U.S. SOCCER DEVELOPMENT ACADEMY DIRECTORS USE EAST REGIONAL SHOWCASE AS LEADERSHIP AND BENCHMARKING OPPORTUNITY

What makes the U.S. Soccer Development Academy's yearly fall Regional Showcase events particularly special is their hyper-focus on the top U-13 and U-14 players across the country. The event provides an early opportunity for players in the age groups to experience a professional showcase environment against teams they wouldn't normally face in their conference before they move up to the Academy's older age groups (U-15, U-16/17 and U-18/19) and begin competing in the Academy's marquee Winter Showcase and Summer Playoffs.

With last weekend's Central Showcase in the books, the national spotlight has shifted to the East Region, where 44 clubs and 88 teams have converged onto BB&T Soccer Park in Advance, North Carolina. Knowing that U.S. Soccer scouts, Technical Advisors, and Youth National Team coaches are watching every one of the facility's 11 full-sized grass fields, teams need little reminder of the highly competitive nature of the event.

For Academy Directors making the weekend-long commitment to join their U-13 and U-14 young professionals, the stage provides a unique opportunity they can't find anywhere else.

"This weekend our 17's, 19's and 15's are playing New York Red Bull and I thought about staying for those games," Philadelphia Union Academy Director Tommy Wilson said. "But I wanted to see our young ones and I wanted to see our coaches, how they deal with this environment. Because this is a high-performance environment and these situations on nice, big, grass fields against tops teams like New York City FC, I want to see how my young players react. I want to see how the staff reacts and that for me is absolutely vital. Not only am I here, our head of sports psychology is here, to watch our players. You start to see these situations develop and see how people handle them."

Also traveling down with his teams to take advantage of the benefits of attending as an Academy Director was New York Soccer Club Academy Director Christian Gonzalez.

"I think the biggest value is my ability to support the team coaches in any way I can," Gonzalez said. "Today, I was able to take the team through our playing style principles in a video review session. Here, I am able to help our staff in any way I can, whether that's some paperwork or helping warm up the team. I think making myself available is really important to the coaching staff, that I'm right there with them. I'm able to spend a lot of time, together with my coaches, and talk about individual players and how they're doing, thoughts about where players might thrive in different positions, some of our training techniques and what maybe could be better. So we have a little bit of back and forth and by being here, we have the ability to give a little more feedback in a more focused way."

Since the U.S. Soccer Player Development Initiatives (PDIs) took effect on August 1, the birth-year registration mandate has meant that the majority of players participating across the U-13 (birth year 2005) and U-14 (birth year 2004) age groups are experiencing a world-class showcase environment for the first time. For Wilson, that opportunity comes with an understanding that as young professionals, his players actions are a representation of the club.

"We came down early and we prepared for this properly," Wilson said. "These are young professionals. These are our pros for the future. So we took the boys out for dinner last night and I remember I said to them, 'I'm looking at you now boys, not as young boys, but as young professionals. I want to see how you react in the restaurant, how you react in the hotel, how you behave on and off the field.' And I can remember some of the young ones, Derrick Jones, Austin Trusty and Anthony Fontana, who have signed first team contracts, I can remember them being in these environments, having to cope with being away from home, sharing rooms with maybe players you didn't really know that well. They experienced these pressurized environments where we're playing against the top teams in the nation. They benefited from it and I'm hoping our young ones here will benefit just the same."

Another aspect Academy Directors in attendance are able to capitalize on is the ability to scout other teams, benchmarking their club and individual players with the 1500 other players facing off. This benchmarking opportunity also provides a critical early identification opportunity for full Academy programs (U-12, U-13, U-14, U-15, U-16/17, U-18/19) like Wilson's Philadelphia Union, while top players from junior Academy programs (U-12, U-13, U-14) begin the process to find the best next step in their player-development pathway.

"Recruitment is vital for us," Wilson said. "Our Director of Talent Identification (Peter Pososki) is here, watching games. I spoke to him between the games and he gave me a report on one or two players. We've uncovered players here, previously, and I think that's fair. We don't steal players. We go in through the front door, we speak to the club, we say, 'we've got an environment that's got residency, that's got a pathway to the professional game. Would you like to join us?' And more often than not, they do. So we just open the dialogue with them. Some of the best players we have right now in our Academy, we've recruited from other clubs. Some of them, we've developed ourselves, and it's got to be a combination of that."

For Christian Gonzalez, bridging the gap for a player from a junior Academy club to full-Academy club is a no-brainer.

"We want what's best for our team and players," Gonzalez said. "Our job is to try to develop the players, to give them the best possible pathway to a first team, whether that be New York City FC or the National Team, and that's where we get the most gratification, when we see our players move on and thrive."

Regardless of which opportunities Academy Directors choose to take advantage of while attending their club's Regional Showcase, clearly those who attend are reaping the benefits.