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US Soccer hire Premier League scientist to help youth development

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Moneyball comes to youth development

Bolivia v United States Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

The US Soccer Federation has hired James Bunce from the Premier League as the Director of High Performance to get a handle on the great enigma of soccer in the US: youth development. The very phrase conjures images of the American Messi toiling in obscurity on a dusty pitch while his talent withers on the vine as he is passed over for other players. Bunce had previously worked as the Premier League Head of Sports Science and will bring a scientific and data driven perspective to youth development in the US.

He will have his work cut out for him. Bunce moves from an island nation roughly the size of Alabama to a country that could fit Europe within its borders. The sheer size of the US makes the task of refining and streamlining youth development very difficult. Add to it the multitude of academies, clubs, school teams, and the college soccer system and consider that the networks to scout and train these players are less an intelligent drone swarm and more a haphazard goat rodeo, and the true enormity of the youth development challenge becomes clearer.

In order to address the difficulties of such a large and spread out network, Bunce will look to replicate what worked in England. In a Q&A with US Soccer, he noted that part of the success he had in the Premier League was bringing all of the pieces together, saying “There’s a lot of good science people, lots of good coaches, good medics, good analysis people, but unless they’re working in collaboration, and if they really aren’t putting the player and the team at the heart of everything that they do, then some of this good practice doesn’t get delivered.”

While Bunce was with the Premier League, he instituted several reforms to enhance player development with the English top flight. He is a champion of ‘biobanding’ or grouping youth players together by skill and ability rather than age. This could help address a frequent complaint in the youth development in the US that coaches rely on fast physical athletes to get results rather than focusing on training players for technical skills.

Bunce noted that it is tempting to single out players dominating their age group but that the practice doesn’t always yield results. It can be difficult to verify if what a scout sees in a youth player will actually develop into a top level player as an adult, Bunce described this problem saying, “The way we coin the phrase here is that you start seeing fool’s gold and missing the diamond in the rough. You can’t start backing the player that isn’t actually your best option only because he’s just doing well in that age group. You want to be identifying the longer-term strategy, seeing what they could offer in their 20’s.” Biobanding also helps address the variation between physical maturity in youth players which may lead to talented but not as physically developed players being passed over.

Biobranding was part of a program that Bunce led in the PL called the Elite Performance Player Plan that enabled clubs in England to communicate about player development with one another. The program tracks youth players’ injuries and fitness while guiding the biobanding strategy and provides an app for all of the information to be stored and shared. Bunce once commented to a room full of coaches that “as an industry, football still doesn’t know a lot about what it takes to become a top player,” while the US is desperately seeking ways to find top players, developing them is obviously a big piece of the puzzle.

In order to complete the puzzle, US Soccer Director of Sport Development Ryan Mooney said "We are adding a world-class level sports performance expert to our staff. James possesses the right balance of theoretical and practical experience that we are confident will lead to an acceleration across all of our player development initiatives." A system like this is sorely lacking in the US youth system and could resolve several of the issues around scouting, coaching, and communication that the US needs to take in order to have an effective youth development program.

The move also signals that US Soccer is going to have a much more robust focus on analytics when it comes to youth development and could make data meaningful on a youth level. Bunce is a scientist and a proponent of data driven decision making. In an interview with Innovation Enterprise he noted that “Much of the work we are doing at the Premier League is about developing those young players and tracking what it takes, what traits and norms are players showing at a young age and then following through and transitioning through the system.”

While Bunce is not the Technical Director, a job vacated by Jurgen Klinsmann when he was fired from the national team last year, hiring him indicates that US Soccer is adopting new and savvy practices when it comes to player development. Although Klinsmann stressed toughness and having a strong mentality, his tenure as Technical Director failed to bring about a revolution in soccer here in the US. Rather than relying on the eye test to hopefully strike gold, the methods and practices that Bunce favors found such soccer diamonds as Gareth Bale and could deliver on the promise of youth development in the US.