Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Has Bradenton Run Its Course?

Fresh on the heels of the United States Under-17 national team's CONCACAF championship and FIFA Under-17 World Cup qualification, Paul Kennedy of Soccer America examines whether the residency program in Bradenton, Florida has run its course.

The USA continued its streak of being the only nation to have qualified for all 14 Under-17 World Cups with five wins in five games at the 2011 Concacaf Under-17 Championship in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Despite Sunday's 3-0 overtime triumph by Wilmer Cabrera's boys over Canada, it's clear the under-17 residency program launched by U.S. Soccer in 1999 and based in Bradenton, Fla., has run its course.

There are any number of yardsticks by which to judge the U-17 residency program:

-- Success on the field. The six first U-17 residency classes produced one fourth-place finish at the Under-17 World Cup, but that's it. The 2-0 win by John Ellinger's U-17s over Mexico in New Zealand at the 1991 tournament remains the only U.S. win in the knockout phase of 13 tournaments, a remarkably poor record.

-- Developing future stars. Ellinger's 1991 team included Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Oguchi Onyewu, among others. But few current U.S. stars began their careers in Bradenton or at the U-17 level for that matter. Of the starters against Ghana in the second round of the 2010 World Cup, only goalie Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore and Donovan represented the USA at the U-17 World Cup. Many of the attacking stars on the very promising U.S. under-20 national team either left the residency program before the end of its cycle (Joseph Gyau and Sebastian Lletget) or moved abroad at a young age ( Bobby Wood,Josh Gatt and Omar Salgado).

-- Jumpstarting the careers of young players. Players like Michael Bradley, too young to make the 2005 squad, and Altidore, a reserve on the 2005 U-17 team, benefited from being placed in a full-time soccer environment and made the leap to pro soccer at young ages. The same could be said for Neven Subotic, another 2005 reserve who now stars for Borussia Dortmund and Serbia.

-- Developing a style of play. The work at Bradenton would be beneficial if it instilled in U.S. teams a distinct style of play in the manner of such great programs at those at Barcelona or Ajax, but the teams that have come out of Bradenton have been largely unremarkable. Despite their success in winning the 2011 Concacaf tournament -- Mexico, the 2011 U-17 World Cup host, it should be noted was absent -- the Americans showed little pizazz. Indeed, in the quarterfinals against El Salvador and final against Canada, the USA looked like the second best team on the field for much of regulation.

Much of what was unique about Bradenton has been made moot by the launch of U.S. Soccer's Development Academy and the MLS homegrown program that has seen clubs sign players as young as 16.

In particular, MLS is offering the fast-track player development -- the opportunity for young players to train and play alongside older pros -- that was always lacking in American soccer.

More generally, Development Academy programs are beginning to replicate the daily academy training experience. A few are even adding a residency component. Real Salt Lake has launched a residency program in Phoenix. FC Dallas has its own residency program for Dallas players. The Schulz Academy, a former DA program in South Florida, has launched a new residency program.

Most of Cabrera's U-17s are DA products. Only two U.S.-based starters against El Salvador in the decisive quarterfinals -- Andrew Oliver (Westside United of Indiana) and Alejandro Guido (Aztecs Premier of California) -- were not affiliated with DA programs.

That doesn't mean that DA programs are the be all and the end all of American youth soccer -- after all, Oliver was the U-17s' leading scorer and Guido was their playmaker -- but they will catch much of the talent coming through the ranks.

With or without the residency program -- or a local academy club program for that matter -- Donovan and Subotic (discovered playing in a park in Bradenton) -- would have probably become stars.

And the demise of Bradenton as a residency program doesn't mean U.S. Soccer should drop the U-17 national team program or should abandon its extensive calendar of international trips or domestic camps that should have a special emphasis on providing opportunities for players outside the DA or MLS systems.

The U-17 national team program should continue -- and keep its record streak going for many years to come -- but there is no realistic need for a full-time program that takes a player away from home or out of his local soccer environment.

If U.S. Soccer and Nike were throwing out the idea of launching a full-time national residency program today, they'd probably pass.

So it's time to say goodbye to Bradenton.

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