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The Future of NBA Player Development Is Soccer’s Youth Academy Model

Inside FC Dallas’s enormous effort to build better U.S. soccer players from the ground up, and how owners like Mark Cuban are gearing up to bring it to American basketball

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There’s always room for improvement. So even though the NBA is now a 12-month league that we can’t look away from, we here at The Ringer have a few humble suggestions to make it even greater. Welcome to League Hack Week—the first of four weeklong series leading up to opening night of the 2017-18 NBA season.

No U.S. pro sports franchise spends more on training young players than FC Dallas. Over the past decade, Dallas, one of the charter teams of Major League Soccer, has invested tens of millions of dollars on facilities and a comprehensive developmental program. FCD’s academy has 120 players who play on teams in age groups ranging from U12 to U19, and they comprise the tip of a pyramid that includes more than 1,500 high schoolers and 2,500 elementary and middle school students. The dream is an American version of La Masia, the FC Barcelona soccer program that produced stars such as Lionel Messi and Andrés Iniesta. FC Dallas has nine homegrown players on its roster, including Jesus Ferreira, a 16-year-old who recently became the second-youngest player in MLS history to score a goal. Its academy is the envy of every MLS club. And it might be coming to the NBA.

“I think [FC Dallas] is doing it right. That is our future. We have to get AAU out of the mix,” Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told me over email.

NBA Preview 2017 League Hack Week

For Cuban, the biggest selling point of a potential NBA academy is removing some of the negative influences that surround the top young basketball players in this country. They are celebrities as much as they are athletes — just look at the hype surrounding the AAU game between Zion Williamson and LaMelo Ball this summer — and there’s an intense competition for their services that starts in middle school and goes all the way through college. What travel team will they play for? What shoe company circuit will they play on? These are questions the soccer players at the FC Dallas academy don’t have to deal with.

The NBA has six academies overseas, in China, India, Australia, and Senegal. The goal is to grow the game in those countries as well as develop their best prospects in the country into NBA players. Minnesota center Gorgui Dieng started his career at SEED, an academy in Senegal founded by NBA Africa vice president Amadou Gallo Fall.

If Cuban has his way, NBA teams will soon be setting up the same infrastructure in the States. He is looking for a location in the Dallas area to set up a campus.

“I have been pushing for it for 10 years, but the NBA hadn’t come around to it yet,” Cuban said. “The idea is to get kids and families excited about basketball and the Mavs, and to help kids of all skill levels get better training without some of the extraneous interference.”

The FCD academy, 30 miles north of Dallas in Frisco, is the best example of how that model could work in the U.S. The seeds of the academy were planted in 2005, when the club opened a gleaming soccer-specific stadium as part of a sprawling new development located off the Dallas North Tollway. At the same time, USA Soccer was pushing MLS clubs to move toward the academy model used in the rest of the world. FC Dallas had everything necessary to create a world-class facility. It had the location: With so much cheap land available, the club built 17 soccer fields next to the stadium. It had the players: North Texas has a diverse and growing population, as well as a strong local soccer culture thanks to the Dallas Cup, one of the most prestigious youth tournaments in the world. And it had the money: The Hunt family, which owns FC Dallas and the Kansas City Chiefs, has spent millions on growing soccer in the U.S. Lamar Hunt, the patriarch, helped found MLS.

The investment is paying off. Their youth teams have won four titles in the nationwide developmental league created by USA Soccer. More importantly, the academy has churned out nearly two dozen pro players, in MLS and around the world; its goal is to eventually grow the entire FC Dallas roster in-house. There is no wall between the MLS team and the academy. Head coach and former FCD team captain Oscar Pareja was the first director of the academy, and he still closely monitors what happens on the practice fields around the Toyota Center. The academy’s youth teams play the same style of soccer as their MLS team, and their younger players practice against and learn from the guys on their first team.

Ferreira, who signed with FC Dallas in 2016, is the first player who started with the program before the age of 10 to get a homegrown contract. Clubs with developmental systems get first dibs on homegrown talent, but can’t offer those players contracts that exceed the MLS salary cap unless they are designated as one of the three allotted exceptions, which would allow the club to pay as much as they want. The son of David Ferreira, a former FCD player who won the MLS MVP in 2010, Jesus joined the club when his family moved to Dallas. He stayed at the academy even after his dad’s pro career took him back to his native Colombia.

“They make you train like at the pro level, so they insert all the little things that the pros do. They put you in that pro environment, so there’s just a hallway [between the locker rooms of the academy and the MLS team]. You can see what they’re doing, and go in the hot tub and ice tub with them,” Ferreira told me. “Atiba Harris [a 32-year-old defender] thinks I’m his little boy. He will take me to the side and tell me, ‘Hey, you should do this. Next time do this.’”

There’s a family atmosphere in Frisco. Two of the coaches at the academy have kids in the program. The goal is to build players from the ground up by teaching them the proper fundamentals at the earliest ages and raising them within the culture of the club. The lowest level of the pyramid is a giant recreational league for 5- and 6-year-olds staffed by parents and other volunteers.

“What is a 6-year-old learning and how do they learn it? They need to be doing a lot of coordination. Just knowing how to shuffle side to side and body mechanics. Knowing how to get rhythm with your feet. And those little things help a player when he’s 7 and 8 to be better with the ball,” said Luchi Gonzalez, a former FC Dallas player who is now the director of the academy.

The best players in the rec leagues graduate to the junior level, where the FCD coaches begin looking for kids who can enter the academy, starting at 12. There are no shortcuts to becoming a great soccer player. The stark transitions that one occasionally sees in other sports — Joel Embiid didn’t pick up a basketball until he was 16; Antonio Gates was a college basketball player before his NFL career — could never happen in soccer. The sport requires muscle memory and instincts that can be honed only by countless hours of training. Even a non-sports fan could pick out the vast majority of NBA and NFL players in a crowd. Guys like Messi and Iniesta, on the other hand, are practically indistinguishable from the average person. It’s only when you put a soccer ball at their feet that they look special.

Soccer players, and athletes in general, are developed much differently in Europe than in the U.S. Michael Sokolove’s heavily reported 2010 New York Times Magazine piece on the soccer academy of the Dutch club Ajax offers an in-depth look at how the European system works. Not every club invests as much in their academies as Ajax or FC Barcelona, but the way they do things isn’t the exception overseas. It’s the rule. There is no draft, and there are no college or high school sports. At a very early age, the best young players sign with the youth team of a pro club, and they are trained with the goal of either catching on with its senior team or eventually being sold to a richer club.

The incentive structures in international sports are completely different from what exists stateside. American sports teams, outside of a few special cases like the baseball academies run by MLB teams in Latin America, wait for talent to come to them. The NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL are protected monopolies designed to ensure the profitability of each franchise, rather than encourage competition like in the relegation and promotion model overseas. The worst teams in the league get the best chance to select the top young talent, and they control their rights for the first chapter of their careers. That model isn’t quite as effective for MLS. The worldwide competition for talent meant that it couldn’t force the best international players to come through a draft, while the U.S. wasn’t producing enough quality domestic players of its own.

The developmental academies are designed to change that. Every club in MLS has one. They each have exclusive league rights to players, usually within a 75-mile radius of their home stadiums, but they still have to compete with the top private clubs in their areas — the soccer equivalent of AAU programs. The two most prominent clubs in the North Texas area are the Dallas Texans, which was founded in 1993 and has produced guys like Clint Dempsey and Omar Gonzalez, and the Solar Soccer Club, which was founded in 1976 and has a partnership with Chelsea. Teams from those clubs compete with the MLS academy teams in a nationwide league run by USA Soccer. The idea is that the best play against the best and train against the best. Iron sharpens iron. However, as the quality of U.S. soccer has improved, the MLS academies are now facing a different kind of problem: European clubs are starting to notice them.

Weston McKennie
Weston McKennie
Photo by Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images

For FC Dallas, Weston McKennie is the one that got away. The son of an American serviceman who picked up soccer while his father was stationed in Germany, his family moved to the Dallas area when he was 9, and he joined the academy two years later. McKennie spent the next seven years training in Frisco, after which he rejected a homegrown-player contract from the club and signed with FC Schalke 04, one of the top teams in Germany. There wasn’t much that FC Dallas could do: Schalke was offering around three times as much money, as well as the opportunity to compete at the highest levels of the sport. The problem wasn’t that McKennie left. It’s that, because he wasn’t signed to a pro contract when he did, FCD wasn’t compensated for its investment in him.

“We need to figure out how to monetize player development. So if you develop a better player you get paid for it. That’s the model everywhere else in the world. The money becomes the seed money for development. I can reinvest in the program and try to have 100 kids more like him. That’s how you hire staff. That’s how you have facilities and programming and competition,” said Chris Hayden, the academy’s U19 coach and vice president of youth and development. “Whereas here, it’s really all about the team. Can our team go win something? We’re going to enter this tournament and win. We’re going to train on Tuesday and Thursday to organize the team, not to develop one player to a higher level.”

In the rest of the world, any club that develops a young player receives a cut of the money (called solidarity payments) when he is signed to a pro contract or transfers between teams before the end of his age-23 season. These payments are mandated by FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, to financially reward clubs who develop elite players. The situation is murkier in the U.S., where USA Soccer and MLS claim that child labor laws make solidarity payments illegal.

Until one of the players at the FCD academy signs a pro contract, there’s nothing holding them to the club. They aren’t being paid. The club is just paying for their training. While the other MLS teams have an agreement not to sign a kid out of another club’s academy, that doesn’t apply to a European team like Schalke.

The idea of training a 17-year-old just to sell him down the line feels unseemly, but that’s what pays for the training in the first place. The FC Dallas academy is funded thanks to the Hunt family, but finding other soccer-loving American billionaires is not a sustainable business model.

Since no fans are paying big money to watch 14- and 15-year-olds play soccer, the only other way to fund these programs is the “pay for play” model found in most American sports, in which the families of players write the checks that pay for the youth sports infrastructure. However, not only does that disadvantage kids from lower-income backgrounds, as well as potentially force them to take money from agents and other unsavory characters, it also changes the relationship between the player and the coach.

“When you pay, you feel a little entitlement. The parents feel all of a sudden they can call that coach and talk about playing time, and if they don’t like something, they can take their kid to another club because they’re a client,” said Gonzalez.

U-16 FC Dallas team
U-16 FC Dallas team
FC Dallas

In the U.S. model, the best interests of the young athlete and their coach rarely align. High school and NCAA baseball coaches wear out the arms of their best pitchers to win games. An NCAA coach's job depends on his record, and the most essential skill is recruiting, not player development. The mismatch of interests also affects the quality of play at the professional level. Just look at what is happening in the NFL, where there’s a dire shortage of quarterbacks and quality offensive linemen. The problem is that the spread offense has taken over the lower levels of the game, while NFL coaches still demand precision pocket passing from their QBs as well as offensive-line techniques that college coaches no longer teach. When the best prospects are spending their whole lives playing an entirely different style of football, it’s no wonder they struggle once they get to the NFL.

Conversely, no one cares if a minor league coach in baseball or hockey can recruit. They are cogs in a machine. As one Dutch father explained to Sokolove about why the Ajax academy was so vigilant about monitoring the health of his son: “[The academy] does not want to do anything to injure [the players] or wear them out. They’re capital. And what is the first thing a businessman does? He protects his capital.”

Watch the FC Dallas U19 team practice and it would be hard for an untrained eye to tell the difference between what is happening there and at soccer practice at any high school in the country. Kids compete against one another in drills, laughing and joking, and working on their free kicks and headers. All of it happens from 8 to 10 a.m. so the players can spend the rest of the day at nearby Lone Star High in Frisco.

“The regular students didn’t really like us, I guess,” said Ferreira with a smile. “At lunch we had our own table where we all sat together. No one else would sit there. There was usually only four or five of us in any one class, so in passing periods we would all go in the middle of a hallway and talk and the teachers would get mad at us because they couldn’t walk through.”

Ferreira would be a junior at Lone Star, but he had to withdraw when he signed a pro contract with FC Dallas and started playing and traveling with the first team. As a freshman and sophomore, though, he went to homecoming, hung out with girls, and had a life that wasn’t much different from any other teenager.

The FC Dallas players have a dedicated guidance counselor at Lone Star who helps make sure they stay eligible for college. When Ferreira signed his pro contract, she was the first person outside of his family that he told. There are a lot of links between the school and the academy. If a player is falling behind with his homework, struggling in class, or just being disruptive, his coaches will hear about it.

“Our coaches will deal with that type of stuff directly, just because they have the power to say, if kids aren’t doing well, they aren’t training this week,” said Scott Dymond, the college director at the academy. “Even the parents are like, ‘This is fantastic. You guys have so much more control than we do because their motivation of soccer — I want to play — is there.’”

FCD wants every academy kid to get a high school diploma. Some, like Ferreira or the kids who compete for the national team and don’t have time for a regular class schedule, take online classes. Students with special needs that would require extra funding from the school, like their English-as-second-language players, are sent to a charter school as part of the club’s agreement with the Frisco Independent School District.

FC Dallas U-18 team
FC Dallas U-18 team
FC Dallas

Most of their players are from the Dallas area, but FCD also get players from all over the country, and even a few from overseas. There are families that move thousands of miles so they can stay with their kids while they attend the academy, and the club has 11 affiliate programs in smaller cities around the country that serve as feeders. Some of the kids whose families don’t come with them are placed with families in the Frisco area. Others live together in either a house or a couple of apartments a few miles away from the academy. Where they go depends on their maturity level, and what the coaches think will be best for their development, both as a player and a person.

“We’re an extension of their parents. Especially the ones in residency who don’t have Mom and Dad here. You’ve got boys who are 16 years old, and they’re cooking, cleaning, and doing their own laundry,” Gonzalez said. “We feel that is the age where they need to be independent. … And some will argue, ‘Oh, it’s a little too young.’ No, for us, it’s U16. We feel we can start to recognize the signs of a professional at U16.”

The biggest challenge FCD has is preparing the kids for the reality that they won’t all be pro soccer players. Everyone thinks they will be the next Jesus Ferreira or Christian Pulisic, and it can be hard for them to stay motivated at school when they can practice with the pros every day. Almost every player at the academy is good enough to eventually play collegiate soccer, but only a select few will get the chance to sign homegrown contracts when they are still teenagers.

“We always tell them, ‘What is plan B?’” Dymond said. “Aaron Guillen, who plays for our first team, wanted to be a pro, but at the time he left the academy, the door wasn’t open for him. He went to Florida Gulf Coast, he graduated, and now he came back. There are different pathways to be a pro.”

Until they sign a professional contract or develop a relationship with an agent, nothing the FCD players do at the academy affects their NCAA eligibility. Dymond’s job was created to improve the academy’s relationship with college coaches, and he organizes events every year to bring them to Frisco. Last year, more than 100 FCD players, when you include the premier teams made up of local high school players who serve as feeder systems for the academy, received scholarships from college soccer programs.

The mechanics for how such a system would work in the NBA are unclear. (In the 1960s, the NBA briefly instituted territorial picks, which allowed teams to acquire local players by forfeiting their first-round picks.) With MLS teams getting the first crack at signing players from their academies, the MLS draft has diminished in importance. That is unlikely to happen in the NBA, where roster sizes are much smaller, one superstar can have a much bigger impact on the game, and the best players tend to come from the major metropolitan areas. Imagine the complaining around the league if the Bulls had gotten first dibs on Anthony Davis, or the Wizards got to sign Markelle Fultz. FC Dallas is paying for its academy because it wants those kids to eventually play for its team. It would have no reason to do that if the products of its academy were forced to go through the draft.

Money wouldn’t be the issue should the NBA opt for a similar player-development model. The league has a nine-year, $24 billion TV contract, and could easily subsidize player academies in all 30 NBA cities. The Mavs, like most NBA franchises, have camps they run every summer to train local kids and grow their connection with the team. An academy system that started with 5- and 6-year-olds and reached all the way to the top teenage prospects in the North Texas area would be a logical extension of those efforts.

The NBA wouldn’t be corrupting youth basketball in the U.S. It would be reforming it. The top prospects in the country are amateurs in name only. Zion Williamson and LaMelo Ball have more social media followers than most NBA players. Marvin Bagley III, one of the front-runners to be the no. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft, attended three high schools in three years and skipped his senior year to enter college a year early. AAU teams and the summer travel circuit have long since eclipsed high school basketball, and high school coaches have almost no control over their players’ careers anymore. If a player clashes with a coach, they will just go somewhere else, a trend that has contributed to the growing number of college transfers.

NBA players have stepped in to try to fill the void left by the absence of professional coaches at lower levels of the game. The National Basketball Players Association runs a camp for the top 100 players in high school every summer. Many players sponsor their own AAU teams, and LeBron James and Steph Curry have their own camps where they can mentor elite recruits.

Fostering relationships between the best pros and best prospects in the U.S. makes sense. Who are kids going to listen to most when it comes to learning how to be pros, on and off the court? How many teenagers’ lives could be changed by learning from the best coaches and players in the world? Even in the world of pro sports, the road from rags to riches is harder to climb than ever before. According to a survey by The New York Times in 2013, growing up in a wealthier neighborhood is a major, positive predictor for reaching the NBA, even if you discount those who are the sons of pro athletes.

LeBron James Jr. and Bryce James, much like Steph and Seth Curry a generation ago, get free run of NBA practices and locker rooms. Why shouldn’t kids from less privileged backgrounds get the same opportunity? It’s probably not a coincidence that Steph, whose shooting ability has revolutionized the sport, had access to the best coaches and players in the world since he was a kid. Klay Thompson, the other half of the Splash Brothers, is also the son of an NBA player. In 2014, the Times counted 19 second-generation players in the league, making up 4.2 percent of the total number of players, almost twice as many as a decade before. “When you grow up in that world, you’re exposed to the best teaching and the best coaching,” Steve Kerr told Scott Cacciola, the author of the piece. Kerr likened that exposure to “a basketball think tank.”

“I spend more time with these kids than my own family,” said Peter Luccin, another former FCD player who coaches the U12 team, and whose 10-year-old son is playing for one of the junior teams.

“The reason we have a young program is so we can change their habits,” said Hayden. “We used to have just the 18s and 16s, but we were still addressing things at 15, 16, and 17 years old that we want them to have. The good news is, when we work with younger players, we can project in the future what we want, and we can train those things at a much younger age. We feel like we’re going to have more players at a high level, and the best players we have should be even better because we’ve been able to address those things, both on and off the field.”

Train a kid from a young enough age and anything is possible. ESPN’s Mike Schmitz recently recounted the backstory of Luka Doncic, the 18-year-old Slovenian phenom who just helped his country to a EuroBasket title. Luka is the son of Sasa Doncic, a longtime Slovenian pro, and he had a ball in his hands at 7 months old. He would sweep the floors at his dad’s gym, and sneak on the court and shoot jumpers at halftime of their games. He started practicing with the basketball academy of his dad’s team at 8, and he signed a pro contract with Real Madrid at 13. With a background like that, it’s no wonder he plays like a player twice his age.

Curry and Doncic grew up around basketball in the same way that guys like Messi and Iniesta grew up around soccer. And like many great soccer players, their success isn’t built primarily on their athletic ability. Instead, they dominate through skill with the ball and their feel for the game, developed over a lifetime of training with the best coaches in the world, and learning from the best players. The next step for American basketball is clear: Imagine if the next generation of NBA players trained in NBA gyms, worked with NBA coaches, and had guys like Curry and Doncic in their ears every day. All of the discussion about tanking and the draft is missing the point. To really improve the quality of the sport, you have to start at the grassroots level.

NBA people love to complain about AAU basketball and the many ways it hurts American players. However, the complaints of a multibillion-dollar industry about the way its workforce is trained ring a bit hollow. They have the money to fix it. There’s a lot that NBA teams can learn from MLS. FC Dallas doesn’t care if a particular MLS draft is weak. It isn’t trying to find the next great soccer players. It’s trying to create them.

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