Indiana University soccer legend Chris Klein became the Senior Director of the L.A. Galaxy Academy Program in December 2010 after 12 years of playing in Major League Soccer.
The Galaxyâ€™s academy is one of many, as each MLS club has established youth academies in order to grow players into future stars, and possibly close the talent gap between Major League Soccer and the more established leagues overseas.
“For MLS, it’s vital. We have to get on par with the rest of the world and how they train, and how they develop players,â€ Klein said.â€œ From a U.S. Soccer standpoint, I think that it’s a missing piece from what we’ve had in the past. We’ve had very good players come through this country, but we’ve never had that world class player.â€
While the top players in MLS academies have forgone college eligibility to sign Homegrown Player contracts with their respective clubs, others make the transition to college play.
“The academies have really helped be an extra development tool for players coming in,â€ Indiana coach Todd Yeagley said. â€œThe coaching is excellent.â€
The training and development of players in MLS academies are second to none in North America. Players who decide to go on to play at the college level are often ahead of the standard learning curve, even as freshmen.
â€œ(Academy Players) are going on to play college soccer after being developed in a system where, at least in (the L.A. Galaxy’s) case, they’re training four times a week on a 10-month a year schedule,â€ Klein explained. â€It’s a professional environment, so by time they get to college, at least on the soccer field – and in our case, we hope in the classroom as well – they are a lot further along than they were previously under the old system.â€
While the Hoosiers continue to seek out and recruit players from the traditional club-based development system, Yeagley acknowledges the differences he sees in academy players.
â€œWe find the best kids we can, but you do know the ones that come from MLS academies in particular have had a good foundation, and should be able to transition a little bit quicker,” Yeagley noted. “Obviously, seeing (academies) play, each game is a little more difficult. It’s more beneficial for our recruiting efforts because we know the competition is always going to be pretty tough.â€
Three of the Hoosiersâ€™ seven freshmen this season are products of Major League Soccer academies.
As one of the nationâ€™s top recruits in the class of 2011, Jack Coleman captained the FC Dallas Under-18 squad in 2010 and 2011. After playing for Norman North High
School in Norman, Oklahoma his freshman and sophomore seasons, Coleman had to choose between continuing high school play, or testing himself with the FC Dallas Academy.
“I loved playing for my high school. I played my freshman and sophomore year, but I knew the quality and caliber that came with (the FC Dallas) name,â€ Coleman said. â€œ I figured, ‘High school is great, but what I get with FC Dallas, it would definitely be worth the drive.â€™”
Unlike Coleman, IU midfielder Patrick Doody of Naperville, Illinois spent three years playing for his hometown Chicago Fire Academy while also starring for his Neuqua Valley High School squad.
â€œMe being here is completely because of the Fire,” Doody said. â€œ”(Playing at) an MLS academy beats normal academies, just because you’re in the MLS atmosphere five days a week, six days a week.â€
Unlike the other 16 MLS academies, Real Salt Lake and Vancouver Whitecaps FC have residency programs, similar to the youth systems of European clubs. The residency aspect is something that drove Eriq Zavaleta to RSLâ€™s Arizona-based academy.
â€œReal Salt Lake is kind of a different nature on its own,â€ the Westfield, Ind. native explained. â€œI was attracted to the fact that I could train and live every day, in an environment where I could get better with kids that were willing to make the sacrifices I was willing to make to get better.â€
Another reason Zavaleta chose RSL was the influence of his uncle, longtime MLS defender Greg Vanney, who was the director of the Real Salt Lake Youth Academy at the time. When Vanney accepted a coaching position with Chivas USAâ€™s First Team in January 2011, Zavaleta followed suit and played in the Rojiblancosâ€™ system.
In the summer of 2011, the forward decided to join future IU teammates A.J. Corrado and Nikita Kotlov and play for the Columbus Crew Juniors before landing in Bloomington this fall.
â€œI’m a big fan of (Crew Academy Technical Director) Brian Bliss, I think he’s a really good coach, and (Crew Juniors Assistant Coach) Ian Gordona,â€ Zavaleta said of his experience in Columbus. â€œI just really liked the organization.”
The academy experience has paid off for Zavaleta thus far in his freshman campaign. The target forward has scored three goals and chipped in two assists in the young 2011 season.
While some feel that MLS academies will ultimately water down the college game, Yeagley disagrees.
“The top small percentage of kids that aren’t made to go to college might take that opportunity to bypass (college), so you might miss out on the special player,â€ Yeagley said. â€œThe history has shown, a lot of our MLS mainstays and players that have done well in Europe have had a college experience. I continue to believe (college coaches) play an important role in preparing players to move on.â€
In addition, the quality of coaching the MLS academies prepares players for college competition.
“Right now, (MLS academies) are affecting the college game in a positive way,â€ Klein said. â€You are seeing some players that are signing (with MLS clubs) right out of high school, but the majority of players are going on to play college soccer.â€
Klein believes elite NCAA programs like his alma mater will ultimately benefit from the MLS academy system more than other college teams.
â€œThe advantage for a program like Indiana is that you’re going to see programs that do things the right way, like Indiana, start to set themselves apart,â€ Klein said. â€œWe’re investing in these players, and because of our significant investment in these players, we want them to go to a program where the training and where the environment continues to help them to develop in a positive way.”
It remains unclear what the long-term effect of MLS academy systems will be on college soccer. For now, at least, teams like Indiana are seeing the benefit in the new wave of soccer development in the United States.
â€œIt just helps them as they make the transition from club and high school into the college ranks,â€ Yeagley said. â€œIt’s been beneficial to our program, and many others.”