On Monday, Four Four Two released an article examining the German developmental revolution. It’s an excellent piece of popular history. In particular, it looked at its peculiarities and why it can’t truly be replicated anywhere else. At least not easily. The German model is the envy of the world at present, but as recently as 12 years ago it was viewed to be in turmoil by those within its inner sanctum.
As Americans, how do we look at the developmental castle the Germans built for themselves? Some of the brickwork FFT laid down is worth examining in more depth through an American prism.
It’s easy to claim that money isn’t everything while you swish a 1941 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon and laugh by candlelight over medium-rare Kobe beef. The German system does not amount to money lobbed blindly at a problem, but it could not have existed without the existence of an intense monetary commitment. Today, casual estimates have each professional club spending somewhere around $60 million on the national development program, the ETPP. The German federation matches that number.
Before you launch into tradition, know that this system has only existed since 2002. Since then, there have been 52 national schools and 366 regional training centers built (this is an absolutely staggering credit to the Germans), where 1,300 coaches are employed on a full-time basis. The envy of the universe.
The realities of this alone are almost absurd. Geographically, Germany can fit into the United States nearly 28 times, which makes this system more of a conglomeration of city-states spread over a small area than a single expansive tract. But look harder at this system and it’s engineered to eliminate the difficulties of national travel and foster a regional climate in a national sphere. It’s a brilliant piece of work. Even if you halved that 366 – heck, cut it down to 98, two per state and one each for Hawaii and Alaska – you have a regionally focused system stocked with full-time coaches. This is the Four Seasons of development systems, and it was a fragmentary idea 14 years ago.
In American terms, this is essentially taking all of the myriad resources that’ve been allowed to fan out like flower pollen over the years and concentrating them. You’re combining the ODP program with the id2 program with Bradenton with the Development Academy. There’s no equivalent. The problem, as the Germans will downplay, is that it takes a staggering monetary commitment. In December, MLS commissioner Don Garber revealed that the league-wide expenditure for youth development totals around $20 million per year. Only six clubs have revealed how much money they’ve spent on development, and no one has pumped in more than the Seattle Sounders since 2009. That number is $5 million.
Miles to go before we sleep. Money may only be the grease on the tracks, but those tracks aren’t even complete.
There is good news. First, FFT lays out a common problem – striking a balance between winning on the club level versus developing for the national team. To this end, the German MLS (the DFL) and the national association (the DFB) were tied together until 2000, but even after their split to give the leagues some developmental autonomy, there’s always been a measure of compliance between the two. Unlike in England, where the FA and the EPL seem to be at continual loggerheads, the German zeitgeist has always followed the pattern that the two can feed off one another. This root belief is important, because it cannot be manufactured. The FA will probably never be linked with the EPL in England because of a variety of factors. In the U.S., we don’t have this problem.
MLS and U.S. Soccer are not necessarily bosom buddies, but it’s far closer to what you might find in Germany than in England. U.S. Soccer runs the Development Academy that involves all 19 MLS academies, and its scouts – the vast majority of whom are part time – routinely populate academy games and cross-pollinate with MLS. There is ground to cover here, but the important foundation has already been laid. In the U.S., the neurons between club and country are already smooth from firing since MLS’ origin. Conquering the mental hurdle in that respect can be the key.
The moral of the story? Patience is difficult but more necessary than ever. This is not the absence of urgency but rather the presence of mind to understand the circumstance instead of mindlessly beating fists against the granite walls built by 40 years in the developmental wilderness in the heart of the 20th century. The U.S. system took a long time to decompose. It will take a long time for the germ to grow again.
The prism is difficult to look at when you’re staring down the barrel of years of work, but Germany can at least teach us that our grandiose ideals and blustery words even fall short of truly grasping the meat of the thing. There are causes which have been picked up by a vocal minority of self-styled American soccer reformers. The promotion-relegation system is perhaps the most vocal of them all. But if Germany has taught us anything, it’s that there is no one catch-all to developmental solvency. It is the climate and the willingness and the money and the league and the coaches and the people. Drop it into a blender.
Will pro-rel help? Maybe. But not as much as hundreds of dedicated regional training centers and more than a thousand full-time coaches stocking their ranks. Which is the easier cause to trumpet? Probably not the one that costs hundreds of millions of dollars.
There are hurdles to overcome that don’t involve money. German clubs have a history of public involvement, and MLS is private to a fault. It seems as though another obscure personnel rule comes to light every year. But two of the main seeds for German reinvention are already in American soil – a new generation of innovative coaches and the rise of immigrant soccer. The latter has come to roost under Klinsmann in obvious ways, and the former is popping up all over the country. Men like Bobby Puppione in Cincinnati and Hugo Perez with the U15 national team and Mike Munoz with the LA Galaxy development academy. These are idea men of the highest order with the power to affect change. Half the battle is simply putting the right people in the right spots.
New ideas are germinating. The next step is allowing them space to grow.