For some time now there have been rumors that the MN Thunder would be starting a developmental academy. This seems great to the casual youth soccer observer. Many Minnesota Youth Soccer Association, (MYSA), club teams have not necessarily been happy with this, feeling that teams like Bangu Tsunami FC , Wings SC and others have raided these clubs of their best players. Now that the Thunder have started this "super club" which will rival some of the biggest clubs in the midwest, there will continue to be those that feel the Thunder are taking away the better players from their club. Some clubs have sent out letters slamming the move. Yet other community clubs have felt the elite club and the community club both have their place and that it's a natural progression for better players to leave a club and move up the ladder to a more prestigious club with better trainers and coaches.
Bangu and Wings have always strived to be two of the elite clubs in Minnesota. Recently Bangu had been working closely with the Thunder as Mark Abboud, former Thunder player, was Director of Player Development and Danny Storlien, MN Lightning coach was the Elite Director. But the joining of Wings with the Thunder Academy will be a surprise to many in the youth soccer circles and is considered very important. Parents from Wings and Bangu could often be found taking snipes at each other on a particular MN club soccer blog. As well, many players and coaches from these clubs saw each other as rivals because they were the two most exclusive clubs in MN. They hired some of the better coaches in the state and had some of the most complete year around training. They also entered some of the more difficult tournaments in the Midwest as well as the U.S. All these things contributed to both teams racking up some big State Cup victories and tournament trophies.
According to Mark Abboud, the academy already has 100 teams signed up and ready to play and the merger of clubs with the Thunder will make the Thunder Academy one of the largest clubs in the midwest. Now that the Thunder have started this academy, which will resemble what South America and Europe have been doing for years, Bangu and Wings will dissolve. Bangu will become MN Thunder East. Wings will become MN Thunder West. Bangu will also be involved with MN Thunder North, which will now include the National Sports Center programs. The MN Thunder South Academy will be based in Bloomington. MN Thunder Urban, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, will be based in St. Paul. The Thunder will separate their Youth Academy from the pro team and make it a 501 C3 nonprofit organization.
For some time now there has been a debate in the youth soccer community whether the current club system was doing the best job it could for the elite youth soccer player. The answer in most cases was no. Bangu took many of its teams out of Minnesota Youth Soccer Association , (MYSA) the State affiliate of United States Youth Soccer (USYS) and played in a league called the Midwest League , a controversial move at the time. The idea behind it was more practices, fewer games and higher competition. This is exactly what the USSF now calls on clubs to do with its Developmental Academy program. Less emphasis on games and more on quality practices, fewer games and tougher competition are all recommended, according to John Hackworth, technical director of the national academies. According a Soccernet.com article , Hackworth said, "American players tend to develop bad habits playing for club teams that often emphasize winning over developing skills and games, even against weak opponents, over practice. It's not a matter of whether little Johnny can handle a soccer ball, it's a matter of whether little Johnny can get a result. That is a problem, and it's always been a problem for national team coaches like myself." Hackworth is also an assistant coach to the U.S. Mens National Team.
Along with this academy the Thunder have applied to have two mens developmental teams compete with the newly formed USSF Elite Academy. A mens U-16 and U-18 team would be bringing in some of the best talent in the midwest to play in this USSF sponsored league. According to Manny Lagos, team president of the Thunder, the chances of getting into the league are looking good. He has had very positive talks with Hackworth and it looks as if Shattuck Academy would also produce two teams. According to Lagos the Shattuck component is important for the Thunder. "Minnesota is a long ways away from most other elite programs, and teams from Chicago did not want to take their time coming to MN to play one game", Lagos said. Shattuck's soccer programs have been developed for some time now and they too must feel they are ready for this elite academy. Lagos also said that the USSF wanted professional teams to sponsor these academies and the Thunder falls into that category nicely. The Chicago Fire also have a youth academy.
According to Mens National team coach, Bob Bradley, the USSF Youth Development Academy , although just a little over a year old, is doing incredibly well. He stated this on a recent podcast on ussoccer.com. He also said that at a recent tournament in Chicago, there were a wealth of national team coaches and college scouts from around the country. He said that everyone now knows that the Developmental Academy tournaments is the place where you will find talent. In an interview done by Steven Goff from Soccer Insider at the Washington Post, Bradley said it's not just important that the best elite 16 and 18 year olds get good trainers and coaches. "Right now there are clubs playing there in the under-16 and under-18 level, but the real goal is to get enough influence on those clubs to ensure that all of them are putting top coaches with the youngest kids", said Bradley.
Initially, the Thunder will have a pay system for the academy. The eventual goal for the academy is to be underwritten and have the program be self-sustaining with a no pay policy. The USSF Developmental teams for the Thunder wouldn't start until 2010, but according to the USSF rules set for these teams , there cannot be a fee for the players to play. The club must pay the cost. This of course will encourage the finding of talent in places where it was often lost in the past. Clint Dempsey, USSF Mens National team player and current member of Fulham Football Club in the English Premier League once told a story of how he had to go door to door in downtown Nacogdoches, Texas pounding on doors to beg small business owners to help him with money to pay for Olympic Development Program (ODP) cost. ODP is still in existence but up until recently was the USSF's only way of identifying talent. These same costs have deterred many youth players and their families from participating in this high level program that would identify talent for the U.S. and allow them to play on regional and then national teams.
Hopefully, somewhere in the near future, barriers will be broken down and we will see the best of the best rise to the top. Perhaps one day again, we will see more Minnesota kids playing on the Thunder, in Major League Soccer or perhaps rising even higher to play for the U.S. National team - like past Minnesotans Tony Sanneh or Manny Lagos himself.