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Indomitable Cubs: Why Republic’s Upstart Youth Academy is Key to their Long-Term Success

Sacramento Republic's academy teams made the playoffs in their first season, which bodes well for the future.

Sacramento Republic FC/Douglas Taylor

It’s an age-old adage that children are the future, and if you take a look at Republic’s training ground, you’ll see why.

This week, all three of Republic’s academy teams will be in Texas taking the field at Toyota Stadium, the home of MLS side FC Dallas, after reaching the playoffs in their inaugural U.S. Soccer Development Academy (USSDA) season. The U-13/14s will be playing in the Academy Summer Showcase, while the U-15/15s and U-17/18s will be competing among the top 32 USSDA teams in their age group for a place in the championship matches that will be held at LA’s Stub Hub Center in mid-July.

It is a significant achievement, not only because it follows in the senior team’s footsteps—Republic made the playoffs (and then won the league) during their maiden season in 2014—but also because it underscores the club’s commitment to building a team that can compete straight out of the gates if when it is awarded a much-coveted MLS franchise. That all three of Republic’s youth teams will be playing in the postseason is the icing on the cake and demonstrates that the process, although still nascent, is working.

Across the globe, youth academies have long been a staple in the development of world-class soccer players and are an integral part of the success of many teams, both at the domestic and international level. Lionel Messi, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner who scored three goals in 20 minutes during Argentina’s Copa America game against Panama, began honing his craft at F.C. Barcelona’s famed youth academy, La Masia, at the age of 13. That same academy also produced seven players that led Spain’s national team to historic, back-to-back European Championships (2008 & 2012) and its 2010 World Cup triumph. Similarly, the German squad that decimated Brazil 7-1 on its way to the world title in 2014 featured seven players from Bundesliga academies.

Despite an abundance of resources and participation in the United States—over 3 million boys play organized soccer each year—it has traditionally lacked a cohesive youth development system, which the U.S. Soccer Federation finally addressed in 2007 with the creation of the USSDA. It hasn’t completely fixed the dearth of talent on the U.S. Men’s National Team, but the league is beginning to bear fruit: Christian Pulisic, the promising 17-year-old talent who became the youngest player to score a goal for the U.S. in the modern era, grew up playing for the USSDA’s Pennsylvania Classics before jumping across the pond to the youth academy of German giants Borussia Dortmund. He is now a member of their first team after only one season abroad, and his meteoric rise is but one example of an academy’s ability to hone raw talent.

But how exactly do academies go about doing this? And in Republic’s case, how can having one lead to long-term success? Here are six reasons:

1. They harness local talent and provide it with an environment conducive to player development. It’s no secret that Sacramento is a soccer town with a storied history of producing great players. However, most of these players have succeeded in spite of their environment more so than because of it. Academies give local players the chance to sharpen their skills with professional coaching (rather than well-meaning-but-amateur coaches), quality facilities (less injuries due to terrible fields), and access to U.S. Soccer resources, such as talent identification opportunities with the National Team. Since Republic’s academy was launched in spring 2015, several of its players have received call-ups to various U.S. youth national teams, including three U-17/18s players: defenders Nabilai Kibunguchy and David Burns, as well as goalkeeper Cameron Douglas.

2. They restrict the amount of games played. Americans tend to place greater emphasis on competition over practice than their international counterparts do, which has created a skewed balance between games and practice in the U.S. It’s not uncommon for a teenager in the U.S. to play a hundred games in a season across multiple teams (e.g., high school, club, co-recreational), which leaves little time for training (i.e., technical development—see #5 below) and little energy for it when it occurs. This only stunts the development of our best players—they tend to be fast and physical, but also under-skilled and lacking in savvy compared with players elsewhere. To combat this, USSDA limits the amount of games in a season and does not permit its players to play in any outside competitions, including high school and club soccer.

3. They follow a systematic approach to tactics. Successful academies, like Barcelona’s La Masia, tend to standardize the tactical model across all of its teams—in other words, if the senior team plays with a 4-4-2 formation, so too do the U-17/18s, U-15/16s, and so on. Developing players under one style of play familiarizes them with the club’s tactics at an early age, which not only builds chemistry, but also facilitates their potential transition into the first team as they move up the ranks. This is particularly important when a club faces a congested calendar (as Republic recently did when it was competing in both the U.S. Open Cup and regular USL matches) and needs to go down the depth chart in order to keep its players fresh.

4. They create opportunity and expand the talent pool by eliminating the antiquated "pay-to-play" model. One of the issues with youth sports in the U.S. is the prevalent "pay-to-play" culture—the better the athlete, the more parents typically spend for their child to participate, which limits the ability of players from low-income backgrounds to continue growing in their sport and significantly shrinks the potential talent pool for clubs and the National Team. Academies solve this issue by paying for most, if not all, of the costs associated with being a player; Republic’s Academy is a fully-funded program, meaning all coach and player fees, travel costs, food and other dues associated with elite competition are fully covered by the club.

5. They place an emphasis on developing individual technical skill. A big criticism of Major League Soccer has been the disparity in players’ technical development when compared to other prominent soccer leagues around the world. Italian midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo, who currently plies his trade at New York City F.C., recently said of MLS:

It's a very hard league to play in. It's very physical, there's a lot of running. So there is a lot of physical work and to me, in my mind, too little play. What I'm talking about is actually a system or culture. I don't mean that the level of technical skills is low. I just mean there is a cultural void that needs to be filled.

[In Europe] they pick [the players] and they train them in much more than just running. They train them in stopping the ball. Here that doesn't happen.

So when a young man becomes a professional in the United States he still has some gaps that need to be filled when playing on the field.

The academy of Dutch side Ajax, which produced the footballing legend Johan Cruyff and served as the inspiration for La Masia, focuses on the individual rather than the collective result. In other words, what’s important, particularly with the younger age groups, is that their players use the game settings to refine their individual abilities based on the training they have received. The final score is more of an afterthought, at least until the older age levels.

6. They build passionate fan bases. If an academy is run well and does a great job nurturing its players, then chances are that its members, whether they go on to play professionally or not, will continue to be emotionally invested and see the club as their own. Though not the main objective of an academy, it’s another powerful way to develop an ardent fan base, which only benefits the club.

All these reasons should have Republic fans excited at how the team will shape up in the coming years. Regardless of how the Indomitable Cubs perform at Toyota Stadium this week, their first academy season is already a major success.