying to Build a Better World Cup Team From Scratch

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“We cannot win the World Cup.”

That was the unlikely rally from the head coach of the U.S. men’s national team, Jurgen Klinsmann, who reportedly made the remark to a New York Times journalist in December of last year and reconfirmed the belief (or lack thereof) in his team at his first news conference upon landing in Brazil this Wednesday. And while some soccer fans have taken offense at Klinsmann’s comment and others have praised him for his “brutal honesty,” the facts remain that the U.S. has never won a World Cup, has never been in a position to fight for the crown, and is even not considered a middling threat this year, especially when stacked against the kind of competition the men’s national team will face right off the bat in Brazil: two top-five teams in the world rankings, Germany and Portugal, along with Ghana, in the so-called “Group of Death,” or Group G.

While most people know the U.S. isn’t exactly leading world soccer, many are nevertheless surprised that a country so dominant in other sports — one expected, if not guaranteed, to podium in the international race for Olympic medals — isn’t stronger in a game with one of the highest youth participation rates in the country. So what exactly is the U.S. doing to strengthen national soccer and make sure, one day, we actually can win the World Cup?

“Our goal is to develop a world-class player,” says Tony Lepore, director of scouting for US Soccer, the national governing body for the game. “And it all starts with youth and coaching.”

For this reason, Lepore explains, US Soccer undertook a major initiative seven years ago, launching something called the Developmental Academy that, according to Lepore, has radically transformed youth soccer in America. “We’ve totally changed the landscape to improve the environment at the club level to grow talent,” says Lepore. “Before 2007, [US Soccer] was categorized as a free-for-all—we lacked focus, and everybody’s goals and agendas were so varied and different. But now everyone’s in line with trying to develop a world-class player.”

The DMCV Sharks Elite battle it out with the Kings Hammer Academy in the Under-16 Girl's Mavis Derflinger Cup, a part of U.S. Youth Soccer.

The DMCV Sharks Elite battle it out with the Kings Hammer Academy in the Under-16 Girl's Mavis Derflinger Cup, a part of U.S. Youth Soccer.

To achieve this goal, Lepore says, the Academy has worked diligently to streamline the condition of competition and training across youth soccer nationwide. “What we found is that our elite youth players were playing way too many games, up to 100 a year. Not enough of these were meaningful—they weren’t special or challenging, there were too many easy games, and too many games in a short amount of time. And we also found there were too few training sessions.”

So Lepore and his colleagues mandated that all Academy athletes must train four to five days per week and play only one high-level game on the weekend. Training has become more regimented and controlled, too. All Academy clubs must now adhere to a science-based “curriculum” that details every week of workouts throughout the league’s 10-month annual schedule. Clubs are evaluated by international soccer standards before they are invited to join the league, and similarly, international rules for competition are now enforced at all Academy youth games—two changes Lepore calls “huge” for US Soccer.

Perhaps just as important, the Academy now also enforces minimum requirements for all coaches. Lepore compares the process to hiring a high-school teacher, who must be accredited with a myriad of licenses before he or she is even allowed to step inside a classroom or, in this instance, onto a soccer field. Additionally, Academy athletes are forbidden to play for school teams in order to keep their focus on quality training and competition, and the emphasis among league clubs has switched from getting team results to ensuring individual results, which has meant moving up more advanced players to older age groups oftentimes at the cost of the younger team’s successful winning streak.

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Seven years later, all these changes from the Developmental Academy are starting to show up in a new crop of more skilled soccer players, says Lepore. “We have so much talent, so much talent,” he says. “Our current ’98 [birth year] class has now outplayed Brazil, France, Italy, and Turkey. We can’t control the players who choose other sports [growing up], but we want to make sure the ones who choose the Academy are the most committed because commitment is talent.”

Major League Soccer (MLS) is also starting to recognize the value of Academy-bred talent. “The Academy has been incredibly positive to the development of soccer players,” says Peter Vermes, head coach of MLS’s Sporting Kansas City. “We are now going after or signing [Academy] players.” Perhaps the best example is Sporting Kansas City’s own Erik Palmer-Brown, an Academy phenom whom Vermes signed last year at age 16. “He started the last two games, and he’s 17-years old—that’s pretty amazing that the kid can play at this level,” Vermes adds.

Like Lepore, Vermes, who also played pro soccer and was a member of the U.S. men’s national team for the 1990 World Cup, says the Academy has transformed America’s talent pool. “We have the ability to develop a kid from a technical, tactical, and physical perspective, and we’re also ingraining in them the ethos, philosophy, and culture of the club from a very young age. That’s much different than any other sport in this country.”

Does Vermes think the U.S. can win the World Cup in the near future? “I do,” he says. “And I’m not just saying that—I truly do.”

“I really believe in our mission … If I didn’t believe in it, I wouldn’t be doing it,” says Lepore when asked the same question. “We have a lot of good people and we’re investing a lot of money and time in [youth soccer]. And I also see every day how much talent we have in our younger age groups, and I see how much progress we’re making. I don’t think we’re too far off from developing a world-class player.”