How MLS identifies talent and coaches them to become professionals

FRISCO, Texas — As MLS academies duke it out on the field at this week’s Generation adidas Cup, the players won’t be the only ones tested by international opponents.

The event provides a challenge for the academy coaches as well. And just as the improvements in the player pool and infrastructure have catalyzed domestic development in the league, coaches have played a massive factor.

Part of that has stemmed from Fred Lipka, MLS's VP of player youth & development. Under his stewardship, the league has sought to improve coaching education, launching the Elite Formation Coaching License in partnership with the French Football Federation. Those efforts have helped lead to a shift at the youth levels, away from winning games to producing pros and tweaks in player identification.

“Our best coaches are developers [of talent],” Lipka told MLSsoccer.com in a wide-ranging conversation on Saturday. “Winning is important, but it’s not the only purpose. It’s the natural purpose of the competition, but we evaluate our coaches and their capacity to field [players in] USL, reserve teams and more importantly, to sign players in the first team. The clear objectives of our club is to develop pro players.”

A change in player identification is one of the many facets Lipka’s noticed during his time in the league. When he first visited MLS academies in his capacity as a consultant roughly six years ago, he noticed that teams emphasized players physical abilities too much but not enough on the technical or tactical parts of the game.

“We are more focused on the potential of the kids and not their current actual performance. It’s potential versus performance – sometimes it’s a match,” Lipka said. “But sometimes it doesn’t, because when you are a late developer, you don’t grow at the same pace. And sometimes you have two or three years of difference physically between kids that are exactly the same age.

“Now we see in U-15, U-17 in MLS [academies], we see little kids who have more capacity to become creative players when they are 18, 19, 20. We give them more time, more attention, and more support, we keep challenging them, but these are the kids which five years later can make a difference.”

Originally from France, Lipka’s background at Le Havre’s Academy gives him a unique perspective on the American game. The connections he possessed played a role in establishing the EFCL. Among current or former academy directors to complete it include Marc Nicholls (Seattle Sounders), Brian Scales (New England Revolution), John Parry (Sporting Kansas City), Tony Annan (Atlanta United), Greg Vanney (Toronto FC) and Luchi Gonzalez (FC Dallas).

The aim there is to raise the level of the educators in order to improve the quality of how each specific academy operates.

“We think it’s a good way to influence and to feed the knowledge of the coaches,” Lipka said. “This wasn’t to copy the French system; to be successful we need good experts. To have a good expert, we need great teachers.”

To gauge the progress that’s been made, among educating coaches and identifying the right kind of player, the Generation adidas Cup serves as a specific, on-field measure.

“The GA Cup is here to tell us this is the way of the world,” Lipka said. “You think you are a good kid in your domestic competition and we are telling you this is the world we live in. We have made a lot of progress, but it’s a humbling experience when you play Flamengo, Lyon, River Plate.”

And while Lipka noted the progress of players like Paxton Pomykal and Brenden Aaronson are encouraging, he didn’t think that there is any need to mandate younger players getting minutes in the first team for now. He thinks that with the progress made at the academy level, those players are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to those ready to make an impact.

“I don't think MLS has to say to a GM [you have to play young players],” he said. “We are [here] to support, to convince more than to persuade or mandate. We don’t forget that we are new in this business. So our staff, our clubs have also to experience, make mistakes and to develop their own way. MLS are not in a stage where the league has invested for 20, 30 years and it’s not working. We’re starting to see the crop of new players coming up. If we develop with our academy directors and we do a better job, and the players are ready, if the agreement between the owner, the GM, the first-team coach and the academy director is good, then the kids are going to play.”

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