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Re-Evaluating US Soccer's Residency Program


It's unlikely that average Americans know much about Tajikistan, or have even heard of it. It's one of the poorest of the former Soviet republics, a land-locked nation of 7 million people whose neighbors include China and Afghanistan.

But Americans who follow soccer very closely know about Tajikistan now, as it was the first U.S. opponent at the 2007 U-17 World Cup.

"It was a nightmare scenario," says Hackworth. "If we lose, it's 'Hey, the U.S. lost to Tajikistan. How is that possible?' If we win, 5-0, nobody gives give you any credit."

It turned out to be the worst-case scenario. Hackworth's team lost, 4-3.

The USA followed with a 3-1 loss to Tunisia, but managed to finish second in its group thanks to a 2-0 win over Belgium before losing, 2-1, to Germany in the round of 16.

Three losses and one victory are hardly satisfactory results, but results aren't the only criteria for judging the Bradenton program, which is run on a budget of more than $2 million annually.

"The only reason why any country plays in this competition is for the development and experience factor," says Hackworth. "Sure, you want to win. And there was no one more disappointed with our losses than I was.

"But because of what those players went through, a couple of them, maybe more, are going to use this experience to springboard to another level, and ultimately that's what our job is."

Hackworth has now guided teams to two U-17 World Cups. His 2005 squad beat North Korea and Italy and tied Ivory Coast before falling in the second round to the Netherlands. Ellinger's 1999 squad remains the only to win a second-round game.

Changing soccer landscape

It may be too soon to judge the success of the first Bradenton classes under Hackworth, but the landscape of American youth soccer has changed since Bradenton's launch and its role is up for reevaluation.

"Bradenton was set up in the very early days of MLS when MLS didn't have a very extensive involvement in youth programs," says U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati. "Some of the dynamics have changed. Super Y-League has come up since then. And we started the U.S. Soccer Development Academy program. MLS is now starting to be heavily involved in player development.

"But at this point, there's no short-term adjustment on Bradenton."

The players' experience, however, will change this fall as the program will field teams, playing a year up, in the new U.S. Soccer Development Academy, in which they and 63 elite clubs from around the nation will compete in U-16 and U-18 leagues.

"With the new Academy league, we will have a way to measure ourselves week-in and week-out," Hackworth says.  "And our players will be competing against guys who are also aiming to be on the national team."