Running an MLS Academy
Interview with Brian Crookham
Brian Crookham is the Senior Director of Soccer Development for the Colorado Rapids. He is responsible for all of the club’s programming related to player development, including the MLS Academy, the Colorado Rapids Adidas Alliance and the Club’s USL Partnerships. Crookham began his career with the organization as the Director of Coaching for the Rapids Academy. During the 2008 and 2009 seasons Crookham also assisted head coaches Gary Smith and Fernando Clavijo with the First Team. He has also served as a color analyst for Rapids television broadcasts on Altitude Sports and Entertainment since 2004.
Prior to working for the Rapids, Brian was the Assistant Technical Director for Colorado Youth Soccer, and Men’s Soccer Coach and Assistant Athletic Director at Metropolitan State College in Denver. During his nine-year tenure, the soccer team became nationally-recognized, making its first ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament and getting ranked 4th in the nation at Division 2 level. A USSF “A” Licensed coach, Crookham also served as a USYS Region IV staff coach and an instructor in both state and national coaching education programs for US Soccer.
After a relatively bright start to the season the first team have struggled recently, without a win since July. How much do their short term results affect your academy program and the club as a whole?
From an academy standpoint it doesn’t. The results of what the first team are doing do not affect the way we are coaching players on a daily basis. The same is true in the youth teams. Our focus is on the training methodology that we are using and making sure the environment is right every day. Obviously we evaluate how things are going through the results that come in, it’s definitely not something driving us every day.
Three of the first team roster (Davy Armstrong, Shane O’Neill, and Dillon Serna) came through your academy program. How important is that to you? How does it compare to the rest of the MLS?
It’s extremely important to us and that’s why we’re doing it – to be able to stock our roster with homegrown talent. Players that know our system, know the ethos of our club and hopefully are better prepared to deal with the environment that they’re in in MLS. I think that will lead to better quality players, better ties to our community and a lot of those things that we’re trying to enhance as we develop as a league.
Does your first team dictate what style of play you coach in the academy?
A lot of the elements, yes. We have a style of play document where we look at the qualities of players that we would like to see in those players. Some of those are general in nature and others become more specific by position. We try to look and incorporate that in everything we’re doing in the academy setting. That being said, we don’t necessarily dictate the shape of the team that coaches are going to play on Saturday because that can be modified by the personnel on the team. The core principles are always going to be intact but how that lays itself out on the field can sometimes move a little bit.
In professional soccer, head coaches can have a relatively short time in their jobs before it is over. When you bring a new head coach in are they expected to fit the existing philosophy?
Yes, that philosophy gets set by Paul Bravo – our technical director and vice president of soccer operations. He basically sets what we’re going to look like from top down. Whether it’s the academy person, whether it’s the USL Pro, whether it’s the first team coach. They then need to fit within that model, and that’s a change. It’s an evolution from where we were in the past. I think when we won an MLS Cup in 2007 they had a very different idea of what our team should look like. Over time that has changed as we have evolved but it is clear from the top down what we are trying to achieve – how we will get there, the types of players we will get there with – but it is an evolution so we continue to work towards that.
Your new alliance model partners with individual clubs in target areas rather than several competing clubs. What was the reason for the change and how has it been successful?
The reason for the change was the conflict that we had with the original model, partnering with existing clubs in town. There were two things: number one we wanted to be more in control of the types of players who come through the system, which is why we went to the ‘single club in town’ model. So we’re investing more time in those players and not counting on any outside influences to provide players for our groups. The second piece was that some of the conflict was between our own partners and we found it was difficult to manage that.
Currently there are alliance members in Nevada, New Mexico, South Dakota and North Carolina. Are there any MLS rules about territory or competing for it?
We’ve been in Las Vegas since 2010 and then in the last two years we added the Carolina Rapids which dovetails nicely into what we’re doing with the USL Pro team. We also added Rio in Albuquerque and those guys have been great partners; and we just added a partner in South Dakota – the Black Hills Rapids – which is the coming together of two clubs there. In all of those cases we feel good about what we’re doing, what they’re doing, and the integration of the groups. I spend a lot of time on the road working with their players, their coaches, their parents, their boards, trying to replicate an environment that we feel will be productive for players.
Each club has their own territory. So, for instance, our territory is the State of Colorado. If you look at some heavily populated areas like New York or Los Angeles they have 75 miles from their training center. If you go to Salt Lake they have the State of Utah and the State of Arizona. So it’s all over the place in the way they’ve drawn the maps, but there are gaps within that territorial model. Las Vegas falls within that gap. All of the clubs we are affiliated with fall within territorial gaps.
So if Real Salt Lake want a Las Vegas club as well, can they go there too?
They can. We have specific relationship to the club but no exclusivity within the market.
The Rapids Youth Club formed from an existing club in Denver. What is the relationship between the Youth Club and the Development Academy?
The youth club still runs as a non-profit. It is a traditional pay-to-play model and it has a non-profit board that governs the organization like other members of Colorado Youth Soccer. We then come in and provide the technical direction for the club and we provide a director of coaching – Gary Evans – to oversee the coaching development for the club. In addition we are heavily partnered in the commercial side of the club, from sponsorship and marketing, and we feel like it is a very mutually beneficial relationship. It allows us to provide a complete pathway for boys and girls, from 4 to 18 and on past that as well.
What is the benefit to you of having a girl’s program?
It’s players, it’s soccer players. Male or female it doesn’t really matter to us if you look at what we’re trying to do in the game we want to be leaders in the development piece of it, and I think that’s a gender neutral statement. We have tremendous support from female soccer players in the market for our first team, so we want to be invested in the women’s side of the game and to develop a complete pathway for them as well.
Part of your model involves reduced numbers of tournaments and games for players – focusing more on training for their development. Is this specific to the Rapids or an MLS strategy?
I can only speak for our club because although MLS will put out some guidelines on what we need to do to retain homegrown players, they do not have a model for how your youth system needs to be built. There are, along with the Development Academy, a minimum number of training days, ratios you’re trying to hit; but in the end it’s up to us to create the programming that will give us the best chance for producing players.
It’s tough for some people to understand but our week consists of Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and in most weeks that’s 75% of the week and our focus there is on the way we train in those training sessions and the progress we can make with those players in that time. One of the problems with tournaments is that you can get into a mode where you feel like you are not having success if you lose the first game in the tournament. So if you start with that mentality – chasing the wins – or if we go out of town and don’t do well, does that mean Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday we didn’t get better? No it doesn’t. So our focus has always been on the quality of work that we do and the ratio of games to training sessions because if you play multiple games in a weekend then it affects your ability to do the work during the week.
We’ve heard that with three Development Academies in one city, although your focus isn’t on winning primarily, it must be a factor if you are competing for players with the other two. Would you agree?
For us it’s not an issue, because we can’t worry about that. We have a constant movement of players. The last weekend of the season last year we had 14 players play up across our three Development Academy teams, because our 18’s were moved up to the reserves; we then moved five of the 16’s and five 14’s up a level. What happens is at times that might put results at risk, but it is unbelievably good for their development. So if we lose focus on that and we don’t do the right thing – allowing players to get stretched in their capabilities – we’re going to get away from our philosophy. We will be evaluated by people who don’t know what’s going on, by what’s listed on the website in wins and losses – that’s reality, we know that. Our staff will be evaluated by their ability to continue to produce players who are capable of continuing to move through the system.
Do you think there should continue to be three Development Academies in Denver?
I don’t see either of the other Academies wavering in their commitment to be a part of it and I don’t see US Soccer saying that that won’t happen. The other two Academies in town have been strong for a long time, they are here and that’s what the environment is going to dictate right now. We then look at some other things that separate us, with MLS type competition – those specific things that maybe are a differentiator – but also the freedom to play quality games on a pretty consistent basis and not only chase the competitive side but also chasing the developmental side of it.
Recently Colorado offered 8v8 games as an option for U11 competitive teams, following the example set by the majority of states around the country. The Rapids were a key part of making this happen. What was the reason for your involvement?
We feel like we need to do everything we can to create the best developmental environment across the board – whether it’s in our club or others – and we definitely feel like that’s the right thing. We’ve been pushing for it for a long time and it got to the point this year where it just flat out needed to happen and a couple of clubs were able to stand up and say we’re going to do this because it’s the right thing and the results have been incredible. I’ve been fortunate enough to stand around two afternoons now and just watch the 11’s play 8v8 and the quality difference is unbelievable. It’s had an immediate impact and I think it’s a massive step forward for soccer in the state.
Would you be in favor of extending it to U12?
What numbers do you think should be playing in games at the younger ages?
I think if you’re going to play 8v8 at U11 level you probably need to step that down. I would be very happy to see 6v6 at the next group. Once we get below the U10 level there’s going to be a lot more freedom for individual clubs to go their own direction. For us, continuing down that pathway to get the numbers lower, to create an environment where there are more touches on the ball all the way through there would be beneficial.
Is the USL Pro Partnership an important piece in your model? Will it function like a La Liga ‘B’ team?
In our model it is slightly different from that because we are partnering on the project, we’re not wholly owning the project. In a case like LA Galaxy too where they have full ownership of the club it does function like the foreign leagues. In our case we are investing in the staffing of the club, we provide all of the technical direction and a minimum of four loan players at a time; but in the end the business model still comes from the local ownership group and they still have an independent franchise that they are running.
Why did you choose Charlotte, North Carolina?
Two reasons: we had an existing relationship through our president with the ownership group, and we also have a vested interest in that market and we spend a lot of time in that market so it was a perfect storm for us. This has been a long time coming: we have had discussions for over a year, knowing that there may be some changes in the market that would allow us to do it. The college draft is still an important piece of how we build rosters and to have a significant and consistent presence in the middle of the ACC won’t do us any harm from a scouting standpoint as well.
Shane O’Neill chose to sign for the Rapids instead of taking a scholarship to play for the University of Virginia. Do you see the Academies as the new route for players to professional clubs and the national team?
I do, but I think that the college game will always have some type of presence in our country, in the player development pathway. There are players who are ready to get into a first team environment at 17-18 years old and there are players who are not. The fortunate thing about the country we live in and the environment they come out of is that most of the players we are talking about here have the choice to either go to professional soccer or go to university to play soccer with a scholarship. That’s not a bad option either way, so do I think submerging a talented 17-18 year old into the professional environment will accelerate their growth? Absolutely. When we look at Shane after four years in MLS would he be further ahead playing 50-60 first team games than he would be paying at college? I think so but I also think that there are players that aren’t quite ready for that and it might be the perfect choice for them to go to college.
We heard an argument that NCAA restrictions were putting US players at a disadvantage as they had 3-4 formative years without the ability to play and train all year around. Do you see that as an issue?
I think there is a lot of weight to that argument, and that’s why there is a choice to be made now. The NCAA for protective reasons for student athletes have their rules about how much contact time players can have. Whether you agree or disagree they have all the right to do that. But the model wasn’t built on trying to put together professional soccer players. If you are trying to develop an athlete fully, taking valuable time out of that training cycle, at times can be pretty detrimental. So I think it is a limiting factor. There will always be late blooming players who will benefit from that environment but I think the majority of your elite players within those groups – players who are going to be national team-type players when we go on to win a World Cup – are going to come through the professional environment.
In Europe when players get cut who missed out on college they sometimes struggle to find a new path. If the path is changing here too, are you concerned about the players who don’t make it? Do you/MLS support cut players in any way?
Absolutely. And nobody is asking these players to skip college – they are asking them to skip college soccer: there’s a massive difference there. Depending how the homegrown contracts are put together most of these players are receiving some type of educational stipend they can use to continue with school. The benefit of being a homegrown player is that you get more of a guaranteed contract, you get generally a better wage too, and so giving up the college soccer piece comes with that type of reward. Now what they do with that stipend depends on the motivation of the player. Some will continue through school and others will say I’ll get to it someday. But I think that’s true of college athletes as well: they get in there and it’s not for them. So we understand that we are in a unique situation in this country and the league has done a good job with the support of Adidas to create a program where that decision is a decision to give up college soccer rather than college.
The level of professionalism, facilities and coaching in the academy programs has grown very quickly to an impressive level. What do you think will be the impact on the US game in ten years’ time?
I would hope that you’ll see visible signs in ten years of players who have come through that environment and been given every opportunity. We’ve now taken away all of the excuses with a more professional environment, more professional facilities, more exposure to international competition, more exposure to professional players, we’ve really taken down a lot of the walls. We’ve also taken down financial barriers: we’re not limiting our player pool to those who can pay the most to get to the elite levels. I think the impact has to be great. A kid who by the time he is 28 has played several hundred times in the league will be better prepared for the national team and I think that will be a sign that we have made progress, which we have to do to compete on the world stage.
Many of your staff and coaches have come from the youth club world. For coaches looking to get into MLS academies is there a recommended career path or necessary experience?
I can speak specifically to our setup –we’re looking for people who have the ability to be specialists in age groups. If you look at our young ones that we’re trying to invest in an educational background – someone who has the ability to teach is very important to that. A great knowledge of the game and background should be in there. Some level of playing the game is important too. Someone with high levels of professional education is important too but overall there is no one size fits all model that we look for. We have a coach who is excellent with our young kids because he is a teacher and he is enthusiastic – he’s a motivator, but he also has the ability to teach the exact elements that we feel are important for our young ones.
We just transitioned Jamie Smith from our first team as an international player into our academy and he’s been brilliant with it because he has the insight and the ability to convey the message to our players. So again, there is no one size that fits all but you have to be able to become an educator.
So you encourage retiring players to come back to the club in that role?
Absolutely. The players that have gone through the wars for this club have a place in this club somewhere. You will see us make a massive effort to include players in lots of parts of our business that have come from our first team.
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