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How the German developmental revolution translates in America

Written by Will Parchman


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.

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  • Brenton

    “New ideas are germinating. The next step is allowing them space to grow.”

    And that space will be created with money, and lots of it.

  • The truth

    How much do we pump into the development of our top Basketball players?? Not much. Why do we insist in viewing soccer much differently. If our basketball strategy is working why dont we try it with soccer, just to see what happens??
    Lets see, H.S. Basketball relies on a no cost to the player system. Scouts target the best regardless of what league/club affiliation. An unkown top player has an equal shot as an AAU player at getting scouted as long as he is good enough or better just by playing for his H.S.
    Do we have NBA teams worrying about forming their own Academies to make sure they produce top players to remain competitive to the rest of the world??
    Germany, Spain, Italy, etc. top Soccer leagues still rely on the creativity and skill from the SouthAmericans to fill their seats and greatly boost their teams. Name a big time club and I’ll show you several SouthAmericans. Germany too.

    • Will Parchman

      “An unkown top player has an equal shot as an AAU player at getting scouted as long as he is good enough or better just by playing for his H.S.”

      This is patently false. Any good HS basketball player (and I covered HS basketball, so I would know) will tell you if you’re not playing AAU ball in the summer, you’re dramatically slicing your chances of being recruited to a top school. The only schools that recruit HS exclusively are ones that know they don’t have a shot at landing AAU kids.

      Further, how many nations pour as many resources into basketball as the U.S.? And how many even cared about basketball beyond 15-20 years ago? Is that number more than six or seven? The U.S. had an utter monopoly on the game for decades, and nations are only now beginning to catch up (marginally, obviously) now that they’re actually focusing resources on it. This has absolutely no comparison to soccer in any way.

      • The Truth

        I played basketball. The stars that made basketball so succesful did not come out of an “Academy” system. They came out of the hood. They will always come out of the hood. The most important ingredient for the success of these players was the non structural system in place at the time. High School was basically the only way to college then pro.
        AAU came after and is probably helpful but it is certainly proven to not be a needed element, especially if you come from the hood.
        Is it needed for the suburban player that otherwise would not compete at a higher level for college placement?? Of course!!
        But I am not talking aboiut them. I’m talking about the guys our kids emulate.
        And like in soccer the rich money suburban clubs bring those hood kids in to help their program succeed with the ever so important “W’s”.
        You surely know this as well, correct??
        i coached at one of these top AAU programs so I know, as well.
        Guess what other athlete factory in the world resembles Hood basketball success and creativity?? Brazil’s Favelas.
        Superstars are born out of these environments. Free play. Creativity, unique individual styles, flare, “Personality”. The most important ingredients in taking a team sport to another level. to bring the love of the fans to the game. To get the kids to really fall in love with the sport.
        We keep glorifying a system that has proven nothing, we will always wonder why we are not at the next level.
        You cant hide a Lebron in high School. What he need AAU for?? IS he a product of AAU?? Certainly not. Did Jordan play AAU?? Would he have been better if that was in place or popular at the time??
        You show me a top NBA player that came out of AAU as his most important ingredient and I’ll show you 10 better than him that didnt.
        Would Messi have made a USSDA team at 15??
        Other Nations are just catching up?? Lets analize that.
        No country has the size of USA, therefore they dont have as many players to choose from. If they did I am absolutely sure they would be much more competitive. Yugoslavia was up there 20 years ago and Argentina right after beat USA’s best. Spain has given them some good games. Croatia has had some success even though it is a very small country. These are all countries that choose baskball 2nd or even 4th. They will never catch up to USA unless they have hoods of their own.
        Guess what, Costa Rica, Panama, El Salvador have always had a head start on us in soccer. Why arent they more succesful?? Could it be the size of their countries and player pools??
        Of course it is comparable and very closely. Just look at Brazil, the best factory of indivdual talent in the world for ever. They follow a very simple system. It undeniably resembles hoods for basketball in USA, our best factory. WHat other 2 sports do you know that can so closely compare especially when speaking of the most creative and skilled players historically???
        Question to you is how are AAU and USSDA not comparable??

      • The Truth

        Will, do we need to pump money into basketball in USA to remain successful??
        Does Brazil need to do this?? The answer is no to both.
        We only need to keep reaching into the hood for our top players. AAU could disappear and we wouldnt miss a beat.
        Brazil needs to go back to its roots it has deveated from and made them the best in History. People want to watch them because of the individualities and exiting plays of ronaldinho, Pele, Ronaldo, kaka, etc. more than actually winning!!
        Same with USA basketball. Fans want to see them dunk, 360’s, no look passes, crossovers more than actually winning.
        Not comparable??!!!

      • The Truth

        And actually, where is money pumped into in basketball exactly?? Have you seen the profit sheets from colleges due to college basketball?? Very heavy ratio when comparing investemnts and gains. Completely lopsided. AAU clubs do just fine as well. If they got togethr and made a USSDA like system they would do even better!!

  • The truth

    Why are we looking so heavily now at the money in Germany when for years 3rd world countries have dominated soccer?? Why nobody talks about the Brazil way when looking to develop players??
    Even when Brazil has a bad showing in World Cups they still manage to be favorites in most their games and they ended up foruth in last one. Lets not forget they were the first to take Spain down from their pedestal at Confederations Cup.
    Brazil also always produces the most exported players in the world. Argentina is second. Uruguay is small but probably one of the most efficient in this department.
    If we did a survey I would bet most soccer people in USA would rather want to have an American Ronaldhino than a full German squad.
    Thats what is going to fill seats and create the exitement needed to really make this a soccer country.
    The buzz of getting out of a tough group can only carry you so far. But you do that with a James, Neymar, etc. putting on a show then you truly have someone any young player can aspire to be.

  • The truth

    Germany, Netherlands, Spain World Cup Rosters for 2014, 2010 show over 90% of their players with an average of 3+ years of Youth National Team Experience with a great majority of them scouted, identified and included for National Team experience at no later than U18 and as early as U15.
    African teams are the complete opposite and much closer to USA stats in that department.
    While we focus on money being a larger factor these 3 countries are showing to have the best scouting system and scouts making the right picks at an early age.
    Why cant we pick the very best prospects at an early age even if to not to the degree of Germany’s??
    How come so many of our U15-U18 or up to U20 picks dont end up on our Senior National Team??

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