When the U.S. beat Ghana in its first World Cup game, the best and worst of American soccer was on display—from Clint Dempsey’s toughness to long stretches where the team simply looked lost.

The ensuing 2-1 win was was a quintessential result for the U.S. men’s national team: respectable, but hardly commanding. Now, though, there’s a systematic effort to elevate expectations for American soccer—and it’s unfolding in places like Foxboro, Mass.

On a recent weekday afternoon, the practice field at the New England Revolution’s Foxboro facility was covered with baby-faced teenagers running through an assortment of drills. This is New England Revolution Academy—a program that’s part soccer finishing school and part minor-league team.

The goal is simple: find the best local players at an early age and push them—hard.

“The kids don’t pay a dime to come here,” said Bryan Scales, the Revolution’s director of youth development. “It’s fully funded. We’ve got these facilities, we’ve got full-time staff."

“We feel that we can go out and find the very best players that we think have the potential to be top, top players and bring them into this environment—work with them, give them time, teach them, and allow them to flourish,” he said.

According to Scales, the Revs Academy and similar programs run by other teams in Major League Soccer represent a seismic shift in the way Americans approach the world’s most popular game.

“There is no doubt that the formula and recipe for getting the best soccer players around the world is getting kids at a young age,” Scales said. “Having an age-appropriate curriculum that will allow them to develop cognitively, socially, physically, athletically.”

And when young players grow up competing against their older, more established counterparts, Scales adds—something that routinely takes place at the Revs Academy—their games get stronger as a result.

The Revs Academy already has some high-profile successes. Diego Fagundez and Scott Caldwell came through the Academy, and now play for the Revolution’s first team.

It’s a path Amadu Kunateh—a goal-scorer with a flare for the dramatic—hopes to follow.

Originally from Sierra Leone, Kunateh moved to the U.S. when he was eight. He’s short of stature, but exudes charisma and confidence. A few years ago, when Kunateh was playing for a local youth team, the Revolution’s scouts identified as a major talent and brought him into the academy fold.

“You come in and it’s really cool—you sign a paper, a letter, like you’re joining a professional club,” Kunateh recalls. “That was really exciting for me.”

Kunateh, who attends Lawrence Academy, has committed to Harvard. Afterward, he hopes to play professionally, either in the U.S. or overseas.

And as he tells it, thanks to the intensive training he and his teammates get in Foxboro, the prospect of taking on the best international players isn’t intimidating at all.

“If we traveled to a European tournament right now, it would be exciting—and we would go thinking that we want to win,” Kunateh said. “We’re not going already condemned—thinking, ‘Oh, we’re Americans, we’re just going to go have fun.’ No.”

The U.S. men’s national team could use a bit of that swagger. And if the Revs Academy and similar programs around the country do their jobs effectively, it may just be a matter of time.

“We will develop a world-class player at some point, whether it’s 5, 10, 15 years down the road,” Scales says.

If that prediction comes true, U.S. soccer just might be transformed from an also-ran into a force.

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