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US Soccer's secret scouting network

NO STONE UNTURNED
US Soccer has been quietly building an expansive scouting network.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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The charge is almost as old as American soccer itself: the United States Soccer Federation doesn’t do a good enough job unearthing talent from the underprivileged inner-city areas. This, many argue, is the reason the United States fails to win World Cups in spite of having almost 25 million soccer players, second only to China’s 26 million, according to FIFA’s Big Count.

Call it the “Unified Ghettos and Barrios Theory.”

Unquantifiable though it may have been, this accusation probably had a lot of merit. For a time, anyway. But FOX Soccer has learned that over the last five years, US Soccer quietly built an expansive scouting network to remedy this deficiency and patch the many cracks through which talent flowed away from its player pool.

Since 2007, the federation has trebled the number of full-time youth scouts it employs from three to nine and quadrupled its per diem scouts from 20 to 80. Four years ago, it staged a dozen so-called training centers, wherein the best regional talent is assembled for extra high-level training sessions for one to three days in temporary camps rotating throughout the nation. In 2013, it will hold about 2,000.

“In the last five years, the network has grown and the full-time staff has grown and everything we’re doing has really expanded,” director of scouting for the US Soccer Development Academy and head coach of the under-15 boys' national team Tony Lepore told FOX Soccer. “We’re not quite there but I think we’ve really developed with our methods and certainly with our intentions.”

All this growth, which the federation consciously didn’t publicize, stemmed from an acknowledgement that progress in talent identification was indeed paramount. “We can always do better in all of these areas,” says US Soccer president Sunil Gulati. “We’ve got a very large country, both population-wise and geographically. I think we need to do better. I think we are doing better.”

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“Clearly this game is very competitive and it’s important to get as many players as you can into the pipeline,” says Gulati. “We’re trying to improve on things. This [scouting network] sees players in their natural environment, which any select team program [like the long-running Olympic Development Program] can’t. From that basis it’s certainly a plus. There’s always rationale for looking at players in different ways.”

On the latter point, the US doesn’t have much choice. In most every other country, youth national team scouting begins with the professional clubs. They identify the best young players from the talent pool at large, filtering through the enormity of local youth players, and then the federation cherry-picks the brightest prospects from their academies for its own programs. But this isn’t so in the USA.

With just 16 Major League Soccer teams in the country, not all of whom have academy systems, far more territory is left unexplored than properly scouted. Even the 80 clubs in the US Soccer Development Academy – elite under-16 and under-18 youth leagues, soon to be joined by an under-14 division, populated by clubs adhering to the federation’s stringent best practices requirements – doesn’t come close to covering the entire map. The prevalent pay-to-play model, which can exceed $10,000 per season, can also prove prohibitive.

“We’re not at a point where all we’re doing is scouting academy matches,” says Lepore. “There’s different pockets where we don’t even have academy clubs where it’s important to scout and there’s many players that for whatever reason don’t have access to the Academy. We still have to do a lot of work looking for players and we try not to leave any stone unturned.”

On a typical weekend, about 40 scouts are out watching youth games all over the country, which is split up into nine regions. Each region is overseen by one of the full-time scouts, who commands a network and works closely with local Development Academy teams and national team coaches. Development Academy teams are watched some 15 times per year. But so are other clubs, ranging from serious travel teams to informal sides in unaffiliated local ethnic leagues.

GREAT PRETENDERS

Building up talent is simply asking for trouble. Just ask these guys.

Scouts follow up on tips from coaches in hopes of catching those players without the means to play in the bigger showcases. All scouting reports are filed to a database, sorting every player born between 1993 and 2001 by position and region. Once a week, all the scouts connect on a national conference call and break down each age group.

The full-time scouts oversee the training centers, whose frequency depends on a market’s needs. Major markets get as many as two per month, with a core group of players joined by a revolving cast of fresh talent new on the scene or on the fringe of the age group. “US Soccer training centers are a way for us to keep track of and identify who the top players are in the markets,” says Lepore. “They are now the pathway to the youth national teams.”

These short camps are run according to the same principles as the national team program, looking for the same position profiles and drilling prospects in the same playing philosophy as the senior national team. They represent a path, a route long gone unexplored, from wherever you happen to be playing all the way through to representing the USA at the highest level.

“It’s hard to hide good players,” says Lepore. “If you’re a good player we’ll find you.”

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