U.S. Soccer hires EPL's sports science guru to accelerate, improve youth development

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Monday February 13th, 2017

Rely too much on science and data, and you may wind up missing a Johan Cruyff.

“I find it terrible when talents are rejected based on computer stats,” the legendary late Dutchman said. “Based on the criteria at Ajax now I would have been rejected. When I was 15, I couldn’t kick a ball 15 meters with my left and maybe 20 with my right. My qualities, technique and vision, are not detectable by a computer.”

But use it correctly—as a facilitator rather than a filter—and you may just give future Cruyffs a chance to get stronger, stay healthier and maximize their pro potential.

Cruyff, and the bridge he built between Ajax’s total football powerhouse and soccer’s version of Hogwarts at Barcelona’s La Masia, represents the art of player development. It’s the beautiful game, and its greatest players have a feel for the ball and the flow of play that can’t be measured. Matches are won with technical creativity and tactical cunning.

But they’re also won in stoppage time, or at the end of a long season or taxing tournament. At that point, all the skill in the world can be eclipsed by injury or fatigue. Enter science. As the sport becomes more demanding, as athletes improve and as the stakes rise, every incremental advantage helps. And as the focus on technique intensifies, understanding how and when young players mature becomes all the more critical. Applied properly, science and data can turn every training field into more fertile ground.

James Bunce, 31, represents the science of player development. A graduate of the University of Portsmouth, he stayed in the south of England as a strength and conditioning coach and then the head of athletic development for Southampton, a club noted for producing players like Alan Shearer, Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Bunce was a staff of one. By the time he left in 2014, Bunce oversaw a department of around 15. He moved to London to join the Premier League as head of sport science and last fall, he was promoted to head of elite performance.

A young man with new ideas who can make an impact on a league so wealthy yet traditional—while getting the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool to share data and best practices—may have what it takes to navigate and affect change across the disparate components of this country’s vast and still nascent soccer structure. And so Monday, Bunce was unveiled as the U.S. Soccer Federation’s first high performance director. He starts at the end of the month. It’s a new position, created for a tipping point in time when American players and coaches are looking to take the next step.

It hit Bunce during the 2014 World Cup.

“From an outsider’s point of view, we were getting this vibe that this is a sleeping giant ready to absolutely explode and dominate the soccer scene. The fans and this kind of wave of excitement that was traveling through the game was really evident,” he told SI.com.

The growth of of U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy, the expansion of MLS, the increasing investment in the youth and senior national teams “all leads to quite an exciting future,” Bunce said. “It’s very deliberate, a real pragmatic approach to really trying to become a powerhouse. That’s a massively exciting opportunity.”

During his stint at the Premier League, Bunce tried to find ways to integrate and coordinate the sports science that was being done at individual clubs and academies. 

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“Soccer is very well resourced. It’s a multi-billion pound industry … clubs were doing great things in isolation, but it was a bit of a black hole. Nothing was getting collected collaboratively,” he said. “Football in the UK is long established and science is a newer ingredient within the development pathway. People in the UK are still beginning to understand it and really integrate it and we’ve had huge success.”

For example, England now has the world’s largest injury surveillance project. Bunce said the Premier League catalogued some 4,500 injuries to players aged 9 to 23 last year, which allowed clubs to compare the health of their players to the national norms. Teams can do so by age, position, type of playing surface, travel, recovery time and other filters. Physical testing has been standardized and now is conducted by an independent third party. A study allowing clubs to use those results and compare their players’ physical and psychological attributes to those from other clubs is entering its third year and now has over 10,000 data points, Bunce said.

He’s also consulted with clubs on bio-banding, which groups youth players according to physical development rather than birth year. Bunce said that 75% of the players in English academies were born in the first six months of the year and that only 7% were born in the final quarter. It evens out at the professional level, he said, but it clearly impacts academy recruitment and retention.

“You start begging the question—are we missing a massive talent pool here?” he said.

It allows smaller players the space to hone their technique and helps prevent bigger or faster players from regressing by relying only on their size and athleticism.

Cruyff would appreciate that, and it might intrigue coaches here who worry that athleticism is prioritized too much at early ages.

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Bunce’s remit will be wide-reaching. He’ll work with all the U.S. national teams, from the senior men and women down to the U-14s. If Bruce Arena wants help planning for the altitude in Mexico City, Bunce will be there. He’ll be based in Chicago but will hit the road to visit Development Academy teams and he’ll check up on MLS clubs to see what improvements might be possible. He’ll work on educating coaches and club fitness personnel. National data collection and consulting projects like the ones established in England are likely, as is the standardization of tests and benchmarks that allow clubs and the Federation to track players and help them improve. Nutrition, sports medicine, the explosion in sports technology, sleep, concussions, injury prevention and recovery, mental conditioning and psychological profiling, periodization—they’re all in Bunce’s purview. 

USSF director of sport development Ryan Mooney told SI.com that efforts in the aforementioned areas have been “disjointed” in the past.

“The idea of having someone that can come in and really be almost a focal point for all of the different ideas and projects—he becomes the anchor for what it was that was happening previously and what we look to do moving forward. He will help drive and guide that,” Mooney said.

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Bunce’s arrival comes during a period of investment and overhaul at U.S. Soccer. The increasing popularity of the sport fills the coffers, but it also ratchets up ambition and pressure. And the Federation is trying to find the formula. The Academy is now in its 10th season and MLS is entering its 22nd. The U.S. men are struggling and the women, while still the global gold standard, are in a period of transition.

At least the Federation isn’t standing pat. It added national teams at the U-16 and U-19 levels. The Academy continues to expand and next year will include 165 clubs and feature teams six different age groups, from U-11/12 to U-18/19. A girls Development Academy will kick off in the fall with 71 clubs. Double PASS, the Belgian firm that won renown for its work domestically and in Germany, has been auditing Academy clubs and will complete its first sweep of the country by this summer. The USSF has revamped its coaching education system, adding courses at the grassroots and elite professional levels and launching a licensing program covering talent identification.

“It does take time and there’s no silver bullet,” Bunce said. “But it’s all linking very nicely. The Development Academy system, player development, MLS growing—it has the infrastructure to support professional players at the same level of European counterparts—so for me, it’s not what we’re doing wrong but setting the processes in place to get a lot of things right. Now we really need to pin it down and ensure that every aspect, we’re continuing to develop it.”

Said Mooney, “[Bunce] is going to be able to provide some of the missing pieces to our overall player development strategy. He’s a complement to what we’ve been doing already, yet what he’s bringing to the table provides a different level of expertise that will further fine tune what we’re doing. Even though the margins seem small, the potential of the value could be exponential.”

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