The Road Less Traveled

Unlike Robert Frost’s metaphorical advice on life, the road to becoming a professional soccer player is very literally, a road less traveled.

The famous poem suggests that the decision to determine upon ones personal pathway through life lies solely with oneself; however, if Frost had been a soccer coach rather than life coach, the road that led to becoming a professional soccer player wouldn’t have been covered with mere ‘undergrowth’. Instead, its entrance would have been barricaded with barbed wire fence, guarded with wild dogs; the route, seemingly endless, filled with poison ivy, thorny thicket and snakes. Giant snakes.

In the UK (and the rest of Europe) the route to the top is very different from the route necessary in the USA.

It is important to understand a few major differences between the UK and US soccer system.

In the UK, there are many different tiers of professional soccer. Obviously the Premier League sits on the top of the pyramid, below that comes the Championship, followed by League 1 then League 2; these leagues are all ‘full time’ professional clubs, their players and coaches are full time professionals. However, under these leagues comes the National Conference, in this league, some of the teams are full time and some are part time (because there is a promotion/relegation system in place throughout all of the leagues, newly promoted outfits cant initially afford to make all of their players full time. Likewise, some newly relegated teams cant risk a mass exodus of full time players by cutting their wages to part time) so there are a mix of full time and part time teams. Below the conference comes semi professional regional leagues (conferences), many of the players in these leagues are either talented players who haven’t quite made it at a higher level or players who have descended through the leagues to reach the semi pro level as an experienced ex-pro.

Each team has a youth program under it. The bigger clubs hope to feed their first teams, while the smaller clubs hope to sell their talented players and become a feeder club to the bigger clubs, in turn funding their further development.

There are not many players who make it to the top and there are not many of them who do so in such a straightforward way, but to best explain the complicated and ever changing system in layman’s terms …

Typically, a young player would join a Sunday league youth team at the age of around five or six, these youth teams are coached by volunteer parent coaches and play in local leagues, the player would then progress through the age groups of that club, much like in the USA. At this level of soccer, players pay a small weekly fee (subs) and are expected to buy their own kits and equipment. They travel to games in parent convoys.

Teams from the professional football league pyramid start sending scouts to these Sunday league games in the hopes of finding talent before a rival club.

If a player impresses a scout at the Sunday League level, he would be invited to attend a six-week trial period at the club. During this time, the player will train with the academy team at his appropriate age group up to four times a week and play games with them on the weekend. If, at the end of the six-week period, the coaches decide the player has the adequate ability and potential he will be offered an academy player contract. Depending on the age of the player and how much the club wishes to invest in him, this contract can be anywhere from six months to six years long. These contracts place strict regulations on the players athletic and social lifestyle, most clubs prevent the player from training or playing with any Sunday league teams, school teams or any other organized sports.  Again depending on age and ability, some clubs stipulate further restrictions. Once in an academy, the club provides all equipment including training and game kits, teams travel to games on team busses and players do not pay any registration or fees to the club.

An academy player would then hope to progress through the age groups, having regular revues with the coaches, knowing that he can be released at any point. Being released would mean an agonizing time of trialing with other academy clubs and, if unsuccessful, dropping back into Sunday League.

If a player successfully reaches the U16 level at an academy then they are now playing for a spot on the clubs official youth team. All players at this stage quickly come to terms with reality; clubs at the age of U17 can now discard FA stipulations and open their doors to players from around the country and around the world. It is not uncommon for a U16 academy team to lose 90% of its players at this stage. Many times players who have been with the club for over 10 years find themselves kicked to the curb, quite literally.

If the player is selected to continue with the club he would be offered a youth team players scholarship agreement, this would generally mean that the player, at 16, would move to reside near the clubs training ground, they would train every day and live like a professional player. At this point the player begins to gain serious exposure to the clubs senior staff. At this point there are two youth teams, a U18s and a U20s, the younger players are fighting for their place in the team, the older players hoping to be called up to the reserve squad.

During the time as a youth team player, the player would hope for an opportunity to play with the reserve team. Most reserve teams are made up from professional players trying to keep or get ‘match fit’, professionals trying out for a professional contract or young players looking to impress the reserve team and first team managers.

Once a player is playing regularly with the reserve team and has proved himself worthy, able and consistent in first team training, he then has to play the waiting game. Waiting for an opportunity to play with the team, there wont be many chances to impress on the big stage so doing it when it matters has never been so important. If that opportunity is seized, he can start thinking about setting goals as a first team regular and international.

The Football Association has enforced many regulations on scouting players over the years; it used to be that every club had a ‘catchment area’ of a certain distance determined by the FA. Clubs could not recruit players who lived more than a 90-minute drive away from the training facility. This rule has recently been abolished under the new Elite Player Performance Plan.

The EPPP has radically changed the way in which players are developed; the old system had two levels of development Academies (generally the Premier League’s clubs youth teams) and Center of Excellences (generally the youth system for teams outside the Premier League).

Because there were only two tiers, Academy and Center of Excellence’s, it was typical of Academy clubs to poach the higher end of C of E players at a young, and cheaper, age. Recently, the EPPP has created a four-tier system that grades academies according to numerous aspects. The highest rated academies being able to sign the best players and command the largest fees. Category 1 academies will have high contact time with young players, require a minimum of 18 full-time staff and an operational yearly budget of £2.5 M.Academies will be reviewed every two years and re-categorized if necessary. Categorization is the result of an independent audit.

As the system in the UK allows for young players to be bought and sold by clubs the EPPP has also stipulated that there are fixed tariffs for the transfers of players under the age of 18. An academy player aged 9-11 is worth #3,000 ($5,000) for every year spent within the academy, from the age of 12-16 that fee rises to #12,000 to #40,000 ($20,000 – $70,000) per year, depending on the Academies category. So if a player spends eight years at a category one academy, a team must pay at least #360,000 ($580,000) to purchase him.

In the US, the route to Major League Soccer is very different.  A young player plays at the highest level of youth soccer he/she can, hoping to gain attention from college coaches at around the age of 16 (the same age that European players are moving out of their family homes to work on their trade), If successful players will attend college for four years before hoping to be picked up in the MLS draft. This is a relatively simple process compared to that of the UK but it does provide a number of difficulties, especially for coaches.

Professional teams in the UK have a system of play, a style. Each team differs slightly and each team’s style changes faintly as key personnel enter and exit. If a team has a playing philosophy (a style in which their 1st team play) they can then start to develop a production line of well suited players who know the philosophy and style inside out.  These players are developed in a way to suit that clubs style, but because the clubs at the top end of the pyramid are producing such quality the players don’t necessarily become pigeon holed as only having one style.

This also allows consistency throughout the player’s development; the player is coached in a similar manner with similar goals being reinforced. When that player reaches the pinnacle of the soccer pyramid, there shouldn’t be anything too foreign to him on the field.

In the US, youth soccer clubs comparable to those Academies in Europe don’t have a professional team sitting on top of their organization. That means that the club may have a philosophy or a style of play but it only feeds the older age groups. When those players go off and play in college, realistically, that is the end of their development as players. They will improve with game experience but for four years they will be playing an intense game schedule, practicing as little as twice a week in season and hardly playing at all in the spring. College coaches are under pressure to gain results, there simply isn’t the time to develop players.

Obviously there are many more factors socially, historically and culturally but that is one reason that it is hard to see how the MLS will ever gain any ground on the European leagues.  Players coming out of college, not knowing the first thing about the professional world, at the age of 22 quickly realize that it is nearly impossible to find a professional coach or a club willing to take the time to consider a college player for the professional ranks.

So, if you find yourself at two roads diverging in a wood and you think that one may lead to becoming a professional soccer player, be sure to know that even with all the talent in the world and with all the luck in the world it still wont be a skip down the garden path.

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