Interview by Mike Woitalla
New Jersey’s PDA, one of the nation’s top youth clubs for boys and girls, participates in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and ECNL. It’s also launching a residency program in partnership with St. Benedict’s Prep School. Gerry McKeown has coached at PDA since its founding in 1999 and is club’s boys director of coaching. We spoke with McKeown, who is also US Club Soccer Id2 Boys Program Director, about his club’s success and key issues in U.S. youth soccer.
SOCCER AMERICA: What have been the keys to PDA’s success?
GERRY McKEOWN: Initially, our facility attracted a lot of attention and was critical in accruing talent. Today our reputation for comprehensive player development and success with the college placement process has made PDA a desirable location in New Jersey. Retention of the coaching staff has been a huge factor in maintaining a high level of play and ensuring that our young players have the technical foundation to succeed later.
SA: How do you judge whether your coaches are doing a good job at various ages?
GERRY McKEOWN: It’s much easier now … We have a simple formula based on the online rankings multiplied by the number of trophies they have won. … Just kidding!
It is important to prioritize the goals for each age group. The priorities in Zone 1 [U-6 to U-12] are very different than with the U.S. Development Academy or ECNL teams. But they are linked in that if the players are not given the proper technical base when they are young and not provided the freedom to experiment with the game they will never be able to compete at the highest levels with increased speed of play and decision-making.
It is critical that the coaches understand the age group they are involved with and that they challenge the players with an age-appropriate curriculum. If the players are enjoying the experience, then it speaks favorably for the coach.
SA: Do your coaches specialize in certain age groups or do they stay with their teams for long periods?
GERRY McKEOWN: While there is no definitive rule for longevity with a single team, it would be unusual for a coach to be with any group for more than three years. Our coaches tend to specialize within age groups.
The traits required for coaching our young players lean toward individuals that are positive, good technical demonstrators, patient, nurturing and willing to accept losing for proper style of play.
The coaches of our older, more competitive teams tend to be more tactically demanding, passionate, task-oriented and knowledgeable of the college recruitment process.
SA: How do you balance the pressure to win games and coaching in a way that is good for long-term development?
GERRY McKEOWN: At PDA, talent and character development are the priority, not winning. If our coaches adhere to that, we will win our fair share of games.
SA: One valuable experience for young players, which may not help teams win, is giving them opportunities to play different positions. How does PDA approach that?
GERRY McKEOWN: At the younger ages, our coaches understand the importance of variety not only to stimulate the players but also to let them see the game from another perspective.
For example, there is benefit in letting a goalkeeper experience playing forward and vice versa. There is a real bonus for the club when we have a handful of players on our competitive teams who are versatile enough to play multiple positions.
SA: What role do tryouts play for your club at various age groups?
GERRY McKEOWN: Tryouts and talent identification are pivotal for the success of our program. Obviously, it is more important at the youngest age groups to attract the best players to our club. As teams get older the movement of players between clubs significantly decreases. The critical age groups are 12-14, which is when players get more or less serious about the game.
SA: How has the Development Academy’s ban on high school play affected PDA?
GERRY McKEOWN: The high school ban has had a significant effect on our program in that we have strong affiliations with a number of local schools. These relationships are long term and strong and will survive through the restrictions, but it is unfortunate that the Academy will lose some very talented players.
We feel that there are some excellent high school environments in New Jersey and our programs supplement each other.
New Jersey is a saturated Academy market with four teams and I am not sure it is beneficial to further compromise the level of play by excluding these players. We have young men who have been at our club since age 10 who have to make a decision as to whether they have to miss their senior year of high school soccer in order to compete for 10 Academy games in the fall. It is not a decision we are willing to make for them but it is important that they have a team at PDA regardless of how they choose.
SA: Has the Development Academy had the positive effect on the American youth game that was hoped for?
GERRY McKEOWN: I think we can answer that question 10 years from now. It certainly has set some standards for curriculum and raised the training-to-game ratio, which has been hugely positive. I do worry that we become an increasingly homogenous group of coaches, teams and players. There is benefit in facing differing styles of play, cultures, ethnicities, socioeconomic status and being able to solve the challenges presented by each.
SA: Has the ECNL improved the soccer landscape for elite girls?
GERRY McKEOWN: Our Girls Director of Coaching is Mike O’Neill, and he believes, “Yes, 100 percent.” The ECNL model of having more training and fewer games, more quality matches and standards for coaching development has made a big improvement to the game in a short period of time. The ECNL has also improved the process for identifying the top players for our youth national teams.
SA: Has the Development Academy and ECNL made soccer more or less expensive for players?
GERRY McKEOWN: ECNL has made it less expensive since there is only one league so the number of games and travel has gone down. The schedule is set six months in advance which helps with the costs.
The Development Academy has done both. For the limited MLS markets, it has eliminated the costs for play. However, for many players in the Midwest and West the travel costs have soared. In the Northeast, we can drive to all league games so the travel costs are less significant and PDA has lowered the cost to participate in the Academy.
SA: How much of a challenge is it for PDA to provide opportunities for lower-income players?
GERRY McKEOWN: While it is a challenge, the club has been committed from the beginning that no players should be denied because they cannot pay. There is a need-based criteria similar to the College Financial Aid Assistance that is based on income and family size.
SA: How does it fund them?
GERRY McKEOWN: Fund-raising and donations cover the costs of scholarships.
SA: PDA is set to launch a residency program in partnership with St. Benedict’s Prep School …
GERRY McKEOWN: This program was put in place to attract players who may not have access to a year-round competitive soccer environment. Whether their interest is playing in the Development Academy or the top high school program in the country we want to provide the opportunity to these student athletes. The players will attend school and reside at St. Benedict’s and will have year-round comprehensive soccer programming by training at St. Benedict’s and PDA.
SA: If you had a magic wand, how would you use it to improve youth soccer in America?
GERRY McKEOWN: Create a street culture of impromptu games involving whole communities with diversity of age, race and ethnicities. Magically place two futsal goals at every basketball and unused tennis court in America.
Having soccer people making soccer decisions that are based on what is best for players and their development as people and young athletes.