Well before New Mexico United played its first match, notched its first win and rose to the top of the United Soccer League Western Conference table, technical director Troy Lesesne and assistant coach Zach Prince visited a number of area youth soccer clubs.
The intent was to take in a small sampling of the local soccer appetite while also building relationships for the “High Performance Program” announced in April for elite New Mexico youth soccer players.
United is hosting three viewing sessions in June at its Mesa Del Sol training facility. There’s room for 100 players ages 12-17 in each session. United will pick at most 60 players from the sessions, and Prince insists that United will be “very selective with the first crop” of players.
“We’re going to build this thing so slow, any youth club involvement is done the right away,” Lesesne said. “Our mindset isn’t to formulate teams. It’s trying to make individuals better. Identifying the best talent in New Mexico that other times went out of state for training.”
United midfielder Josh Goss, an Albuquerque native who played for the University of New Mexico, moved to Arizona at age 14 to play for a Real Salt Lake Academy team. He left New Mexico to chase his soccer dreams.
“It’s just a good outlet for the best players to grow together,” Goss said. “There are a lot of good players in New Mexico, but there’s not the proper outlet for them to play together and play under a coach that can take them to the next level.”
There is no cost to selected players as the club and sponsors will cover training gear. United also intends to schedule additional viewing sessions throughout the year and hopes to conduct some outside the metro area.
“The whole point of this program is to bring the most elite talent in New Mexico together with no hurdles,” Prince said. “We don’t want someone to be held back because they couldn’t afford to be in the program. There can’t be costs associated with it.”
The free model is in direct conflict with the “pay to play” model replete throughout US youth soccer.
“Pay to play in our country, you’re going to be in that little incubated system that’s not good in the development of a youth player,” Lesesne said. “They need to feel the competition internally. That’s a professional mentality.”
Liam O’Connell, the senior director for youth development with the USL, met with Prince at the MLS Combine in January.
“We are definitely highly encouraging to move youth development to free play,” O’Connell said. “We would rather be in a position where we reward clubs that are more forward thinking first.”
Among the 60 players, there is no quota or cap based on gender or age with an ultimate goal of loosely forming three teams. There is no official scorecard or scoring matrix for player evaluation. But the NMU technical staff will look at technical, tactical, in/out of possession, and areas for improvement.
“Once you’re invited into the program, there’s no going out of that program for the year,” Prince said. “We’re not going to take paid scholarships from the players. Once we get to that number to 60 we’ll keep trying to identify players.”
United will check height and weight but won’t be doing other athletic measurables. A formal evaluation will take place once or twice a year with regular conversations providing feedback based on individual performance. Players will be given “priority plans” for improvement.
The HPP will then have roughly 10 two-hour training sessions over the year. Prince and NMU goalie coach Mike Gracyzk will be the lead technical staff. Some United players may also chip in to keep a 10-1 coach-to-player ratio.
“What we’re going to do is put of them in same type of training environment as first team,” Lesesne said.
Younger players will likely get more of an emphasis on building a strong technical foundation. But all ages will get first-team concepts in training. United will record training sessions to incorporate some video review.
“You’re not going to nail down a tactical system of plays. It’s more of a rhythm or a tempo that we’re looking for from the kids,” Prince said. “I don’t know there is a USL club that has done what we’re doing.”
The training schedule may focus more on the USL offseason from December to February, which will help avoid youth club conflicts as well.
“It’s important to understand this is supplemental to what they’re already doing,” Prince said.
The USL requires every team to submit an annual youth development strategic plan – its vision, staffing structure, training curriculum and competition. Some plans are as short as five pages while others cover 150.
The hope is to share the best practices while affording each club in each market enough autonomy to connect to its youth soccer market. “We as a country have not figured out youth development,” O’Connell said. “We’re such a big country we’re going to have to find a way to bring in the best talent.”
United will be sending players to compete in the inaugural “USL Academy Cup” held in May 2020 in Tampa, Fla. According to a league news release, 33 USL teams will be sending teams in the U13-U17 age group.
New Mexico Rush technical director Justin Sells coached Goss. He views the HPP as a positive for players to hear different voices since coaches view the game differently. United has asked local clubs, including Rush, for player recommendations.
“They’ve been doing their due diligence trying to see what’s in the community and identifying the best players,” Sells said. “The best players want the challenge (of playing) with other top players. This program gives another outlet.”