NorCal PDP – Creating a Pathway for Elite Players
Everyone in American soccer has heard this story before.
A less-fortunate athlete shows up at a youth soccer tryout in the United States, dominates the opposition, and impresses all the coaches on hand.
That youngster, most likely a minority, dazzles on the pitch with silky-smooth touch, sublime passing ability, and an eye for the goal.
Impressed coaches watch in awe as the player dominates bonafide young stars, some with youth national team experience who will turn professional in the future.
And then the player goes home without an invitation to join the team, unless they find a sponsor to pay the high costs of youth soccer in the United States.
In most of the world, soccer is a working class sport, where stars develop their skills in the slums of Marseille, the inner city in Berlin, and the favelas of Rio.
In the United States, soccer is a middle class sport, to be played by those whose parents can afford it.
This “pay to play” model has been criticized by figures such as former U.S. captain Claudio Reyna, whose immigrant father taught him to play on the uneven dirt fields in New Jersey, to U.S. Men’s coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who grew up playing pick-up in the fields of the West German countryside.
While U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy has helped assuage some of the financial hardships with 97 mostly fully-funded clubs around the United States and Canada, the fact is that in a vast country of over 300 million, that simply isn’t enough.
That’s where NorCal Premier Soccer comes in, striving to be part of the solution rather than the problem, through its revolutionary Player Development Program.
Similar to the way that Olympic Development Programs work, NorCal’s PDP identifies elite talent in the club system, conglomerates that talent for regular high-level training sessions, and then showcases said talent in competitive tournaments, college showcases, and sometimes trips to foreign countries.
The difference: while ODP can run up a hefty bill for parents of young stars, NorCal’s PDP is funded at zero cost to the promising players and their families.
“National team experience is important [for players],” said NorCal Vice President Paolo Bonomo. “A step below that is this kind of experience, because we put them in an environment that is totally new or is new for them. It’s not what they have every week or every day at their clubs.”
“Few clubs have the structure of the PDP. We’re trying to create, as much as possible, a professional environment,” he added. “We have a head coach, we have one or two assistant coaches, we have a goalkeeper coach. It’s an environment that a club cannot afford, but if they go into a professional club, that’s what they find. If they go to a national camp, that’s what they find.”
PDP Executive Administrator, David Robertson, added “We take players out of their comfort zone or the everyday experience that the player has, which we believe is really important in the development of a player.”
Depending on the age level of the program, players in the PDP may play with just regional teams for the younger kids, or statewide teams for some of the older athletes.
According to Bonomo, the PDP is paramount in identifying those elite players who can move on to even higher levels of soccer — take a close look at Major League Soccer academies across the country, and you’ll find the rosters littered with prospects who graduated from the PDP.
“[The PDP] was really competitive and it was a higher level of play that made you compete for your spot,” said Luis Arriaga, a four-year participant in the program, U.S. Youth National Team representative, and current Real Salt Lake academy player. “The PDP sessions compare to our [MLS academy] training sessions with each and every player competing for a spot on the team.”
“Having high level coaches demands a lot from you and makes you try your hardest and do well during training,” Arriaga added. “PDP has been very important to me because it prepared me for what to expect at the academy level and the national team level.”
It was through the PDP that Arriaga was identified for a chance with the national team. In April, the Santa Rosa native scored a goal in a 2-2 draw with Slovenia in a U-16 tournament in the Balkan country. One week earlier, Arriaga helped the U.S. score a shock 2-1 victory over their counterparts from Brazil in that same competition.
Recent showcases have all seen PDP players snapped up by professional Mexican clubs, while later this month, the PDP will send a girls’ youth team to tour Japan, hosted by the Japanese Federation.
Through connections made between NorCal and Italian giants, AFC Fiorentina, the PDP has established a relationship with the Serie A club. According to Bonomo, two youth players have already signed for the Fiorentina youth academy after being identified in the PDP, and one more is currently in negotiations to follow suit.
If in the next decade, you see Americans donning the famous purple strip of Fiorentina, you’ll know how they got there.
But also expect a load of players at colleges and professional teams around the United States to have backgrounds in NorCal’s innovative Player Development Program.
By Evan Ream. Follow @EvanReam