By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 9, 2019) US Soccer Players - From their equal-pay dispute with the USWNT to various litigation concerning the NASL, the US Soccer Foundation, and even their own commercial partners Kwik Goal, the United States Soccer Federation has come to be associated with plenty of contentious conflicts in recent years. You can now add the Fed's own boys Development Academy to that list.
As Soccer America's Mike Woitalla reported in detail, the US Soccer Federation recently informed the more than 100 clubs who take part in the boys Developmental Academy that the nationwide league's top age group, the Under-18/19 level, will be split into two tiers for the first time in its 12-year history when its new season kicks off later this month.
All MLS academy programs are in the top Red division along with three USL clubs and 11 non-professional clubs for 36 member teams in all. The rest, including some of the country's longest-running and most productive youth clubs, will compete in the 44-team lower Blue division. Though it only affects one of the DA's six age groups, this sudden change became public less than a month before the season. It has far-reaching effects, especially for those Blue teams are now playing a league down.
Schedules will change significantly. Red and Blue teams now only play opponents in their tier often at the cost of lost local rivalries and more or longer road trips. Many youth clubs who have for years spent hefty resources to fund their DA programs and meet USSF directives to maintain the privilege of competing against pro clubs have now lost that opportunity. Add to that the Fed's lack of transparency or detail in explaining its criteria. That's left Blue clubs feeling hopeless about their place in the system, much less their chances of earning Red membership.Suffice to say that this news has inflamed the grassroots.
"I think it's similar to changes that the Federation has implemented in the past where a lot of the reaction has to do with the way that they roll out the new idea," said Woitalla, who spoke to a dozen DA club directors for his piece, in a conversation with USSoccerPlayers.com this week. "I am convinced that if they had explained exactly what they were going to do, and talked about it, they may have made some compromises that would have made it [palatable] … they would've felt like they were appreciated and not just dictated to."
This tiering concept has been under discussion behind the scenes for years, which makes the suddenness of its implementation confusing. It's mostly fueled by some MLS academies' frustrations. They perceive an excessively uneven level of competition across their DA schedules. There are too many one-sided blowouts and not enough balanced contests with some clubs using negative, regressive tactics that inhibit development.
Even with the league's steady expansion and promotion of its own Generation Adidas Cup academy competition, it would be very expensive for MLS to run its own year-round youth competition. Especially given that some clubs want to cut, not increase, their player development spending. Yet the possibility of an MLS breakaway from the DA seems to have moved closer to reality, as USSF's Chief Sport Development Officer Nico Romeijn admitted in January. Heading off that outcome, which would be a huge setback for the DA, seems to have been a major factor in this splitting of the U-18/19 division.
Now the discontent has merely shifted towards youth clubs who must meet the Federation's stringent requirements on budgets, travel, facilities, coaching licenses, and the like with typically less money than their pro counterparts. In many cases, the youth clubs even cooperate with their local MLS teams by guiding their top talent towards that pro environment. That's despite the fact that it weakens their own competitiveness on the field with nothing in the way of training compensation or solidarity payments in return.
"A lot of these clubs, they have people that work very, very hard with a lot of challenges, and the DA wouldn't be around without them," explained Woitalla. "They felt like the priority of US Soccer was to make MLS teams happy."
DA member clubs got the news via letters, which in the case of Blue tier members contained the sort of bad news that most of us would feel justified the courtesy of at least a phone call, if not more. Not only that, several of the directors Woitalla spoke to for his report expressed unease about publicly criticizing the Fed's approach, for fear of themselves or their clubs incurring retribution as a result.
"I can't say that the Federation would ever punish somebody, but just the fact that the perception is out there is not good," noted Woitalla. Amid all this, he also reported that longtime DA director Jared Micklos is set to leave the Federation, raising further uncertainty about who's in charge and who clubs will be working with.
"There need to be liaisons from the Federation to the grassroots and to the clubs," he added. "I don't see who's doing that at the Federation right now, who's communicating, who's showing that they care about the different parts of the membership … Some of the Federation behavior is just bad manners. it's not being courteous, and not being respectful."
If any of these themes sound familiar when it comes to US Soccer Federation, you're not alone.
"A big issue was how they did it, and that they could've done certain things that wouldn't have made so many people upset. They could've been more precise so that there wasn't speculation of favoritism," said Woitalla. "In the past people felt there was more communication … it happens in other issues, where the perception is that decisions are being made at Soccer House without consideration for what things are really like at the grassroots. That's been going on for quite a while."
Meanwhile, multiple USSF staff vacancies remain unfilled, including youth national team coaching jobs and key administrative positions. Woitalla recalled a conversation he had with former USMNT coach Bora Milutinovic two decades ago.
"I remember Bora Milutinovic, when he got the Nigeria job, said, 'Michael, if Nigeria had the organization like the Americans, we'd win the World Cup by now,'" he said. "But now you look at [US Soccer], they don't have youth national team coaches, they don't have a girls technical director. it's just weird."
More from Charles Boehm:
- Taking stock of MLS All-Star week
- Charting the USMNT’s autumn
- Concacaf throws a curve with new World Cup qualifying format
- What to watch for at the 2019 Gold Cup final
Logo courtesy of US Soccer