In professional sports, small markets have always had to find different ways to do things in order to remain competitive; have had to find flaws in the system to exploit — the proverbial moneyball. Combine that with the natural financial constraints of Major League Soccer, and finding a way to win games without just throwing cash at a problem is and will be critical for Columbus Crew SC.
The long-term solution to that problem is the ability to develop young, homegrown players. Those individuals can not only make an impact on the field, but also provide a boost to the Crew SC if they succeed and are eventually sold on to bigger leagues.
It is with all of this in mind that Columbus announced last week that it was revamping it's youth system and introducing the Crew SC Academy.
The moment was, predictably, an opportunity for CCSC to try to generate some positive PR, but there was a lot to take in for fans. So we dove into the comments that have come from the club and distilled them down into a handful of points that interest us. We share them with you here.
If there are other things that caught your eye or you have your own thoughts, share them with us in the comments' section below.
Any time the club focuses on strengthening its foundation, it's a good thing
Regardless of whether individual decisions work out, or whether the academy boosts its development curve, it should be seen as a very positive sign that youth development is high on the club's priority list. There are some clubs in MLS who have been slower in embracing the youth movement, and one could easily argue that Columbus is behind the first wave in that aspect, even with the presence of one of the league's most successful homegrown products in Wil Trapp.
New Academy Director Michael Milazzo said as much when he said, "We want to be at the forefront of this movement. There are some other tremendous MLS academies that are in that same category and we certainly want to be there as leaders and agents of change."
That's expected rhetoric, but it is clear that being able to bring first-team contributors through your academy system will be critical if a club wants to remain competitive in MLS. It will be years before we know if these tweaks, hires and choices change things for the better, but for now we should support that someone is doing something.
Building a relationship with the community
The club has sold this as another way to continue building a relationship with the community and the city of the Columbus. Certainly having guys suit up for the Black & Gold that grew up as fans and who represent Columbus in the most literal way possible is a great way to build deep, deep ties with supporters and their city.
But part of that development has to come from working with the current youth infrastructure and finding a way to make it better and complement it, not bully it.
"We’re spending a lot of time thinking about being collaborative with the local soccer leaders and that’s an important step," first team coach Gregg Berhalter said. "What we want to do is tie this entire community together. We see these local clubs as an extension of ourselves. So moving forward, we’ve already established relationships with these clubs and them coming to us would be for a high level of coaching and an opportunity for them to perform on a different platform than they are currently."
I have heard, however, that the existing relationship with area youth clubs has not always been peachy. I can't speak from experience, only from what I have heard from others. That's something that needs to be ironed out, because being linked with MLS will only go so far in attracting and developing talent if you turn the rest of the world against you. There has to be a mutual respect. It sounds like there may be some bridges that need some repairing in order to maximize that relationship.
The youth soccer infrastructure in this country is a dangerous minefield of semi-qualified coaches and often driven by money or an accent rather than true, quality youth development. But the staff that Crew SC has assembled to lead its Crew SC Academy is an intriguing one.
Milazzo will be Academy Director and comes to Columbus from Richmond Strikers Soccer Club in Richmond, Virginia, where he served in the same role, as well as head coach of the groups two oldest academy teams. The Strikers youth development system lays claim to hundreds of players who went on to the collegiate level (both men's and women's), but only a handful of male players currently connected to MLS clubs, including five who have been involved with the U.S. National Team youth setup in some form or fashion at some point in time. Even then, none of the MLS-connected players are considered high-profile prospects, and while a few may be peripheral names that MLS die-hards recognize, none are regularly playing at this point. The "biggest" name would be New England Revolution backup goalkeeper Brad Knighton, who is now 30 and still hasn't carved out a full-time role for himself anywhere.
But Milazzo has experience in a large youth setup, and clearly CCSC believes he's on the same page as Berhalter if they're hiring him on as a critical piece.
You can read the Strikers' player development philosophy here.
The flashier resume comes with Crew SC Director of Methodology Nico Estevez. What does that title mean? According to CCSC, his responsibilities will be "developing and implementing the training curriculum for all Academy teams, while reinforcing consistent principles of play throughout each level and overseeing the individual player development plan for each player."
In other words, it sounds like Estevez will be doing the heavy lifting as far as putting a plan in place for the team coaches to reinforce.
It's dangerous to think a coach/academy hire brings a lot to the table just because they're foreign — it's a misstep that has caused many problems in youth development in this country — but Estevez has the CV to back it up. He comes from the academy at Valencia, where he spent eight years. Not a bad place to be as the club has carved out a spot for itself just behind La Liga's bullies, Barcelona and Real Madrid, and bully chaser Atletico Madrid.
A true club identity
The No. 1 reason for boosting Crew SC's academy system is to create a more seamless transition from kid on the field to MLS professional, with the hope that by making that transition simpler, from a methodology standpoint, it increases the likelihood of success for the player pool.
It also means solidifying a club identity (something Kris Landis talks about at length here). Barcelona has been immensely successful with La Masia for many reasons, but its common methodology from big club to youngest players in the system is certainly not the least of them.
It means that when people think of Columbus Crew soccer, they will think of yellow jerseys (not even a planned kit change next year will change that) and a certain way of playing, because from the age of 12 the players will be learning to approach the game the same way the first team staff teaches its players.
Which brings us to our next point...
An investment beyond money
This is a major investment, and not just monetarily. First, if this project is as Berhalter said, "a direct mandate from ownership," it bodes well for Anthony Precourt's commitment to this club. An academy is not something that bears fruit even two or three years down the line. Precourt is saying he expects to remain invested in CCSC for a long time, and if he does eventually go, he hopes to leave a stronger foundation behind.
Investment in youth is not something someone does when they want to change things quickly.
This is also, symbolically, an investment in Berhalter. The entire academy system will be structured based on his mandates. The players will be taught to play a style of soccer that Berhalter introduced to Columbus. In the world of professional sports, the years from now until the potential payoff of all this is a lifetime — many lifetimes, really — for a coach. Turnover is high. This is a statement that the front office not only believes in Berhalter, but also in his ideals.
That's not to say a change couldn't be made, but to indoctrinate a whole system with one ideal, base development on it and then switch things up two years down the line would make for sure failure.
So what happens if Berhalter's teams continue to play exciting soccer, but continue to be a defensive sieve for the next season or two? And it prevents Columbus from being anything more than a team that makes the play-in round of the postseason and then bows out? Certainly, at some point, the head coach would come under some pressure; his system would come under some pressure.
But for now, those in Black & Gold are saying, "We believe."
The USL question mark
It's likely coincidence, but still interesting, that CCSC announced this initiative in the wake of the announcement that USL partner Austin Aztex will not play in 2016.
No decision has been made about how the club will react and it has been coy in giving any hints, especially regarding the potential to put together its own USL club, rather than simply find an affiliate with which to shuffle a few players back and forth.
One of the biggest obstacles for Columbus is that it has not yet produced enough young professionals to warrant an entire squad of them, so an affiliate system has been OK. Certainly, though, a Crew II would be more ideal, and full second teams have been the trend with MLS' more advanced youth-developing clubs.
In other words, if the Crew SC Academy works at all like they intend, Crew II is inevitable, whether that's next year or in the just-slightly-further future.