Youth development plan takes shape Millions to be designated for programs, facilities


WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Soccer Federation outlined yesterday an ambitious program of broader, richer training for teen-age players, adding flesh to what had been only the bones of a nice-sounding, but vague, goal of winning the World Cup by 2010.

Flush with contracts expected to pump some $500 million into the sport over the next dozen years, U.S. Soccer's top executives described multiple new methods of spending an undetermined part of that money on developing players capable of winning the world game's top prize.

Their announcement coincides with today's send-off to the World Cup of the U.S. national men's team, which plays Scotland at RFK Stadium today in a doubleheader that also features the national women's team against New Zealand.

Methods the executives outlined, some drawn from soccer-playing countries in Europe and Latin America, include:

Identifying potential outstanding players, boys and girls, as young as 13 and getting them advanced training and play, including internationally. The entire "Player Development Opportunity" program will be "100 percent underwritten for participants, and educational elements will be built in so that younger participants will miss no school," a U.S. Soccer statement said.

Players starting at 13 will be formed into age-group teams, as is done now -- 360 players in 1999 growing to 1,000 by 2010. But those players will receive 75 days of intensive training and games -- essentially summers and a couple of weeks during the school year -- under national staff coaches. They will live and train abroad for some of that time.

New training facilities, including several regional, residential academies at which some selected young players, again both boys and girls, will live and train while attending regular school classes year-round.

The first of those facilities will be at the Bollitieri Academy in Bradenton, Fla., widely known for its intensive training of young tennis players, among them Andre Agassi. Under-17 players will move to the school with full tuition, room and board paid through U.S. Soccer. The first class, all boys, is to enter in January, with Ellicott City's John Ellinger the lead American coach.

Under-17 players, who already play some international games each year, are now at an age that would put them at the peaks of professional careers in 2010. U.S. Soccer officials readily acknowledge not all players chosen will become pros and that other players are apt to rise to national prominence over the years, as well.

Ellinger is a former UMBC men's coach and coach of Columbia City United, a high-school boys' team that has won two consecutive national youth championships who works full-time now for U.S. Soccer. Another Marylander, Laurel's Shannon Cirovski, was named recently to coach a newly created national team for Under-18 girls.

Boosting nearly six-fold, to as many as 120 players by 2010, the number of players coming out of high school or in college who contract to play professionally, giving up college eligibility in exchange for a guaranteed tuition grant to let them complete their degrees later. Major League Soccer, this country's top men's pro league, has 22 such players this season in a program labeled "Project 40."

Finding and developing youbg African-American and Hispanic players, especially in cities, adding to the soaring numbers of largely white, suburban players.

Improved training for American youth coaches.

Improved training for referees at all levels of the sport.

Formation of a women's professional league to parallel the men's MLS after next year's third Women's World Cup, with the United States as host, or possibly the 2000 Olympics in Australia.

Alan I. Rothenberg, outgoing president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, the country's governing body, is credited with attaining the long-term financing, as well as articulating the plan that was outlined yesterday.

"Here, on the eve of the 1998 World Cup," he told a news conference, "we are still building legacies of our own [1994] World Cup, and increasing the speed of player development is the next item needed in the soccer agenda."

He added later: "Somewhere out there we've got a 9-year-old Ronaldo, and we've got to find him."

American coaches for many years, Rothenberg said, always have found their older teen-age players at an instant disadvantage because they face players who train full-time in a pro environment starting as young teens.

As one goal of being host of the 1994 World Cup, U.S. Soccer worked to establish a pro league -- MLS, now in its third season -- and better player development to compete successfully in the Olympics, World Cup and other top-flight international competitions.

The new youth program, which broadens some aspects of youth training now in place, is unparalleled in other U.S. team sports, which rely on locally controlled youth programs, high schools, private camps and colleges to develop pro-level players.

But in some individual sports, such as skating, gymnastics and tennis, Americans for years have entered specialized training at young ages as the road to winning internationally.

Soccer is the only team sport driven by numerous international competitors who, pretty much until this decade, have been able to beat U.S. teams almost at will. That began to change when the U.S. men, on a break, got into the 1990 World Cup and, a year later, the U.S. women won the first women's world championship played in China.

U.S. soccer games

Who: U.S. women's national team vs. New Zealand; U.S. men's national team vs. Scotland.

Where: RFK Stadium, Washington

When: Today; women's game, 11 a.m.; men's game, 1: 30 p.m.

What: Send-off match for the World Cup for the American men. First time both the U.S. men's and women's national teams have played a doubleheader.

TV: Women's game, ESPN2. Men's game, chs. 2, 7.

D8 Tickets: 888-947-KICK, or Ticketmaster, 410-481-SEAT

Pub Date: 5/30/98

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