FIFA's latest rankings, released at the beginning of June, list Germany and Belgium respectively as the world's top two men's teams. Both nations are in the midst of so-called "golden generations," with players at every position who are among the best their countries have ever produced. This may seem like a coincidence. But what if it isn't?
On the long list of things Germany and Belgium have in common—relative wealth, geographic proximity—is this obscure entry: for the last decade, both countries have worked with a tiny Belgian firm called Double Pass, which regularly audits and evaluates the youth academies in both nations and presides over a system of incentives and rewards that drives investment into the academy systems. Just the word "audit" is enough to put most people to sleep, but the organizational work done by Double Pass plays a key (and fascinating) role in the success shared by the two nations.
And the company is growing. In 2012, Double Pass began working with the top 100-odd clubs in the English Football Association. (The exact number fluctuates a bit because of relegation and promotion.) Late last year, it signed a contract to work with the United States Soccer Federation. It will take a decade or more to find out, but the guidance provided by Double Pass could return England to its former glory as a truly elite soccer nation. And it could help take the United States from a country that has never produced a bonafide superstar, despite the nation's legion of soccer playing youth, to one with a team full of them.
When I arrived at Double Pass's headquarters in Dilbeek, a suburb of Brussels, on an overcast Monday in late May, I wasn't sure I'd come to the right place. Double Pass operates in seven countries on three continents and has no shortage of opportunities to expand. It has hundreds of clubs in its portfolio, including many of the world's most famous: Arsenal, Manchester United, Dortmund, Bayern Munich. I half expected to find the office in one of the glassed-in buildings in central Brussels that house the European Union and the international businesses for which the city is famous. Dilbeek, by contrast, is all new homes and dental offices. A Harley Davidson dealership sits just off the highway. It felt more like Anytown, USA than the satellite of a European capital.
And it was strangely muted. I happened to arrive on Whit Monday, a national holiday in Belgium, a fact I'd failed to realize before booking my travel. Realizing my error, I fired a quick, panicked email to Hugo Schoukens, Double Pass's CEO, making sure we hadn't made an unfortunate scheduling mistake. "In football/soccer there are no holidays," he wrote back, almost immediately, "So, we are available."
He was right. When I rang, I found Schoukens inside with a handful of employees, all of whom sat at a row of computers, apparently hard at work.
The old town in Brussels, Belgium. Source: Steve Collis, Creative Commons.
Schoukens, a former banker, is 57 and lean. His hair, which forms a widow's peak, is sand-colored, and the worry lines on his forehead make him look a bit like Arsene Wenger, the brooding, tortured, long-time Arsenal manager. But unlike Wenger, and perhaps owing to his former career, Schoukens is a snappy dresser. When we met, he wore a trim, blue button-down with professorial elbow patches, tucked into a pair of smart, European-cut trousers. His brown shoes could have been made from the same leather as his belt. A pair of fashionable, square-rimmed eye glasses rested on his nose.
He immediately sat me down at a long, U-shaped table in the company's spacious meeting room for a brief Power Point presentation. With enthusiasm, a light Dutch accent and a flurry of air quotes, he described the company's raison d'être ("To create more, better players") and exactly how it does that ("strategic optimization").
I'll get to the nuts and bolts of strategic optimization later—it involves close monitoring and a proprietary, somewhat-secretive piece of computer software—but to understand Double Pass, you must first understand the market for its services.
Double Pass conducts audits and accreditations, something Americans most often associate with universities. In the U.S., several independent organizations ensure the nation's universities meet a certain standard, and when they do, they're "accredited," which basically means the organization gives the universities a stamp of approval. Over time, accreditation results in standardization. The universities see value in the stamp of approval, so they conform to the requirements needed to acquire it.
Rather than audit and accredit universities, Double Pass works with youth soccer academies. In Germany, which has seen a boom in youth soccer over the last decade, the demand for a company like Double Pass began with a terrible performance in the 2000 European Championships. It's hard to imagine now, but at Euro 2000, Germany was among the worst teams; it finished last in its group and scored just one goal.
What happened next is a case study in German corporate problem solving: self-reflection ("What went wrong?") followed by careful, top-down management ("How do we fix the system so it never happens again?"). Germany's problem was that it wasn't producing enough top-tier players. To rectify the situation, the German federation (the DFB) decided the country needed to invest in better youth development. In the 2001-2002 season, the DFB began mandating that clubs in the professional leagues run youth academies. (The project began with only the first division Bundesliga clubs and expanded from there.)
But by 2005, the DFB realized it had no way to ensure the quality of the 100 or so academies in its developmental setup. It had the expertise to determine whether an academy was good or not, but it didn't have the objectivity: everyone at the DFB with expertise also had loyalty to one club or another. "I think it is always good to have a third party, a neutral party, to go in," said Schoukens.
Enter Double Pass.
The company began evaluating the German academies in the 2005-2006 season. The evaluations run on three year cycles. First, teams must upload a vast number of documents for review: financial records, information about club infrastructure, and documents describing the club's playing philosophy. Then there's an on-site visit.
Here's how Armind Kraaz, the academy director at Bundesliga team Eintracht Frankfurt, described the typical visit: "They come for two days in the week, for doing interviews, and two days in the weekend, to [observe], 'What do we tell our teams during the game?' They are inside the locker room at halftime and before the game. They stay on the side of the field to look at how the coaches act. 'Are they doing the things we want them to do as a club? Are [the coaches] doing our philosophy, our concept?' and so on."
[body_image src='//sports-images.vice.com/images/2015/06/30/inside-double-pass-the-best-kept-secret-in-youth-development-is-coming-to-america-body-image-1435661760.jpg' width='1384' height='961'] Thomas Muller and Julian Draxler, two German academy products, hold the World Cup trophy. Image credit: Witters Sport-USA TODAY Sports
Double Pass uses the collected data as the basis for its academy ratings. German academies are rated from 0 to 3 stars. In England, where they began a similar system in 2012, the ratings go from category one through four. Higher rated academies receive more money from their national federations than their lower rated peers; in some countries, higher rated clubs also get more money in compensation should one of their academy prospects move to a different club.
In Belgium, where the company evaluates both pro and amateur teams, things are a little different. Youth teams don't have promotion or relegation, like senior clubs. Rather, they move up or down based on the academy's rating: the higher the rating, the higher the level of competition to which each academy's players are exposed.
"If they miss out on the [rating] they need to play at that level, it can have big consequences," explained Paul Van Den Broecke, a 40-year-old Project Manager from Ghent. Den Broecke oversees operations in Belgium, where the labeling system has created a kind of competition among clubs, who advertise their rating in order to attract higher-quality players. "If the club doesn't get [the rating it wants], it's rather easy in Belgium to change clubs."
If a club isn't happy with its rating, Double Pass will provide detailed feedback on where it needs to improve, and, if requested, perform a reevaluation. In this way, as Schoukens puts it, the clubs are "inspired, stimulated, and supported."
However, that doesn't mean the clubs are always happy. I asked if Double Pass ever receives a hot email or a nasty voicemail.
"Oh!" Schoukens exclaimed with a laugh.
"Emails, phone calls..." chimed in Van Den Broecke.
Schoukens, remembering the company's first round of accreditations in Belgium, launched into a story: "I can assure there were two clubs who took the phone and then during one and a half hours continued to blame us with this [and that]. But that's also part of our job."
"Yeah," said David Pauwels, a 30-year-old project manager, dryly. "The fun part."
Double Pass's rating system creates a culture of competitiveness between academies, and this competition drives investment, but this system isn't what makes the company unique. Double Pass's secret sauce is how it defines its ideal academy and how it measures optimal.
This "strategic optimization" revolves around what Double Pass calls its eight dimensions or "critical success factors," each of which represent dozens, even hundreds of individual data points and observations that its employees collect when monitoring academies. (The eight dimensions are as follows: strategic and financial planning; talent identification and development; personnel; organizational structure and decision making; athletic and social support; communications and cooperation; facilities and equipment; and effectiveness.)
"It's not just a checklist," explained Pauwels. "It's a real software system, where all the criteria are interlinked, for example. And then, on the basis of this model, we give advice. That's our most tangible product."
[body_image src='//sports-images.vice.com/images/2015/06/30/inside-double-pass-the-best-kept-secret-in-youth-development-is-coming-to-america-body-image-1435662576.jpg' width='1500' height='1000']The Belgian national team before a 2013 friendly. Image credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
The software program gives a score in each of the eight dimensions, and, taken together, the score is best understood as an indicator of professionalism. The academies must have specific objectives, about tactical philosophy, about the kinds of players they want to produce. Are the club's stated objectives being carried out at every age group? Do the goals and strategies discussed in emails and internal documents match what coaches teach players on the field? Is the infrastructure good enough? Are the coaches qualified enough? Is there waste?
When Eintracht Frankfurt was first evaluated, it received just two stars and has been reevaluated twice, in addition to the regular evaluations it receives every three years. "It was everything," Kraaz said, recalling what Double Pass said Eintracht needed to improve on. "Hundreds of things: more pitches; better qualified staff, with higher [coaching] licenses; the organization could be better, you know, the communication inside the organization. Whatever. They find things everywhere. No club has 100 percent. It's not possible.
"When they started we were pretty much afraid as a club. We didn't know what the German football association wants to do. Do they want to tell us how we have to work? Do they want to, you know, take over some structures in our club? We were insecure. But after [the first evaluation] we felt very good about it, because you get a lot of help from them [Double Pass]. They view your work from the outside. It's neutral. Objective."
Today, the Eintracht academy has three stars, and it ranks among Germany's very best. It has about 160 players on teams from the U-11 age group to the U-19s. These players work in the best facilities, with the most highly educated coaches. They have a lesson plan that builds, year after year, casting the young athletes in the mold of an Eintracht player. This kind of organized, long-term instruction works. Last season, Eintracht had four academy products in its first team, a number bettered by only Schalke and Freiburg, who each had five.
The company's origin story is more Silicon Valley than Ruhr Valley. In 2002, Schoukens went back to school. For the previous fifteen years, he'd worked as a banker with BNP, and for much of the 90s he moonlighted as a youth coach and academy director at Anderlecht, Belgium's most successful soccer club. Tired of banking, he hoped a Master's in Sports Management would allow him more opportunities in the soccer world.
As Schoukens searched for an appropriate thesis topic, he was approached by Paul De Knop, the rector at Vrije Universiteit Brussels. De Knop had an intriguing proposal for Schoukens. Jo Van Hoecke, a professor at the university, had recently developed a software program and philosophy for measuring the productivity and organization of gymnastics academies. The Belgian football federation had heard about Van Hoecke's program and wanted to use it to measure its soccer academies. But Van Hoecke didn't know soccer. They needed a soccer expert, and translating the program so it worked in a soccer context became Schoukens' thesis.
Once translated, the project was tested by the Belgian federation to great fanfare. "This [thesis]," Schoukens explained, "was the first step to thinking, 'Well, probably we can offer this service to leagues and federations'" beyond Belgium. In November 2004, Schoukens, Van Hoecke and a computer expert founded Double Pass as a university spin off. Double Pass paid royalties on the intellectual property for several years before buying out the university's stake.
Schoukens wasn't comfortable telling me how much the company paid to purchase the intellectual property, and he didn't want to estimate Double Pass's value, but he did note that Double Pass should have 56 employees by the end of the 2015-2016 season, up from three in 2004. (He also flipped past a couple slides in his opening presentation that had to do with finances and other growth metrics. He was quick with the clicker, but all of them had graphs that looked like hockey sticks.) Most of that growth will probably happen in the United States, where the company recently advertised for positions. But Schoukens said the company was "on speaking terms" with a handful of other federations around the world. And it's already running programs in Hungary and Japan.
The developmental structure in the United States is nothing like the structures seen in Europe, and Double Pass's coming to America represents the company's biggest challenge to date. For one thing, the United States poses a unique geographical problem: It's enormous. Texas alone is almost double the size of Germany, and it's 23 times as big as Belgium. In Belgium, Double Pass has a portfolio of nearly 600 teams, and players have access to dozens of clubs regardless of where they live, which makes switching easy. But that's not the case in the United States, where Double Pass will only work with the 88 clubs in U.S. Soccer's system of Developmental Academies. Some of these clubs are affiliated with MLS teams, but many are independent, amateur clubs. A structure like Belgium's, where clubs are promoted to better leagues based on their evaluations, seems a good model for the U.S., but distance and travel time make duplicating Belgian's model complicated.
[body_image src='//sports-images.vice.com/images/2015/06/30/inside-double-pass-the-best-kept-secret-in-youth-development-is-coming-to-america-body-image-1435662295.jpg' width='1431' height='975']Tim Howard and Developmental Academy graduate DeAndre Yedlin versus the Belgians. Image credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Financial incentives are another issue: How will U.S. Soccer reward success? Currently, the majority of the clubs in the Developmental Academy system are "pay-to-play," with only about 30 clubs completely free for players. U.S. soccer pays game-day expenses—referees, match balls, field rental for showcase events—but the Federation provides only a limited number of travel scholarships, which are need and talent-based. Because of the pay-to-play model, an untold number of potentially gifted players fall through the cracks in the United States each year. "We've got to lose this pay-to-play situation if we're going to do anything at a serious level," said Derek Armstrong, the technical director of the San Diego Nomads, a club in the U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy system.
The pay-to-play issue doesn't appear to have an easy fix. The total value of the U.S. Soccer travel scholarship program is roughly $400,000 per year. (To put that in perspective, in Germany, three-star clubs get 400,000 Euros a year—each. The DFB distributes the money from a fund associated with Champions League TV revenue, a pool of money to which U.S. Soccer doesn't have access.) Without a fund that's even big enough to do away with the pay-to-play model, how will U.S. Soccer incentivize clubs to strive toward Double Pass's ideal?
A final hurdle to player development in the United States has to do with so called training and solidarity fees. Clubs in the United States have traditionally not received training fees when one academy poaches a youth player from another academy. In some Double Pass countries, federations require their clubs to make compensatory payments, which are tied to the academy's rating. Further, if a player moves into professional soccer, FIFA mandates the club's responsible for that player's development receive "solidarity" payments from the professional clubs, something that doesn't happen in the United States.
Jonathon Colton, the technical director at Bethesda Soccer Club, said the lack of compensation was a "huge, huge hot topic." Colton described the issue as "very complicated," saying it had to do with child labor. (It's actually even more complicated than that.) "Double Pass basically has no answer," said Colton. "U.S. Soccer has no answer." On Monday, a Developmental Academy team in Washington State filed a petition with FIFA, asking the governing body to issue a ruling on the lack of compensation, a move that could open the door for future lawsuits between Developmental Academy teams and U.S. Soccer.
Owing to the newness of the project, both Double Pass and U.S. Soccer declined to comment on specifics of their plans in the United States. But as Double Pass and U.S. Soccer move to resolve the above issues, anything seems possible. At the beginning of our conversation, speaking in general terms about what Double Pass does, Schoukens noted that the company's involvement "can result in a new developmental pyramid. [Or it] can resolve in another vision with regard to the coaching education school, and so on."
And while an overall strategy is not yet in place, work has begun. According to the academy directors contacted for this story, five MLS clubs and a handful of non-MLS academies are involved in a year one pilot program. And per Double Pass's recommendation, U.S. Soccer will soon mandate that all Developmental Academies begin at the under-9 age group (The current system begins at the U14/U15 level).
The project may be in its infancy, but the Developmental Academy directors we spoke to were universally excited about working with Double Pass. Asked if he had any concerns, Armstrong said, "No. I have no doubts whatsoever. It can't help but to be good. If they [Double Pass] are as good as their reputation, it's going to be very good."
"I think the overall consensus is, in my view, it's a great thing," Colton said. "It's going to push for change and ask tough questions, and that's what you need for our country, for soccer right now."
Their enthusiasm is understandable. Fans and administrators in American soccer are notorious for being simultaneously ambitious and impatient. The Double Pass project represents the kind of long-term, strategic planning and openness to change that U.S. Soccer needs if it's ever going to compete for a World Cup. U.S. Soccer may have a long way to go to catch Germany and Belgium, but the way the federation is preparing for the next decade is on the leading edge.
"It is clear that talent development is at the core of what is happening in football, but it was not 10 years ago." Schoukens said. "So we had a lot of leagues and federations to inspire. To tell them that, listen, if you don't invest in your talent development you can never be successful. And that's an important message we gave 10 years ago, and for some federations we still have to give. Everything for a league and a federation should be for talent development."
But don't take Schoukens' word for it. Just look at the FIFA rankings, or ask someone in German or Belgian soccer how much Double Pass has helped their country. Kraaz's answer was two words: "A lot."