Tab Ramos, then just 15, remembers walking off the field after what he thought would be his last practice with the under-20 United States soccer team.
Ramos was only training with the older players because of his state coach's national-team ties, and he thought his weeklong visit was over. But the youngster had opened the eyes of the national team coaches.
"I basically just got lucky," said Ramos, now an assistant coach for the U.S. men's national team and the head coach of the under-20 team. "It was a complete surprise for me, because I didn't even think it was a tryout. I thought I was just playing."
Ramos' fortunate discovery out of the New Jersey high school ranks in the early 1980s was a sign of a U.S. development system in desperate need of an overhaul.
Ramos played in three World Cups, and the American team has qualified for seven straight. But those teams were put together without a centrally organized scouting system to identify and train the best teen players. In 2006, tired of counting on good fortune to put the players with the most potential in front of national coaches, the U.S. Soccer Federation began to study its development system in earnest.
What it found was "a little bit of a free-for-all," said Tony Lepore, the U.S. director of scouting. In addition for the need for better scouting, the top players weren't getting the best training techniques.
"Our elite players were playing way too many matches, and all of them were win-at-all-costs and not about development first," Lepore said.
After studying youth development programs across the world, the U.S. began to implement its revamped system in 2007 — modeled heavily after soccer powers such as Spain and Germany.
The overhaul was based on having a number of soccer academies across the country, all under the umbrella and watch of U.S. Soccer and tasked with developing and eventually feeding elite players to the national team.
The effort started with 63 clubs, a number that's since grown to almost 100. More than 6,000 youth players, beginning at the under-13 level, now train with and play against other future national-team hopefuls 10 months out of the year — doing so under uniform rules of play and training.
Continue reading this story on the...