Season 1. Episode 10 with Larry Sunderland. Listen to the podcast. Don't forget to subscribe!         

The Next US Men's National Team: Looking Beyond Size 

Announcer: Welcome to the Rethinking Football podcast, where we discuss player development with players, world renowned scouts, professional football academy directors, coaches and others. We will use Spain’s model and compare it to other national governing bodies in other countries. At the end of each podcast we will update our theory of change to improve player development worldwide using indicators, best practices, and our own research, along with the opinions and expertise of our guests.

Larry Sunderland has been recognized as a top coach and a visionary advancing the sport of football and player development in the United States. Sunderland led the development of the first fully integrated professional soccer model in the United States. He has also implemented and directed the execution of the most extensive player development system in Major League Soccer.

Sunderland is the current Portland Timbers Youth Technical Director, where he oversees all aspects of the academy and player development system, including directing the development curriculum guidelines, and monitoring academy player and staff development.

Prior to joining the Timbers, Sunderland served as Technical Director of the Chicago Fire PDL program, Super-20s and Fire Juniors youth club. He has been instrumental in the development of more than 50 professional players, including Chicago Fire’s homegrown players Victor Pineda, Harrison Shipp, Chris Ritter, Collin Fernandez, Kellen Gulley and Patrick Doody.

Sunderland is the only coach in the US to win National Championships at U14 (USYS), U16 (USSDA), U18 (USSDA) and U20 (USL). Sunderland’s professional playing career includes the New York Express of the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL), the Milwaukee Wave and the Chicago Power championship team of the National Professional Soccer League.

Host: Welcome to Rethinking Football. I am your host Dawn Brown. Today we have the third part of our three-part series with Larry Sunderland. Today we will be discussing the national teams, and Larry‘s perspective on the future of the national teams. It should be very interesting given his perspective as both an MLS Coach and parent of a player.

Let’s transition to into talking about the US national team. How do you think we can improve scouting to find the best players for the youth national teams?

Guest: Well first, I want to say I’m not an expert on the US national teams' processes and I’m not an expert on everything they’re doing to find players, to improve the scouting process for the national team. I will tell you what I know. I do know that they are improving their Scouting networks on a regular basis. There are more scouts out there now, they have a new scouting department, they’ve split up what the advisers are doing and with the scouts are doing. It is definitely evolving. It is something that we as a country are getting better at. We’ve identified that we have to. And that’s what the national team level, That’s from the MLS level, Academy level, we know that we have to get better at scouting and talent identification. I know you at soccer is doing that. I know they’ve increased the number of scouts. I can tell you that the Academy games, there are scouts out there. I know there are scouts out at the training centers, I know there are scouts at the ODP training centers. I know there are scouts out there. So they’re doing the very best they can with that.

I know there’s also, for instance, the Jonathan Gonzalez situation. this happens in every country in the world. Players do fall through the cracks unfortunately. It’s very difficult to eliminate that totally. For me, don’t look back and say how did we lose Jonathan Gonzalez? Because we really don’t know. You don’t know what the influences are there, you can’t look back at that. You can look forward and say how can we scout better? How can we recruit better? How do we identify better? I think those are things we need to look at. I think we’re doing a much better job of that in the United States now. Where I think we can get better is what we’re looking for in a player, what criteria we're looking for in a player, that we identify as having potential. I think we have a long way to go with that we have a long way to go with gaining expertise in that.

I believe it stems from, if you go back 20 years, what success we found at the national level, you always heard the US worked so hard. They fought so hard in every game. That was something you always heard about the mentality, the never give up, the fighting spirit. That mentality and that fighting spirit tends to lead you to a primary profile that is physical in nature. That makes sense. I think for many years one of the first things we looked at in players was their physical ability. Because it jumps out at you, it’s a pretty easy thing to see. The physical ability was there.

Then the next thing we looked at was technical. I think with technical the easiest thing to see is can this kid dribble through people? We all look at Messi. Can this kid be the next Messi? Can he dribble through people? So now we have this physical and technical profile. I think now we need to begin to focus on the intellect. Because in my experience around the world, from what I’ve seen anyway, is that the best players at the highest level are the players that understand the game the best and make the best decisions on the field. I’m hoping that we begin to identify players a little bit differently. Those are two different questions. Scouting is getting numbers. Identifying is being able to pick the right one. I think that’s where we need to get better, I hope that’s where we are beginning to get better. I know there’s scouting courses now and I know we’re definitely trying to get better at it.

Host: Do we have US scouts in Europe currently for youth?

Guest: Yes we do. My understanding is we do. Again I’m not an expert in it. I couldn’t comment on how many, but I know we do, and I know they are aware of youth players in Europe. I know that for a fact.

Host: Great. Let’s look at the other side of this. We’ve been talking about how we can improve scouting, but what can players do to get noticed by scouts in the US soccer system?

Guest: The easiest answer to that is going to be get into the environments that have the greatest exposure. That’s a very easy answer. I can say work your way from a youth club into an academy, and from there you’re going to have your opportunities to be seen. That’s one way. I think our identification pathway is getting clearer. We can see now that players begin to go from youth clubs into youth academies, into MLS academies, and you begin to see that pathway. You read all the time about how many players are coming for the academy system for these national teams. That’s natural. That’s what happens. Players tend to gravitate to the top programs, they want to be around other top players. Those pathways for identification are there.

I think sometimes we get in our own way. An example might be, I hear this at times, a 12-year-old player, he doesn’t want to drive an hour to training, it’s hard, he’s got school work etc. And my answer is OK then, he doesn’t want it. No problem. I understand. There’s sacrifices to be made if you want to strive to be the best. If you want to be identified, there’s some sacrifices that have to be made. If you want to get into the place where there are more identification opportunities.

The hardest part is for those players who are in the middle of nowhere. How do we get them to places? You have ODP programs that are out there and are still thriving, and they will always be out there. I know people said that the academies are killing ODP, but I don’t think that’s the case, they are just different kids. ODP is an identification piece. The training centers are an identification piece. The academy is an easy win if you get in with the academy to be seen. How do we get those kids that are in the middle of nowhere to be seen? That’s the difficult question.

I think we all have to work together on this. I don’t believe it is just up to US soccer to identify players for the national team. I think it’s just as important that MLS clubs are identifying players from their academies that are then going into US national teams. I pair a large piece of this burden. How do I find a kid who’s in the middle of nowhere, and how do I get him into my Academy? We have a residency program. OK, so I can get him. Now I have to figure out how I can find them. So that’s difficult. I don’t think there’s an easy answer, but again we’re trying to solve these problems.

Host: It seems there’s a string of people who hold some responsibility in this. There’s the player of course, who wants to get noticed and who as you point out, has to want it enough and has to be willing to make all of the sacrifices that are necessary to get noticed and to move forward on their path. But then you also mentioned, you as a coach at the academy, you have a responsibility as well. And I think in between there, there’s local coaches and people at the local level who have to help. I’m not sure what my question is exactly. How do you see that process working, or are there ways we can make it work more smoothly, where the kids who do you have a distance issue, they are out in the middle of nowhere, for example, how do we use all of the people in that child’s life to help move them through the process, if they’ve got the talent and the level?

Guest: Interesting question, and I’ve thought of this for a while. If you were in the middle of nowhere in Germany for instance. And there’s a small youth club. And a really good player is in a small youth club. The director, or head coach of that youth club would be dying to move that player to the local professional team. It would be a badge of honor for him to do that. There is a built-in system in Europe that moves players from underserved or remote locations, moves the best of the best through, because there’s a pride involved with moving a player to the local professional team.

You always heard the US worked so hard. They fought so hard in every game. That was something you always heard abut the mentality, the never give up, the fighting nature.
— Larry Sunderland, Portland Timbers Youth Technical Director


Host: Right, we’ve seen that in Spain as well. Exactly.

Guest: Absolutely. That is where we have to begin this conversation of partnerships. We have to begin this conversation of all the youth clubs in a given market having some pride and pushing a player through to the professional team's academy, and then see that player get to the first team. Of course the issues are historic in this country, because the youth model was upside down in this country for so many years. I’m sorry the player development model was upside down in this country for many many years, because it was driven by youth soccer, which became a business. If I’m a youth club and I move my best player or best two players through, then there’s potential that could have a ripple effect for my club and hurt my clubs bottom line, I team could get weaker, my players to go to another club, you know the whole story.

Host: So that’s an ethical issue?

Guest: I don’t know if it’s an ethical issue. Perhaps. I think it could be made an ethical issue. I think it could be made a business issue. If you go back to the very beginning of this interview, I’ve been through all of it, so I have perspectives at each of the levels, whether it’s youth, professional, academies. Which is good and bad. Because I can see the point of view of the youth club, just trying to keep the business going. It’s a not-for-profit, they’re trying to pay their coaches, they’re trying to keep the business going. If the team blows up, you lose a team, how do you employ that coach? So there are business questions there. Now on the ethical side, you want to do what’s right for the kids, so you never want to deny an opportunity for a player. So yes, it’s ethical and it’s business. And every person has to deal with that in their own way, until or unless we come up with some creative ways to solve both issues. I don’t know, i’m just throwing it out there. There’s a club in the middle of nowhere and has a player, and they call me and say, "Hey Larry, there’s a player here we really want you to look at." And he comes in to the academy, what can I do to help that youth club? It could be as simple as promoting the fact that this kid came from that youth club which helps me, and helps him, and helps and back fill his team from losing that player. Are there other ways? Of course now you get into these conversations about training compensation, solidarity fees and all those things which are out there. That’s also incentive in foreign countries, there’s some incentive there too. So they can potentially get something back. It’s not all ethics in Europe when they pass players on. It is a business model too.

I think our identification pathway (of players with level) is getting clearer. We can see now that players go from youth clubs into youth academies, into MLS academies, and you begin to see that pathway...pathways for identification are there.
— Larry Sunderland, Portland Timbers Youth Technical Director


Host: Right. It absolutely is. Larry, you’ve talked about the ethics of it, and how in some ways it’s become a business model. And that in Europe, they already have a more sophisticated or more mature model. How far do you think we are from that here in the US?

Guest: Good question. I don’t know. I don’t know all the business ramifications if we move to a model that was training compensation and solidarity. I don’t know that higher level stuff, how it affects the league and USSF. And then what the trickle-down of that would be if that was to occur in this country. If we had training compensation and solidarity payments. I’m not as well-versed as perhaps I should be in that.

I would like to think we continue to move toward something that makes our model more financially stable. I’d like to think that we’re looking at ideas. These MLS owners are investing a lot of money into player development. I’d like to think we’re exploring ways that they can be compensated, or they have some protection. So the players don’t just up and leave. And then investment is gone. I’d like to think we’re looking at those things. I personally believe there are creative ways outside of just training compensation and there are other ways, whether it’s partnerships with foreign clubs, whether it’s working with selected agents, there has to be creative ways out there that the owners can recoup some of their investment. And I’d like to think, and I believe there are probably smarter people than me out there thinking about this.

Players do fall through the cracks unfortunately. It’s very difficult to eliminate that totally...You can look forward and say ‘How can we scout better? How can we recruit better? How can we identify better?’ I think those are the things we need to look at.
— Larry Sunderland, Portland Timbers Youth Technical Director

2017 Generation Adidas cup highlights 



Host: Great. I think that You’re onto some good ideas, I think we need to in the US move toward some of these models that we know work in other places. It can help us improve our overall approach here as well.

Tell us about the generation Adidas event you have coming up, Larry.

Guest: tThat’s an initiative that was started between MLS and Adidas at least six years ago. It has really evolved into, in my opinion, the best domestic competition here in the US. Adidas and MLS bring in some of the top academies from around the world, Real Madrid, Lyonnais, Boca Juniors, some of the top academies in the world come in and they play over a 10 day period. It’s at the same time as the Dallas cup in Dallas. It’s been a real focal point for the MLS clubs now for the last five years now. It’s an under 17 event. We go through two regional qualifications, so MLS is broken up by Eastern conference, Central conference and West conference for academy purposes in the GA. We have to regional events where we get together Columbus Day weekend and then Presidents’ Day weekend. We have to qualify for one of the two divisions within generation Adidas.

The championship division is the top eight qualifiers from MLS. And another eight international teams. They compete for the championship of the Generation Adidas Tournament, Along with all the other MLS academies have their teams there along with other international teams that play in the premier group, which is the qualifiers below eight. We have two divisions that the generation Adidas. The football every single year gets better and better, and it gives the MLS academies an opportunity to to see how we stack up against the best foreign clubs. The event is just fantastic for us and we look forward to it every year.

Host: It sounds wonderful. What are the dates for it?

Guest: The dates for play begins on March 23, and finishes up on March 31.

Host: That sounds really exciting.

Guest: There’s another event that runs along with it. They do an event for under 12’s the last weekend. So it’s a seven per side tournament for under 12. And all of the MLS clubs will be in that and various international teams. And I’ll tell you what, that’s just a joy to watch. You see some great young players from the US and abroad. That’s just another great piece of the Generation Adidas week that MLS and Adidas partner on.

Host: That sounds like a great partnership. Let’s wrap up for today. Thank you for your time. We really appreciate all the information you have shared. This has been enlightening to hear your perspective both as the director of an academy and as a parent of a child who is playing as well. So thank you for your time.

Guest: My pleasure. Thanks very much for having me.

Host: This concludes part 3 of our interview with Larry Sunderland> Please join us for the next episode when we will interview Jackie Bachteler.

WATCH THE GENERATION ADIDAS CUP LIVE HERE! After March 26 you will be able to see the highlights 

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