GPS trackers and heart-rate monitors mounted in vests or on straps fitted onto cleats. Advanced cameras and monitoring systems, even flying drones, at training sessions. Customized smartphone apps crystallizing lessons from practice, scouting reports and upcoming tactical plans delivered right into players’ pockets. Various online education platforms to keep both teams and individuals moving forward even under lockdown in the midst of a global viral pandemic.
You’ve probably heard or read about MLSers and soccer players across the globe using cutting-edge technology like this in pursuit of peak performance. But examples like the ones above are no longer limited to the top of the pyramid.
Academies across MLS are also mobilizing these systems, seeking to optimize fitness and form, identify upside potential and speed the development process, while also bringing the daily routines of youth players into closer and closer synchronicity with their senior counterparts.
It will surprise no one that Homegrown pioneers FC Dallas are at the forefront of this space, with academy director turned first-team head coach Luchi Gonzalez pushing the process even further when he took up his current post last year.
“We have the possibility to record all their trainings, and now we're creating the same type of data of the players that we see potentially moving forward into the first team, and we’re recognizing them and identifying those players,” explained FCD Data Analyst and Video Coordinator Fredy Herrera, who relies mainly on programs called Spiideo and Nacsport. “It's trimming practice [footage] and showing the players all the tools that we have to help them improve, day to day.
“These tools are allowing us to go into detail, and they show the players right after training, or during the training, the good and the bad things they've been doing. And then also sharing through video, through instant messages, so they can see it at home. So it’s a constant communication, player and coaches, of their execution in training.”
Technology creates "Leg up" for FC Dallas Academy | Audi 1 v 1
Technology allows players’ physical outputs and movement to be closely tracked, their every touch on the ball recorded and broken down and logged in a database. And for a generation that’s essentially growing up glued to their screens, it makes all kinds of information easier to absorb.
“Now they have the possibility to have better communication, and not just that – we also present them a scenario where they can develop the scenario the way the game is developed, have their own ideas of any specific situation that we put them on video,” said Herrera.
“A lot of players, on the first communication of the coach and correcting the mistake, they might have an approach of their own personal thinking of that situation. But then when the video comes into action, they recognize it and it’s a better feedback for the players. So everyone is adapting and understanding this tool as a help.”
Tanner Tessmann, one of Dallas’ newest Homegrown signings and a surprise standout in their first two matches of the 2020 season, says he’s benefited from the customized clips Herrera produces for both first-team and academy players.
“He's really good at editing videos,” said Tessmann, “and he would sit down with me and Edwin Cerrillo some nights, and do videos with just us, and we look through some of our game footage from the academy. And so he really helps out the younger guys.”
Comparable work is underway a few hours south down Interstate 45, where the Houston Dynamo have aimed significant time and resources toward their academy in an ambitious effort to spark greater productivity from its talent-rich but sprawling metropolitan area.
Houston and Dallas face off in academy action | Courtesy of Houston Dynamo
Over the past two years La Naranja have brought on a range of top coaches and specialists to ramp up their youth programming, including strength and conditioning guru Adam Centofanti, lured earlier this year from Australia’s Melbourne City, a member of the City Football Group.
Centofanti works closely with Paul Caffrey, the Dynamo’s Head of Performance, to implement an academy regimen connected to the one the MLS squad and their USL Championship affiliate Rio Grande Valley FC work on, providing opportunities to both challenge and compare.
“Caff puts forth a program that then Adam implements with our academy. We've been very fortunate,” said Dynamo academy coach Brian Reed. “They utilize Catapult [a wearable-tech system], so every metric that the first-team players are gauged on and that the RGV players are gauged on, and how they're performing, now it's available to our academy.
“You actually have real numbers to gauge how the academy players are doing and comparing to their first-team counterparts and their USL counterparts.”
Reed noted that Audi’s Goals Drive Progress grants program has helped Houston’s academy in a range of other areas. It helps meet players’ transportation needs to and from practice and supports online learning options that keep kids on course academically when they hit the road, be it for Generation adidas Cup action, invitations to join the first team or youth national team call-ups.
“At the U-17 level at the GA Cup, the team was able to qualify for the Champions division," he noted. "And a lot of that had to do with the Audi grant and the program that was put into place and green-lit over the summer. All those kids were part of the online platform. So they were all able to integrate themselves into a training model that replicated the first team’s: morning training, the gym work that they were able to do, the relief of the stress in the classroom. And then some of those players were lucky enough to take part in the first team preseason, which didn’t happen in the year prior.”
Similar stories can be found across MLS. At Atlanta United, the academy uses STATSports' Apex GPS monitoring system just like Josef Martinez and the rest of the first team – and goes a step further by using PlayerMaker, an Israeli-designed product built around a small stirrup-sized strap on both feet that measures every aspect imaginable of every touch on the ball, as well as the player’s movement and exertion and the team’s overall passing patterns.
“Technical mastery for a young player is everything,” said Five Stripes academy boss Tony Annan. “Showing the players what they should’ve done, could’ve done, and what they actually did while they’re still thinking about the session, is huge for us to push them forward.”
In some cases multiple systems can be dovetailed, such as Nacsport’s recent partnership with PlayerMaker, opening up new possibilities for the collection, management and presentation of all sorts of data. It’s a brave new world for the beautiful game, and one that academy youngsters seem eager to explore.
“It's that extra tool,” said Herrera, “that I don't think in past generations the players had.”
Audi is proud to contribute in one of the most important catalysts for building on-field talent in the league – the MLS Club Youth Academy system. Audi Goals Drive Progress provides young soccer talent in MLS Academies with the necessary tools to excel both on and off the pitch.