US Soccer lures James Bunce from Premier League

US SOCCER has continued to overhaul its development programme by luring James Bunce from the Premier League to become its director of high performance.

In the newly-created position, Bunce will be responsible for creating a high-performance sports science and medicine plan for the federation. The move is part of a broader, holistic effort by US Soccer to identify prospects and provide them with the support and coaching they need to become world-class.

“There is incredible potential in US Soccer,” Bunce said. “There are five million kids playing the sport in the US. Our challenge is to build the most robust performance department possible to maximise that potential.

“I was happy at the Premier League and had just been promoted, but the scope of this role was just too big to turn down.”

The appointment appears to be an admission by US Soccer that combining the jobs of coaching the national team and overseeing youth development as technical director, as had happened with former coach Jurgen Klinsmann, was a mistake.

Last summer, US Soccer’s president, Sunil Gulati, acknowledged that the technical director’s job was “a group effort” — one encompassing not only talent identification, but also the youth national teams and coaching and referee development.

Bunce was named the Head of Elite Performance for the Premier League in October, but said he could not turn down the chance to work with US Soccer. He was named the head of elite performance at the Premier League in October, having been the League’s sports science chief since February 2014.

James Bunce
"Everyone wants to feel they can make a difference, and we were empowered at Southampton. I get that sense with US Soccer now, too" James Bunce

During his three years with the Premier League, he was credited with improving communication and information sharing among the clubs, including setting up the Performance Management Application, a database of injuries and performance that all the clubs now use.

“The clubs were doing a lot of good work, but it was often in isolation,” Bunce said.

He will try to translate some of that information sharing to the national team level as part of an effort that has already effected a series of changes. Some moves — like the creation of several age-group national teams to fill gaps in the development structure for boys and girls ages 14 to 20 — focus on the elite level. But others, like a much-debated switch to birth-year player registration from the previous school-year model, had repercussions for local programs as well.

In England, Bunce was also a pioneer of biobanding, a system that groups young players according to their level of physical development, rather than their birth year. The theory was that many talented young players were being cast aside in the development process because they were not as physically mature as their contemporaries.

Bunce said his “light-bulb moment” came during his years working at Southampton’s academy, when he watched a 14-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain dropping out of favour because he was being outmuscled by bigger players. Southampton took the unusual step of holding Oxlade-Chamberlain back a year until he became bigger and stronger. The result? A first-team debut at the age of 16, followed by a transfer to the powerhouse club Arsenal the following season.

“Biobanding had never been tested or delivered properly in any sport before, so it showed the trust and relationships within the Premier League that we were able to do that,” Bunce said.

Bunce’s career began at Southampton in 2007, initially with the cub’s academy, which has produced the likes of Gareth Bale of Real Madrid, and Theo Walcott of Arsenal and Adam Lallana of Liverpool, both members of England’s national team. The start of Bunce’s tenure was a time of serious financial uncertainty for the club, yet he remembered it as the perfect proving ground.

“From a sports science perspective, there was no better place,” he said. “I’d be in at 7 a.m., work all day, sleep under the table for an hour at the end of the afternoon and then go out to deliver an evening session. Had it not been for the academy, the club might have folded.”

The reputation of the Southampton academy gave Bunce a measure of credibility when he moved to the Premier League.

“Everyone wants to feel they can make a difference, and we were empowered,” Bunce said of Southampton’s darker days. “And I get that sense with US Soccer now, too. This is an exciting role because it brings together that strategic aspect with being able to see some of the results of your work on the field of play.”

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