Manny Schellscheidt was never a man given over to delirious spasms of hyperbole when it came to young prospects. He’d been doing this too long, had seen too many young players fall victim to a development process that can be hard to understand at best and viciously duplicitous at worst. Freddy Adu had once passed through his U.S. U14 ID camps, after all.
So when Schellscheidt first saw the young, diminutive kid embarrassing defenders one afternoon on a small field in Pennsylvania in 2011, there was little broader fanfare about it. Nobody knew who the kid was yet on any substantive level, and Schellscheidt had his reservations, although he knew the kid was special. The old coach stuck around a few days, noted the kid’s name in his notepad, talked to the club coaches on hand and then left assured of at least one thing in the absence of all else.
He would see Christian Pulisic play again. And this time he’d be running the camp.
Schellscheidt might be the most tragically underappreciated names in U.S. Soccer history. He played an enormous role in the early development of modern American soccer, becoming U.S. Soccer’s first A license holder and one of its first Olympic and U17 coaches. Ask the more well-known legends like Bruce Arena, Bob Bradley and Sigi Schmid about their early influences, and Schellscheidt’s is among the first names you’ll hear. More recently, while coaching the Seton Hall men’s program in the fall, Schellscheidt ran the U.S. U14 Boys National Team as the technical director until 2011. In that capacity he helped organize and run five U14 early identification camps a year pulling from the old ODP regional system of organization, gradually migrating east to west each year before ending in Carson, Calif. for a final camp amongst the best players from the year.
Schellscheidt was an ardent disciple of this system, which U.S. Soccer abandoned once he ran his last series of camps in 2011. In its place they instituted a modified ID system that borrowed heavily from the increasingly relevant Development Academy, which U.S. Soccer runs. But at the time, up until 2011, this series of camps was the base of the U.S. Soccer ladder, and most top young USMNT prospects over this period went to Schellscheidt’s camps before they went through anyone else.
In hindsight, Pulisic was unquestionably the biggest name invited to the 80-player camp at the StubHub Center in Carson. Over four days in early August, Schellscheidt and his staff, the first U.S. Soccer officials to actually coach Pulisic, picked apart the fruits of their identification labors over the course of the previous year. They ran their players through full-sided games, 7v7 contests, individual training, skill work. Schellscheidt, by then a grandfatherly figure in his 70’s, was a ubiquitous presence on the sideline, quietly padding through drills and offering sparse critiques here and there.
Pulisic blew away the coaching staff almost immediately. “Physically it wasn’t easy for him at the time,” Schellscheidt told me. “But you could see the talent was pretty clear. No doubt about what kind of a gifted kid we had in our hands.” By the second day he’d earned TopDrawerSoccer’s attention, lumped in as he was with the standouts of the event. By the end, he earned a spot on our top players list from the event.
It was the first time Pulisic pulled on a U.S. jersey in a major camp – TDS misspelled his last name as Pullsic for the entirety of the week – and the deep blue training top engulfed his torso and crept toward his knees. Pulisic, maybe the smallest player in the camp, wouldn’t turn 13 for another month. It would’ve been hard for anyone on the fields that week to envision this scrawny kid from just outside Harrisburg, Pa. playing in the Champions League against Real Madrid in a scant five years while trading that oversized training kit for the USMNT No. 10 jersey in World Cup qualifying. Landon Donovan’s old number.
“That camp was one that you could see that there were a number of players who were gifted and talented,” Schellscheidt said, before pausing for a moment, the phone seemingly dead for five, then 10 seconds. “Including Pulisic.”
The story of that camp could easily have ended at Pulisic. But it didn’t. That week witnessed what could ultimately be the single most impactful U14 ID camp ever run by U.S. Soccer, shifting the onus onto a new generation not matched in depth and top-end talent since the inaugural U17 residency class in 1999. Doubts about whether this class is the best since then are rapidly vaporizing by the week. Questions about whether it can surpass the class of 1999 are now beginning to swirl in their place.
“At the end of the day, they all write their own story. That was always our philosophy,” Schellscheidt said. “Come here and show us who you are. We’re interested in your story. It was never about heavy duty coaching at that age. There was no mystery to sorting that group out.”
It’s almost unfathomable for a class that hasn’t yet had a single player reach his 20’s, but there are already 14 who’ve signed professional deals from that 2011 ID camp, many of them signifying the cream of the USMNT prospect crop. In Germany, fast-rising Schalke prospects Haji Wright and Weston McKennie both made their first U.S. Soccer inroads that week in Carson. Elsewhere in Europe, Fiorentina’s Josh Perez was there, as was Danny Barbir (West Brom), McKinze Gaines (Wolfsburg), Luca de la Torre (Fulham), and Kyle Gruno (Leicester City). Kyle Gurrieri is in the Swedish second division, attempting to bust his way into Europe. Abraham Romero, meanwhile, just started for Mexico’s U20 team between the pipes in the U20 World Cup earlier this year. He’s currently Pachuca’s most promising academy goalkeeper in LigaMX.
There are more names who stuck closer to home. Center back Hugo Arellano recently signed with the LA Galaxy as a Homegrown. Just last week Lagos Kunga, fresh off a goal at the U20 World Cup, joined Atlanta United in the same capacity. Eric Calvillo recently made his debut with the New York Cosmos. Ryley Kraft is in Orlando City’s system with Orlando City B. Ethan Lotenero is with Seattle Sounders 2. Plenty more are still in college, well regarded pro prospects like Kevin Silva (UCLA), Luka Prpa (Marquette), Raheem Taylor-Parkes (Virginia), Guiseppe Barone (Michigan State) and Tommy McCabe (Notre Dame).
Professionally, it’s already easily the most impressive U14 ID camp by the U20 age in U.S. Soccer history. These camps have historically picked up on a few professional prospects, maybe six or seven at most, with the odd camp providing a future regular future national teamer. The August 2011 camp already successfully identified Pulisic, a generational talent who’s done more at 19 than anyone in USMNT history. But a handful of legitimate U.S. starters-in-waiting might’ve also found their first substantive U.S. Soccer exposure on the same fields, future professionals and possible USMNT teammates unwittingly rubbing shoulders as precocious pre-teen soccer players.
There is still work to be done, of course. Nearly that entire group still has to break through as professionals, and the pool is significantly deeper than one ID camp. But it was a heck of a way to go out for one of the U.S.’s modern originals. Shortly after that camp, Schellscheidt retired from both U.S. Soccer and Seton Hall.
“We always felt (player identification) needs to be a completely open door,” Schellscheidt said. “It could be a recommendation, it could be through the regional teams, it could be teams we played against. Every chance we had we kept our eyes open for someone who looked special. That’s the way I think it should be at the entry level. What we made sure about in the (U14) camp, I would always start out by saying, ‘Look, in U14 camp, nobody can fail. You’re just simply too young to fail. That took the pressure off these little guys who were often so anxious and concerned and nervous about what this would be like.”
There’s little question that since Schellscheidt left his U14 post in 2011, U.S. Soccer significantly whittled down its youth national team scope to the Development Academy it runs. In a most recent U14 BNT camp in February, 33 of the 36 players called in played in the DA already, and 17, nearly half the camp, were in MLS academies. The counter-argument to Schellscheidt’s point is that the best players naturally congregated into MLS and DA academies in heavier volume since Pulisic’s epic group in 2011. That would, U.S. Soccer could easily reason, necessitate a more heavily focused beam on the DA and the pro-level academies that seem to be separating from their less moneyed non-MLS competitors. It also, it seems, serves as a point of pride for U.S. Soccer, which trumpets DA involvement in U.S. Soccer youth national team camps as the end of a successful chain of scouting and talent development. There is undoubtedly truth to that.
But Schellscheidt is still uneasy about the path, which seems to him to be cutting down the net he used so broadly and narrowing scope.
“I honestly believe there’s talent everywhere,” Schellscheidt said. “We just need to find it and cultivate it and give it the kind of environment that they can thrive in. Our thing was always, we don’t need copies. We need originals.”
Schellscheidt is now 76 and lives in comfortable retirement in New Jersey, where he watches U.S. Soccer’s progress with keen interest. For the next 15 years, he’ll likely be hearing a heck of a lot about the players who showed up for a seemingly unassuming camp in August 2011 with hopes of changing the fortunes of a bourgeoning soccer nation. And he’ll always have a place in that discussion as one of U.S. Soccer’s quietest modern architects.