SOUTHAMPTON — The age old question of ‘why is North America struggling to develop top class players?’ is one we’re all familiar with.
But how about – with a little help from a Premier League club — flipping that question around and simply asking: ‘well, why not?’
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Southampton Football Club have decided they will be at the forefront of helping on that front, as Saints are launching a unique and long-term plan to use their expert knowledge in this area to help develop better coaches who will then develop better youth players in both the U.S. and Canada, while also growing their brand across the pond.
Last week NBC Sports got the chance to exclusively dig deeper into this initiative and speak to leading figures at the Premier League club about the nuts and bolts of Southampton’s master plan to move into the North American market.
Everything will kick off on July 1 this year and the initial plan is to partner with 10 wide-ranging travel and club teams from across North America, many of whom possess thousands of youngsters across the different age groups. Here’s a look at some of the maim aspects in more detail:
- Southampton will send some of their top coaches and staff out to the U.S. frequently and will host their partner clubs in conferences on both sides of the pond, with a three-day conference coming up in Baltimore this August available to partner clubs and interested parties.
- They will also organize a “Southampton Cup” tournament in April 2017 for North American sides to play against English and European opponents.
- Saints will host a coaching conference in Southampton next May which would showcase how the club works behind-the-scenes from the U-8 level all the way to the first-team.
- Influential figures in the day-to-day running of the Premier League club, and this new initiative, are Technical Director Martin Hunter and Director of Sports Medicine & Science Performance Support Mo Gimpel.
- Along with Hunter and Gimpel will be a dedicated team from Southampton’s staff who will work hand-in-hand with their partner teams in the USA and Canada to give them access to state-of-the-art equipment and methods to help with the development of their young players.
Saints are going all-in with this American venture and among their long-term aims is to have a permanent center set up on both coasts in the U.S., help the game grow by developing better coaches and there’s a strong desire to bring young American players through their academy and, one day, into their first team.
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It’s an ambitious plan but Southampton is an ambitious club as it continues to fight against the PL’s elite and overachieves year-on-year with other teams incredibly envious of the top talent they continue to produce. If you need a reminder of just how good they are at producing youngsters, then look no further than the “Southampton Way” documentary (video in full, above) produced and presented by our very own Roger Bennett.
Their journey from the depths of the third-tier in 2009 to the top seven of the PL and a spot in the Europa League in 2015 pays tribute to the way the club has rebuilt itself thanks to the generosity of the Liebherr family but Saints have always had developing top quality youth players at its core. Now, it wants to bring those values to North America and with the help of Chairman Ralph Krueger – born and raised in Canada – and his vast list of contacts in the American sporting realm, it is becoming a reality.
“If you do any market research on the Premier League we are near the top, if not at the top, when it comes to teaching the game,” Krueger said in an interview last fall. “So we want to come to the U.S. with a clear development model that we’re going to bring to academies and development centers that have over 6,000 kids in them.”
Last week I sat down with Hunter and Gimpel in the Markus Liebherr Pavilion as the swirling wind and rain brought across the Atlantic from Winter Storm Jonas battered the skylight windows. It’s clear everybody at the club is excited about taking on this new, and rather ambitious, challenge.
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Saints’ plan to try and muscle their way into the American market is a little bit different than the tact most English and European clubs have taken in the past. They don’t have the fan base or finances of their PL rivals Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal. So, instead of coming on a preseason tour and chucking out shirts into the stands to entice prospective new fans, the Hampshire club is looking to build a sustainable fan base by sharing what it’s known the world over for: developing top young talent thanks to elite coaching methods.
Over the years the production line from their famed academy at the Staplewood training base speaks for itself. Before the recent influx of star names the likes of Alan Shearer, Matt Le Tissier and Wayne Bridge came through. More recently Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers have been developed and sold on for huge sums and now play for some of the biggest teams on the planet.
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So, what is so special about the “Southampton Way” of developing players and what can they offer to these partner clubs in the U.S. from July 1 onwards?
“The whole history of the club is steeped in this,” Hunter said. “Over the past six years since the Liebherr family has been involved, we’ve got this facility now and we are in a position to share. We don’t have anything to hide. We’ve got not magical dust to sprinkle on people. It’s just the way we do things. It’s like going to a good University. You go to Oxford University, you expect a good education. If you come to Southampton, you only have to look at quotes from the likes of Gareth Bale to know you expect a good football education from us. It’s quite simple. So we can share it and we will back it.
“The other thing we need to mention is that when we actually send staff across they will be key staff that work here,” Hunter continued. “We are not starting a franchise. We will send key people out at key times. That’s why we are sure it will work. We are not paying lip service. We see it as a very important venture therefore we will back it like that.”
To start with Saints will partner with 10 clubs and begin the tailored four-year plan with each side this July. They aim to build a solid base and a way of doing things which can then be replicated on a larger scale across North America and even in other emerging markets such as China and Australia in the future. The entire team involved in this project recently set up a stall at the NSCAA convention in Baltimore in January and were overwhelmed by the interest levels and described the American coaches as being “like sponges, so open-minded.”
Gimpel, who has met with members of the New York Knicks, Baltimore Ravens, San Antonio Spurs and Tampa Bay Lightning’s science, medical and performance staff to discuss methods of how things are done in America compared to the UK, is eager to get things going.
“On July 1 we will be up and running, we will have clubs signed and we will be going,” Gimpel said. “At the conference there were 13,000 people from all over the U.S. We fielded questions from everywhere and there are probably clubs from coast to coast who are in serious discussions about signing up.”
So, why are Saints so convinced this model will work in the U.S.?
“It will work because of the input and the importance we will give it. We see it as a long-term plan and partnership. We want to develop close links with clubs particularly on developing the coaches understanding,” Hunter explained. “We are not in competition with the governing bodies that award coaching badges. We would see that as being as a supplement to the things we’ve been very successful here at in terms of developing players and good young players both male and female. That will be critical as to what we do. What we are trying to do is share our best practice with the coaches and have a knock-on effect with the players in the U.S. The way we do things here, we want to share the key points about that in terms of coach education and player pathway.
“We are also looking at an aspiring coach maybe from a different area, there would be a chance for them to come in and join in that situation. But primarily it is a partnership with clubs who have got teams from all age groups and it is a chance to affect their coaching culture.”
With the finances on offer for developing a scheme such as this surely paltry in comparison to the riches of the Premier League, I’m sure many of you are asking: ‘why put all this time and effort in?’
“One of the things our organization does well, is it does due diligence and when a decision is made then we are on to do something for the medium to long-term. This is long-term project and why can’t it just become forever?” Gimpel said. “It could just be there, slowly building our brand in the U.S. and building to help the U.S. as a nation become better coaches of soccer and improving the health of a nation. Whatever angle you want to take on it, why can’t Southampton be part of that and be pushing that forward? We will build our brand and hopefully we build support and a fan base and if we find players, great. But that’s not the primary aim of the project.”
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Growing the brand of Southampton is the main aim but teams who partner with Saints will get the choice whether or not they want to play in a replicata Southampton kit or have a badge on their current jersey or simply show no physical correlation with the club. There’s no pressure for any of that.
But should there be any concerns regarding the resources of a small to medium size PL club being stretched and Southampton’s academy staff being overworked?
“That is part of our discussions. We will start off with things that we know are going to work and we will staff and support it,” Hunter said. “We know the potential is huge but we have to do what we have done here, which is build the blocks to be successful. We are not going to build a weak base that crumbles. We want solidity like we’ve had here in the last six years. We are mindful of that and we will take that into account.”
Speaking to Matt Sanger, Global Development Manager at Southampton, it was clear he is ambitious yet realistic about the potential of this project as one thing is key to remember: quality over quantity.
“We are realistic in terms of how many [clubs] we could get,” Sanger explained. “If it was to explode and go really massive then that’s great but there is a limit to how many clubs you can really have working with you because you have to have the quality and we have to maintain that quality. That is an absolute key for us when we are doing the program, to maintain that link with the Football Development & Support Center.”
Another part of the service Saints will provide is giving clubs in the North America access to their tracking systems which will be able to look at historical data from previous years and compare to their teams.
“One of the things we’ve been talking about is that a club in the U.S. could see the data of their player and how it compares to a player like Gareth Bale at that age,” Sanger said. “So they can really start understanding what a player of that stature would need to have achieved physically and technically at certain periods.”
Another thing the program will take into account is inclusion. Saints will not focus on one particular age group but work with clubs who have teams from as young as U-8 and up to U-16 and even some USDA level teams are in serious discussions. Their methods will also be used to coach male and female players and Hunter explained a little more about the advantages of setting this initiative up in the U.S., a region which many would say has huge untapped potential in terms of developing top players.
“Absolutely, it is untapped,” Hunter agreed. “The potential in America in terms of the country being an active country, sport is massive like it is in this country so the knock on effect in terms of young people and their discipline is done through a medium. Our football, American soccer, we see as a very important vehicle for longer-term.”
Huge athletic potential aside, one of the biggest issues facing club teams in North America is the widely-accepted fact that children play soccer up until the age of 12-13 and then focus on more traditional sports such as basketball, American football and baseball. Speaking to a Technical Director of one of the most successful youth academies on the planet, is there a “golden stage” when children should learn the sport?
“The golden years for learning the experts would say is from 7-12. So it seems a bit strange that actually you are starting to get some sort of understanding and master it and then you don’t want to play,” Hunter said. “If you look at our track record, some of our very, very best players were here from eight years of age. So they are grounded in all sorts of way, in terms of sports science, plus tactical and technical education. We can’t do everything in the U.S. module but that is a proven fact that they are key ages to learn.
“Our curriculum is run in three phases. The foundation phase starts at eight and then goes up to 12, then the youth development stage which goes up to about 16 and then the professional development phase is really 16+. We talk about a pathway and we talk about opportunity to the first team. That’s how we do it. We are not a club who can go out and buy a young player for $3-4 million and we wouldn’t believe in it.”
The fact that Southampton has given debuts to 10 teenagers in the Premier League over the past three-and-a-half seasons, and many more before that, suggests that they are extremely strong at accelerating the development of young players from the age of 15-16 and preparing them for a first-team environment.
Could those methods be used in conjunction with Major League Soccer and U.S. Soccer in the future?
“It is possible but the college soccer system… the whole sporting line from U-16s to U-21s means the college system appears to be a huge block in those key years,” Gimpel explained. “Whereas here guys at the same age are full time athletes but in the U.S. they became part student and part athlete. It is quite a complicated scenario and I don’t know enough about it to give you a complete opinion on it. I think we definitely have knowledge of how to go from say, a U-16 to a U-21 professional and any organization that was keen to investigate that, we’d be happy to have the chat with them. When we were in the U.S. we did have a meeting with Sacha Cirovski, the soccer coach at Maryland University, just to up-skill our knowledge in the college system and how it works.”
Looking at other sports and other clubs is something Hunter did when he first took over as technical director in 2010. Southampton looked at the examples of Auxerre, Barcelona and Ajax and the success they had in developing young talent. Now, everybody is looking at them as they continue to churn out top class prospects.
Saints are mindful, though, that they do things properly from the very beginning in North America and won’t push for immediate results.
“We will see how it goes. Player development takes years. It is a slow process,” Gimpel said. “Because we are in it for the long term, as Martin said, that foundation is the key. If we muck this up then clubs in a year’s time will say ‘oh, we aren’t going to get involved there’ so we need to make sure we start right and resource it well.”
It will be a slow and meticulous process but 10 years from now the key movers and shakers at Saints hope to be a force in the U.S.
“Long term, if we could work with an academy and have a kid that was eight years old and could come up and become a professional footballer, that would be fantastic,” Sanger beamed. “That would be the ultimate success of the program because it would show that what we do here in Southampton could be replicated somewhere else by working with us and develop that professional player.”
But just how big can this become?
“In 10 years the ultimate aim is that it would be a full-time department with bases on the East and West Coasts,” Gimpel said, with a smile on his face. “We’d have lots and lots of clubs and a successful talent ID pathway. Plus, Saints could be the Premier League team of the U.S. fan.”
“Some young American players at this club,” Hunter added, rubbing his hands excitedly. “Why not?”
That ideology of “why not?” is something that will resonate strongly with the American market as club and travel coaches fight to develop young players in a country where the game is still growing exponentially but also battling against the traditional powerhouse sports to find its footing in the American sporting realm.
Now, coaches have some help from one of the best in the business to help take them, and their players, to the next level. Both Southampton and their soon-to-be partner clubs in North America hope to one day produce the American version of Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott or Luke Shaw.
After all, why not?