There’s something about U.S. Soccer and ground-quaking Friday afternoon news dumps. And this one was felt from coast to coast.
On Friday, U.S. Soccer officially announced its plans to bring the 18-year run of its U17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla. to a screeching halt at the end of its spring 2017 semester. The news itself had been widely rumored for years, that U.S. Soccer was beginning to grow weary of a residency program that became redundant the second it became obvious the Development Academy was here to stay. But whether it planned to actually bin the program? Nobody knew specifics.
And here they are. This from a Q&A with U20 coach Tab Ramos, who also acts as the U.S. Soccer youth technical director:
“When the Residency Program started, there was no Development Academy, there were no M.L.S. teams investing in youth development and there was no particular training direction. Most youth players at all levels were training twice per week and playing anywhere from one to five games on the weekends. Now we live in a completely different landscape. The DA has now been around for 10 years and players are taught to play, hold the ball and be creative. There is a clear “training over games” mentality of learning the game properly, and more importantly clubs all over the country are investing millions in youth development led by teams in M.L.S.”
This is, if it wasn’t otherwise obvious, a good move, if one five years overdue.
In reality, residency has been unsuccessfully chasing its first high for close to two decades now. The first residency class in 1999 was enormously successful, studded as it was with names like Landon Donovan, Kyle Beckerman, DaMarcus Beasley, Bobby Convey and Oguchi Onyewu. They laid the foundation for a history-making appearance in the third-place game in that year’s U17 World Cup and provided the youth infusion groundwork for the 2002 World Cup. It was an auspicious start.
But residency struggled in the ensuing years, seemingly fading in relevance with each passing semester. There was never much of a coherent style from coach to coach, never anything approaching the success of the ’99 U17 World Cup run and never a class even approaching that level. It did its work helping identify and establish promising youth players in the USMNT pipeline (Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley among them), but once the Development Academy was established in 2007 it began to feel redundant.
And indeed, since the 2005 cycle, which probably needed residency for lack of high-end club options, U17 results in the World Cup have been steadily trending downward as its relevance faded. The U.S. won two games at the 2005 U17 World Cup and made a run to the quarterfinals, and it hasn’t been back since. And in fact, in the five U17 World Cups since the U.S. has never progressed past the Round of 16 and, in 2013, it failed to qualify entirely for the first time in history. Believe it or not, the U.S. hasn’t won a game at a U17 World Cup in six years. And in the end it produced 33 USMNT players in 18 years, an average of less than two per year. If you’re planning on yanking club players out of their home environments for months at a time to live in an intensive residency, I have to think you should be doing better than that (although fair litmuses for exactly how much better are admittedly scarce).
The U17 World Cup is a capricious beast, and its results are only important insofar as they contribute to development. But those results also reflect development, and it’s hard to see much tangible holistic progression through those performances. It’s done so thanks to the individual development of its players largely done at younger and younger ages on the club level.
That gets to perhaps the broadest annoyance residency presented those home clubs: the time commitment.
Residency is, obviously, a residency (did I just blow your mind), and as such it requires its players to live in Bradenton for entire semesters away from their club teams. This is obviously a burden for those clubs, many of which simply have to make do without their best players for entire months at a time. But it also serves to uproot those players and takes them out of those more beneficial development environments. The entire purpose of residency when it was formed out of whole cloth in 1999 was to create a more intense training environment for players who didn’t have the option back home. Now, all of them do to some degree.
For a period of about seven or eight years, the U17 MNT served a purpose worth fighting to preserve. Whether it actually fulfilled its stated aim (whatever that was) is another story for another day. But thankfully U.S. Soccer finally saw the light and pulled the plug on its slowly deteriorating residency program before it dragged on even longer. Just about everyone should benefit, both in the long run and in the short term.