(By Timothy Pratt/Guardian) Joe Bradley had an “a-ha moment” after seeing how three Bayern Munich youth team coaches dealt with losing, all in the same day.
This was during his first visit to the club’s facilities in the Bavarian capital in late November, part of the new, first-of-its-kind partnership between Bradley’s Massachusetts-based youth soccer organization, Global Premier Soccer, and the European powerhouse.
“They had a real commitment to game intelligence and the technical aspect of the game, and didn’t worry so much about winning or losing,” Bradley says of the games he saw, with players ranging from 11 to 16 years old. “We’re going to put this at the top of the list,” he adds, referring to the work GPS does training about 55,000 youth players in 11 northeastern US states.
As CEO of GPS, Bradley is part of a recent development that may become a trend in years to come – top European soccer clubs laying down roots on U.S. soil, working with young American players year-round.
In recent months, Barcelona have opened its first US youth academy in Florida, and, as of November, Bayern Munich announced a partnership with GPS aimed at importing the club’s philosophy, curriculum and training methods. Everton have also expanded their US presence in the last year, partnering with FC Westchester, home to one of the US Soccer Federation’s prestigious Youth Development Academies.
The arrival of two of the most powerful European teams, with tens of millions of followers worldwide and dozens of trophies between them poses the question: why now? And, what do these moves say about the state of US soccer? A sign of improving players, a rush for American dollars, or both?
Alexi Lalas is cynical about the arrival of the European giants. “Make no mistake,” he says. “This is a gold rush. This is a land grab.”
Lalas has invested most of his life in Stars and Stripes soccer, playing for USA at the 1994 World Cup and serving as general manager for three MLS teams – including the LA Galaxy that signed David Beckham – before becoming a high-profile TV presence.
“US soccer is littered with decades of people coming over with little more than an accent to their resume, and using the naivete we’ve had and the inexperience and lack of soccer history and culture to their advantage,” says Lalas.
Lalas allows that Bayern and Barcelona may bring useful ideas and good coaches to their programs, but is concerned about the nation’s millions of youth players and their families overcoming what he calls an “inferiority complex”.
The staff associated with the projects don’t exactly sound like invading hordes, and cite both marketing and player development as goals.
Jordi Mola, technical director for FCB Escola Florida, Barcelona’s first academy in the US, highlights three reasons that led the club to set up shop stateside: the United States is the world’s third most-populous country; Florida is the country’s fourth most-populous state (soon to become third, according to some estimates), and the fact that soccer’s popularity is growing every year, as evidenced by the recent World Cup, when 26.5 million viewed the Germany-Argentina final on TV, making it the country’s most-watched soccer game ever.
This makes American soil the perfect place to achieve three goals, according to Mola: “Spread the brand, expand our methodology that has been so successful in the last decade, and teach our values.” The club have been testing waters in the US for the last seven years, offering summer camps in different states to around 12,000 players.
Bradley, who was born in Northern Ireland but settled in the US after arriving at Harvard in 1990 on a soccer scholarship, says “the American marketplace is no longer what it was 10 years ago … [when] there was a certain lack of respect and [European clubs] would see the U.S. market as not very sophisticated.” Back then, he notes, a European club might send so-called “community coaches” – or those charged with running youth programs in towns or cities near the club’s training grounds – to run a summer camp stateside. Now, he says, “Bayern knew whatever they did would have to be more authentic.”
As an example, he cites that Bayern’s academy coordinator and U16 team head coach will be visiting GPS sites twice a year for a total of six weeks, and their chief scout will be visiting at least once a year. GPS staff will also use Bayern’s curriculum and visit the team’s academy in Germany, as will players.
Bradley believes this will benefit the 55,000 or so players his program reaches by providing “the best possible player development”.
Rudolf Vidal, managing director of Bayern’s New York office overseeing the US project, is careful to point out, “We’re not here to reform the system.” Bradley also applauds the efforts many US youth clubs are making to “do more than just provide a coach on the field.” In the end, Vidal says, “we’re here to get in touch with the fan base … but helping young players become better can help do this.”
All agree that improving American players is the goal, and the arrival of the Europeans accompanies a recent announcement by the U.S. Soccer Federation that the youth development budget will grow by 50 percent next year.
“This is about, at some point, being the best in the world,” says Lalas. If that happens, he says “the real end game is that players will want to go to the Colorado Rapids instead of FC Barcelona.”
Meanwhile, Bradley hopes the partnership with Bayern Munich “will give players and their families more choices, whether that means playing in college, here in MLS or in Europe.”