Pro Pathway: How an Ex-Manchester United Player is Challenging Youth Development In American Soccer

Founded by Premier League veteran John Curtis, the National Center of Excellence looks to improve the development process of American youth soccer players. Using specifically tailored programming inspired by international models, the NCE aims to create the next generation of world-class American footballers. 

In an era of American soccer where athletes like Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Sergiño Dest have found success at the top levels of European play, the fight for United States men’s national team relevancy continues to power forward as we gear up for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. And while there have been some promising signs of development for the new youth movement in Europe, the journey to this point has been a gradual process since the USMNT infamously failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

national center of excellence
Image via NCE.

Enter the National Center of Excellence. A youth development program in the Northeast U.S. and South Florida, the NCE is designed to provide professional-grade football training with the goal of creating a talent pipeline directly into the top levels of international play. The program has different training tiers based on player age and talent level, going all the way up to its College ID tier, but the pinnacle of the program is within its Pro Pathway level, where players are given the opportunity to travel to Europe to attend trials for professional clubs.

The program is founded by John Curtis, a former Premier League defender who started his professional career in Manchester United’s famed academy program playing alongside future senior team staples like David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, and Gary and Phil Neville.

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John Curtis knows a thing or two about playing football at the highest level, having spent time with Manchester United, Blackburn Rovers, and Sheffield United, among many others. Image credit Shaun Botterill/Allsport

Curtis also made stops at other clubs such as Leicester City, Blackburn Rovers, and Nottingham Forest, where he witnessed how clubs in England developed their youth first-hand. He’s now trying to use that same knowledge in his training at NCE.

“My goal was to try and create that development environment that I experienced,” Curtis said. “I think it’s the environment more than anything else that drives youth development.”

Curtis believes that the very same environment he and others grew into is something that American soccer as a whole is failing to replicate.

While programs like the New York Red Bulls Regional Development School and player development programs within the id2 Program umbrella are some steps in the right direction, Curtis believes one of the most important things that makes NCE stand out from the pack is the program’s willingness to cater to the specific needs of each individual athlete without any outside interference.

“The minute that you are involved with a club like the Red Bulls or the New England Revolution’s RDS program or City Select is the minute you lose your purity and you get embroiled in politics,” Curtis said. “That is detrimental to youth development and we try and stay above all of that and offer a program that is completely neutral and only focuses on the best interests of the individual player.”

Perhaps the program’s most promising development is its official partnership with talent agency Promoesports USA. The global talent agency has only just recently expanded towards America and has put legendary USMNT goalkeeper Brad Friedel in charge of the operation. The goal is to have the top players of the program receive easy access to potential player management, legal services, and mediation with other players and clubs.

“Everyone at Promoesport USA are looking forward to being on the field training a lot of talented players with the hopes of helping them reach the next level in their development and we believe linking up with NCE will no doubt speed up this process,” said Friedel in a statement shortly after the partnership was announced.

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John Curtis and Brad Friedel played together with Blackburn Rovers, and they now work together through the NCE and Promoesports USA partnership. Image via NCE.

Friedel, who also had successful Premier League stints with Blackburn Rovers (alongside Curtis) and Tottenham, is also using his decades of club experience to help train young keepers within NCE.

“It’s inspirational to have him come to a training session and actually work with the players,” Curtis said. “We would absolutely love former national team players like Brad involved with NCE as much as possible because I think that inspiration they can be a huge catalyst to promote development.”

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U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer Brad Friedel will provide invaluable knowledge to the National Center of Excellence academy members. Image credit: Action Images

Friedel may be the first notable American player to join in on the training at NCE, but the program has worked hard over the summer to bring in other former players as well, with former Leicester City striker Gary Taylor-Fletcher also coming onboard as a part of the coaching staff.

Though the partnership was announced in early June, it has yet to be truly utilized by players within the program because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the travel restrictions that it has presented. In fact, all aspects of the program have been affected by the pandemic.

Curtis said that there has been a rise in individual training sessions with athletes, but the lack of team-based training was stunting player growth and could only take a player so far in such a team-based game.

Still, during the time away from the field, Curtis had been working on unique ways to prepare his athletes for the rigors of the professional game in ways that translate just as much off the field as they do on it. By having discussions with several sports psychologists, Curtis is finding ways to introduce techniques with his coaching staff that foster key character traits and help develop daily habits that encourage players to prepare for the intensity of professional football.

“We will be introducing programming specific to all the other kinds of peripheral but vitally important areas of a player’s life,” Curtis said. “We’re trying to push the envelope. We’re trying to give the players in the U.S. the same environment and opportunity that the kids have in pro clubs in the rest of the world.”

While this program is still early in the process of helping U.S. Soccer reach its full potential, don’t be surprised if it produces the next American star in the coming years.

For more on the National Center of Excellence, check out its official website and follow it on Instagram