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Looking at the Strengths and Weaknesses of the FC Dallas Academy
Sorry folks, a bout of illness this weekend sidelined the report. In this part, I'm going to take a wordy look at the Academy, what they do well and how to improve things.
What is the point of the Academy? Before I go on, I want to first say that the point of the FC Dallas Academy is, first and foremost, to develop players for the first team. Winning at academy level is great, sending players to big university programs is great and winning at Dallas Cup is fantastic, but one player developed through the Academy that makes an impact on Schellas Hyndman's squad is worth more than any trophy.
What does the Academy do well?
Win At U18 level, a much higher emphasis is placed on winning than at any other age group and the FC Dallas U18s have won in amazing fashion. Since joining the USSDA four seasons ago in 2008-2009, FCD has finished at the top of the hyper-competitive Texas Division the last three years, with just 6 losses in 57 division games over those three seasons.
FC Dallas U18s have also made the Development Academy finals week(the final 8 teams) the last three years in a row including the championship game the past two seasons having finally won their first National Championship in 2012.
Despite graduating most of the national championship class, FCD has already gotten off to a hot start in 2012-2013 at 3-0-0 with 10 goals scored and just one allowed.
After the reserve game last week, I asked Schellas about winning no matter the level and he said he doesn't care whether it's reserves or academy, establishing a winning tradition is something that is important whenever you play with an FC Dallas jersey on.
Develop Talent All you have to do is look at the players FC Dallas has signed and put into major NCAA schools to see just how much talent has come through Frisco in the last four years. Starters all over major college programs and seven(!) players signed to the first team. It's not at all an exaggeration to say that FC Dallas could field a team of college-aged academy graduates that would compete for an NCAA national championship.
National and International Recruiting Listen, it's the wild wild west out there right now when it comes to Development Academy recruitment and FC Dallas is certainly not falling behind. There are kids coming from California, Virginia, Georgia, Colombia, Mexico, etc..etc..that have joined the DA U18 and U16 squads in the last 12 months. Is it fair? Well that's not really for me to say, but given the ridiculous homegrown signings the Galaxy have made and the claim of Philadelphia to pretty much every player that plays in that city, FCD is certainly not the only one bending the rules.
Now some of the bad news...
What part of the Academy needs improvement?
Maturing Players The absolute biggest problem of homegrown signings that haven't panned out(yet) has been maturity issues. Ask any member of the FCD technical staff about what needs to improve with the homegrowns and they will tell you it is a sense of urgency.
When you're 18 and playing in Mexico, you're earning 10% of what the FCD homegrowns are making and if you don't produce on your first chance, you may never be heard from again. That is the simple reality of things around the world.
With the way things are currently for FC Dallas, a homegrown signing is not expected to produce in the first year which, if the player is not extremely inwardly driven - and most at 18/19 years old aren't - lazy habits creep into their game that weren't there when they were an Academy player trying to earn a contract in the first place.
That's not to say it's a terrible indictment of a 18 year old to slag a little bit when you've been handed a $50,000 annual contract for the next 2-4 years and it's relatively guaranteed, but something has to be done to rectify that whether it's encouraging all players to go to college or whatever the answer is. When you sign your professional contract, that's the first step to becoming a star, not the last step.
Right now, the fact is that players coming from the NCAA game are vastly more ready for the ups and downs of a college career than an FC Dallas homegrown player is. Just look at Matt Hedges, he's only two years older than Moises Hernandez, but the maturity levels prior to Moises leaving for his Guatemala loan are not on the same page despite Hernandez now in his third year as a pro with Hedges just finishing his rookie season.
It will be interesting to see how this dynamic changes once FCD has 2-3 Homegrown eligible players graduating from the NCAA every single season. That time isn't too far off...
Getting players more games The second major fault of the FCD Academy setup, and this is true of all US Soccer, is once you sign a homegrown contract, when do you get your games? The reality is that all developing players need 25 games a year minimum to properly continue developing the skills needed to be a professional.
If you're 18 and you've come through the Development Academy's fantastic setup, you're now used to playing 35-40 games a season, almost one every week, and then you sign a contract with FC Dallas and suddenly it's a smattering of minutes in pre-season and 10 reserve games a year to prove your worth. That's simply not enough, you get more games a year by playing a four-month NCAA season!
Ask any player how they will develop and they'll tell you it's learning from mistakes they've made in games. Getting world-class first touch from practice after practice is great, but if you don't know the right times when to push forward and when to track back on defense, forget being a professional.
Is the answer a more regional reserve league made up of PDL/MLS/NASL/USL Pro teams from around the area or an expanded MLS Reserve League to 25 games? I can't say the answer to these questions, but Dallas must find a way to get their reserves at least 25 games where they can make mistakes and not be punished rather than being thrown to the wolves in MLS games and having their confidence shot.
Those are my two biggest problems with the current system, and they're certainly not anything that would be breaking news to anyone in Frisco.
I want to leave you with this interview I ran across yesterday with an everyday United States professional soccer player that came through the Academy/NCAA system. I'm going to quote two things here that I think are very very important when talking about developing great players for FC Dallas that are ready to make an impact with the first team the moment they sign a contract.
In college, I learned about making the transition from being a kid on the field to being a man. Fortunately, I had a great team of coaches and teammates that helped me get there. While I do credit Stony Brook with many things the biggest by far was that the (soccer) staff there helped me mature on and off the field.
The biggest thing I learned about playing in Europe was that football really was a matter of life and death. So many times I remembered playing back home as a kid and how easy and stress free it was and how playing in Europe soccer was a business not a sport. That's why I don't think anyone knows soccer until they witness it like that.
Every player's path is different. There is no silver bullet way to develop the next great FC Dallas player. Some will sign a contract even before they've turned 18. Some will play a year or two at the NCAA level. Some may play all four college years and earn a contract in pre-season and the day will come where an FCD Academy player hits it big with another MLS team.
The fact is, however, that FCD has quietly(or maybe not so quietly) put in place the mechanisms where the best talent in north Texas is now coming through the club and an ever-evolving philosophy is being carried out to put a squad on the field 10 years from now that has six or more FCD Homegrowns.
In part four we'll take a look at who some of those Homegrowns could be.