As the Minnesota United Academy prepares to begin the second half of its season, Tim Carter shares his “State of the Academy” – chatting about how the Academy has grown, how its first foray into the residency has gone and what’s in store as a U17 team is added to the fold for the 2019-20 season.
Since its start when MNUFC entered MLS, the Academy has grown from U13 and U14 Development Academy teams to include a U15 team and a Pre-Academy program for players 12 and younger. Additional staff have been added along with the team. Carter feels the biggest change hasn’t been the structural elements as much as the growth and development of the club’s culture and how that is influencing the youth soccer market. Get a more focused view of what’s happening inside the Academy by reading his responses on key aspects below:
Influencing the youth soccer market
Since we started the Academy we have been very aware of the messaging we have used to communicate to the coaches and clubs within our region. I believe now that most coaching directors understand our mission as an MLS Academy and that we function with two major goals in mind: to develop players who could play for our first team, and to positively affect the quality of programming within the youth soccer environment. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t ask myself, what do we need to do better to develop players for our first team.
In addition to the consistent messaging, our initiatives in Zone I (this refers to players age 5-12) has been an area where we work closely with community youth soccer clubs and their leadership as well as the governing youth soccer organizations within the market to enhance and deepen their programs for player and coach development. The Zone I market is our garden and we believe that we need to help tend to this garden in order to grow the next generation of players year after year. Again, it is a long-term play that we expect to see results over time.
Programming directed at younger age players
Starting the Academy with the younger ages certainly didn’t provide the immediacy to our first team that a U17 and U19 team would have. It was a conscious decision about long-term development based on our resources at the time, as well as what would provide the best foundation upon which to build a complete player pathway. We are currently in the process of refining our Academy strategy as we add older age teams and bring online a reserve team component to help close the gap between Academy and first team. We fully expect that every year we will need to refine the player pathway to better meet our club’s needs, the resources available and the environment at large. Although every MLS club has an Academy with like components, it is the nuances, resources and beliefs within these strategies that reflect the differences between each club. It is really important that each club find its own solution to the player development challenges they face in their own environment.
MLS Generation adidas events
The MLS GA events have been exceptional from a quality of competition and organizational standpoint. Getting an opportunity for our players to go head-to-head with other MLS clubs and test where they are in comparison to these other MLS clubs can’t be underestimated in terms of the impact this has on their development. Having these MLS only events at different stages in the player pathway (U12, U15 and U17) helps the players and coaches to better understand the standard necessary for a professional academy. Honestly, if we could schedule more of these events throughout the year it would add substantially to the quality of competition we need to face on a regular basis in order to stimulate greater growth and development in our players.
Our U12’s have participated in two cycles of the MLS GA Cup while the U15’s are currently in their first cycle. There is no doubt that the boys who participated in the U12 event last year have a much better understanding of the demands presented when facing other MLS academies. It clearly aided their understanding of what the game looks and feels like at higher levels and the only down side is we don’t see this enough on a regular basis. As MLS continues to develop its strategy on academies, I’m sure this aspect of development will be further built out so the quality of competition each MLS academy faces on a regular basis will improve.
For me, the player pathway refers to each of the stages within the development of a player that they encounter as they move upward in their quest to reach the highest level of football. The pathway begins very early in a player’s life, possibly before they even begin to play within an organized environment. I believe that every stage within the player pathway is equally important. No one stage is more important than another, however the philosophies, demands and resources associated with each stage do vary greatly. If you look at the player pathway as the long-term build out of an educational process, it is similar to that of an academic pathway where every class year is equally important to fulfill the overall educational goals established. For sure, there are individuals who can play up in an older aged team or skip grades because they are advanced for their age, but expecting individuals to simply rise to the top without the educational influences or processes found within each stage of a development pathway leaves this to chance. There will always be outliers who can navigate this growth process on their own terms or on their own timeline but they will be the exception.
Expanding the reach for talent with the Residency component
We have dipped our toe into the residency arena and again we have started off carefully by bringing in one player for our U15 team as our beta test. Bringing a player in to be a part of our Academy is more than just adding a player to the roster. I am concerned about their education both on and off the field, how they are cared for each and every day and most importantly, we know they are sacrificing a great deal to leave family and friends to follow their dream of playing professionally, so providing these players with an environment that helps them to possibly achieve their dream while managing these personal dynamics is essential to all we do. Helping them to feel at home while being away from home is really important for any player in residency to be successful.
We have established a relationship with the International School of Minnesota (ISM), located about twenty-five minutes from the MNUFC Training Grounds in Blaine. Finding the right academic institution that understands the training and travel demands our Academy players will face and be willing to work with us to help find solutions to facilitate their academic day or week is key. The players at ISM are provided with a rigorous academic environment and they are expected to be responsible and stay on top of their studies regardless of any training or travel. The end goal here is that each player completes their secondary education and at the very least be in a position to take advantage of the future - whether that is a professional contract or continuing with their education.
Bringing players in from outside of the immediate market adds to the player pool that we currently draw upon in Minnesota. By comparison to other MLS clubs, i.e., LA, Dallas or New York, our market area doesn’t have the same soccer playing population, depth or what I refer to as ‘difference-makers’ that greatly influence the quality of play in those markets. Even with these factors, we continue to scout our immediate market closely to make sure we don’t overlook any talents that are on our doorstep. Getting players into our Academy programming at younger ages certainly helps us to be familiar with the talent pool, however a lot can change as they grow so scouting and networking with club coaches is still done to track players and keep an eye on their development.
“Our objective is to find players for our Academy that we believe have the qualities necessary to become a professional player. We will always look first at our immediate market to find these players but we will also consider players from outside the market. Most often this will be players U15 and older that we will consider bringing into our residency program as they are now at an age that can handle being away from home and function with the level of maturity and independence that this requires. Of course, there may be on occasion a younger aged player who is ready to handle this life-change but this would require considerable exploration to determine if both player and parents are ready to make this work.”
The discovery and evaluation of talent is the life-blood of any professional club, from Academy to First Team. In our Academy, talent identification exists in some form in every initiative we undertake. Whether it is one of our soccer camps or clinics, a talent day held in conjunction with one of our official club members, the assigning of coaches or per diem scouts to attend any number of competitive events in and out of the market, or simply maintaining on-going communication with our network of contacts, we are clearly focused on finding talent for our Academy every day of the year!
We have established a prospect data base that allows us to maintain oversight on players as young as eleven all the way into their late teens. Establishing the database is really the easy part of the process; where the process becomes massive is the constant review and rating of players to determine if they are for us. We spend a great deal of time discussing whether or not a player has the right qualities to be in our Academy. There are times when our coaches don’t agree about a prospect’s qualities and the discussion gets intense, but in the end we believe the time spent in review of the prospect helps us to make a more informed decision.
As the U17 and U19 teams come online the input from Adrian, Manny, Amos or our First Team staff is another critical piece in the evaluation of talent already in our Academy. This internal scouting and evaluation is a significant part of the integration process necessary to help bridge the gap between the Academy and First Team. It’s important that we have these conversations in order to make sure we are on track to reach our goal.
First team integration
The goal of the Academy is to place players into the first team. For this to take place we need to integrate players into the escalating challenges provided along the player pathway so that we can accelerate their personal growth. The simplest form of this integration process is the movement of players to train and play with an older age group. Although this sounds simple, the management of the process is really the critical issue, as we need to make sure that we don’t put a player into a situation that could potentially harm them or negatively affect their development. As our U17 and U19 teams come online this process will require considerable discussion with Adrian and Manny to determine what team the player should train with, compete for, or even travel with over the course of the season.
The other part of integration focuses on the coaches who work in the Academy to make sure that we are in lock-step with our First Team in terms of philosophy, methodology and the man- management of players. It is important that this integration function extend all the way down to the coaches working with the U12’s. Working with Manny and Adrian, as well as involving other members of our first team staff in the development process, helps to clarify what exactly our Academy coaches need to focus on. This is an area that we are still fleshing out to ensure that we are fully implementing this integration concept within our Academy.
Personal philosophies for coaches and training of players
The job really is about what happens on the field each day between players and coaches. There are a lot of influences in coaching right now in the US. We benefit from coaching education that allows us to examine the methodologies provided by Dutch, French, Spanish and German. All of these coaching methodologies have something to offer and a coach can learn a great deal from each. Each coach within our Academy has participated in coaching education at the highest level offered by US Soccer but more importantly they are life-long learners and are constantly searching to understand all approaches.
The most important philosophy for our Academy coaches is that they are there to educate the players and not take shortcuts to simply win games. We all agree that the ‘aim of the game is to win’ but the most important objective is to educate the players in all aspects of the game so that they continue to advance along the player pathway. Again, we continually remind ourselves exactly why we are here and what our most important goal is: to develop players for our first team!
Over the past two years we have spent a great deal of time developing our teaching principles and curriculum so that the educational gaps in the player pathway are minimized and we have a clear, long-term view of player development. In addition, we review this process on a regular basis and tweak our principles and curriculum as needed to reflect the needs and changes to our club’s game model. We are constantly looking for ways to further communicate and explain to the Academy players ‘how we want to play’ as a MNUFC player.
Because people are your most important resource, a great deal of effort goes into building a coaching staff. Bringing together a group of coaches who believe in your mission, support your philosophies, and buy into your strategy, while also being highly talented on the field working with young players is my objective when hiring. In addition, it is important that our Academy coaching and scouting staff also represent the diversity found within our sport. I know that if I can get this process right everything benefits – players, parents, programs and most of all our Academy and MNUFC.
Changes for the 2019 Academy
We’ll continue to refine our Academy strategy relative to player and team development. In terms of growth, we anticipate our Pre-Academy and Youth Program offerings to expand as well as a number of new initiatives to start up this year. Several new initiatives that we’re excited about as we enter 2019 have to do with player development. For instance, our U15’s are heading to Germany to play against Academy teams from Bundesliga clubs in February so the exposure to international competition becomes a part of our player’s education. Traveling with us are three ODP teams from the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association so our cooperation with the state association continues to directly impact players within our market.
Our club membership program continues to grow as we add clubs at the Alliance and Partner levels as well as launch a membership level for community youth soccer clubs through the Club Linked-Up program. In conjunction with our club membership program, we are partnering with the National Sports Center to hold our second annual Coaches Summit in April that will focus on Coaching in Zone I. In another collaboration, we are working closely with Minnesota Futsal to co-sponsor a Futsal tournament during March.
We continue to work with the MYSA to offer a practicum for coaches from community clubs. Having completed a pilot program last December we officially launch the program this spring. This observation program permits coaches to be ‘embedded’ in our Academy for a semester so they can better understand the philosophy and methods that our coaches utilize in player development.
Finally, in addition to these initiatives, we continue to work to improve the daily programming, scheduling and training for players within our Academy. All of this would not be possible if we didn’t have a quality group of coaches and staff who work tirelessly to support these initiatives.