CARSON, Calif. – If 2014 was about whether Jurgen Klinsmann could lead the senior U.S. national team through a World Cup, then 2015 will be the year he begins to make his mark as the U.S. Soccer Federation’s technical director. The focus now turns toward the future.
Granted the extra responsibility when he signed his contract extension late last year, Klinsmann described the technical director role as one that “connect[s] the dots to the youth national teams, coaching education, the Development Academy and the grassroots efforts in this country.”
On Sunday, a few hours after the L.A. Galaxy closed the books on the 2014 MLS season with a 2-1 win over the New England Revolution, Klinsmann, USSF president Sunil Gulati, CEO Dan Flynn and U-20 national team coach and youth technical director Tab Ramos briefed reporters on the federation’s plan to connect those dots.
“2015 is the year to grow. It’s the year of education in many, many areas,” Klinsmann said. “We want to just see kind of everything growing and getting inspired, but also getting challenged. I think this is a huge opportunity.”
Here’s a summary of what the group discussed.
• It starts with competition, and the players being integrated into the senior national squad will get plenty of it in 2015.
U.S. Soccer confirmed certain details of next year’s schedule on Sunday. Klinsmann will conduct the traditional January camp, which will include a Jan. 28 friendly at Chile and a Feb. 8 home game vs. Panama, likely at the StubHub Center outside Los Angeles. The U.S. will head to Europe in March for games at Denmark (March 25) and Switzerland (March 31), return home to face Mexico on April 15, then fly back across the Atlantic for marquee matchups at the Netherlands (June 5) and world champion Germany (June 10).
“We believe the more difficult opponents we get, obviously the risk is higher that you lose one or the other, but the higher the learning experience will be. We want to challenge all our teams,” Klinsmann said.
There likely will be one more home friendly in June before the 13th CONCACAF Gold Cup kicks off on July 7. If the U.S. wins the tournament it will qualify for the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia. If it doesn’t, the Americans’ 2013 title guarantees them a one-game playoff with the 2015 winner for a berth in the FIFA tournament. If necessary, that match will be played this fall.
The second half of the 2015 FIFA calendar includes international windows on Aug. 31-Sept. 8, Oct. 5-13 and Nov. 9-17.
• The Federation confirmed it will invite an external auditor to conduct a review of its development and technical programs this year. The process will cover both the youth national teams and about half of the 79 clubs that have teams participating in the Development Academy. The New York Times reported last month that Double PASS, a Belgian firm that has been working with clubs in England and Germany, was discussing the project with the USSF.
• Klinsmann shared some insight on the role of Nelson Rodriguez, the former MLS executive who has been hired as the federations’ managing director of national team advisory services. In his role as U.S. Soccer’s career consultant and guidance counselor, Rodriguez will be charged with helping players navigate their careers in an increasingly complex and competitive environment.
“It’s to show them different pathways and to educate them,” Klinsmann said. “To educate them about what it would be like in college, what it would be in the NASL, what it would be in MLS, what it would be in Europe. The world of agents – how does this work? What do I need to be aware of? What is the risk of going abroad … It’s so, so crucial because a lot of our kids don’t have an idea.”
• A U-12 division is coming to the Development Academy in time for the 2016-17 season. U.S. Soccer added a U-14 component to its Development Academy program last year.
“The learning curve for the little ones is the highest between eight and 13,” Klinsmann said.
The academy’s scholarship program will be expanded. While some academy programs, especially those unaffiliated with professional teams, will remain pay-to-play, U.S. Soccer is trying to minimize the cost as much as possible – especially for families who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it – by increasing scholarship funding.
“A number of the clubs have gone to a no pay-to-play model. The concern, and we’ve talked to our clubs about it, is now exactly who’s paying,” Gulati said. “When an MLS club decides to eliminate any fees or any travel costs, it’s the MLS owner. It’s an investment … when it’s a youth club that doesn’t have a benefactor or an economic incentive, the concern is the way that elite player development in the Untied States has traditionally worked – taxation of a broader base. The concern obviously is that you’re going to make these 40 or 60 or 80 kids now subsidize them in a big way.”
He added, “For us to say it’s got to be fully funded tomorrow at U-12 across the country, for sure, would lead to increased taxation for the non-elite players and that would lead to a lot of young players not joining.”
Meanwhile, to boost the quality of all youth players, small-sided games and field sizes will be standardized at all competitive levels.
“It’s very crucial to the development of kids,” Klinsmann said. “You challenge them with more contact, more touches, faster decision making, just to be a lot more alert on the field. All of those pieces are really crucial in the long run … They may not pay off [before] 2018, but hopefully they pay off in the next 10-15 years and make a huge difference.”
• Starting in 2015, U.S. Soccer will field U-16 and U-19 national teams for both boys and girls. Currently, boys had national team programs at only the U-14, U-15, U-17, U-18 and U-20 levels. There are World Cups at the U-17 and U-20 level.
The problem, Ramos explained, is that players who aged out of the U-15 and U-18 teams had difficulty immediately breaking in to the older age group. Adding two new programs ensures the country’s elite youth players don’t miss out on camps and international competition that can boost their development.
“These additions create two separate programming tracks for even-birth-year players and odd-birth-year players, allowing for a more consistent approach toward development and opportunities for additional players to participate,” the Federation explained in a statement.
Full-time coaches will be hired for both the U-16 and U-19 squads.
“We had players who don’t have anywhere to go [after a U-17 World Cup],” Ramos said. “If they’re not with a pro club then they’re going back to a high school program or a club program that may not be at the level we need for the things we need to do to enhance their gap year … Adding those age groups will give them more opportunities.”
• Training coaches is as critical as training players. U.S. Soccer has added or will add new licenses at the top and bottom of the pathway – an ‘F’ for brand new coaches and a pro or youth technical director license for those who’ve completed their ‘A’ course. Existing courses will be lengthened and strengthened – perhaps doubling or tripling the time and workload. And Gulati said that “cost will not be a factor” in ensuring that all Development Academy coaches, at least, are properly licensed.
“We’re trying to take the excuses away,” for unlicensed or under-licensed coaches, Klinsmann said. “You’ve got to go after it because we’re going to put deadlines out now.”
A Digital Coaching Center will be launched in order to make educational resources and interaction easier and the USSF will work with Sporting Kansas City to establish a national coaching education center at the $75 million training complex being built in Kansas City, Kansas.
• Gulati said that U.S. Soccer has “more traction than ever before” in trying to convince the NCAA to overhaul the college soccer schedule. Rather than cramming more than 20 games into around three months, the Federation and many coaches around the country are pushing for a split season that will afford players a better balance between training and matches over both the fall and spring.
Gulati said the health of the players was a big issue, not to mention matching the practice/game rhythm of their peers around the world.
“We fully appreciate that a number of young players will continue and want to continue to go through the college route. We accept that,” Gulati said.
The goal is to make that route as productive as possible. Convincing the NCAA to adopt conventional substitution rules and a prospective USSF summer program for elite college players that would present an alternative to the PDL and NPSL schedules also are on the agenda.
• Gulati said U.S. Soccer is well positioned to pay for the aforementioned initiatives.
“In the next cycle, we expect our budgetary capacity to be 50 percent higher than it has been in the last cycle,” he said, referring to the four years between World Cups. “That’s primarily due to some commercial agreements that are in place, the increased awareness and interest in our programs … so there are far more resources.”