By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 17, 2020) US Soccer Players - Over the past quarter-century or so, the American soccer community has gotten used to hearing terms like "historic" and "unprecedented" in mostly positive contexts. The game has grown by leaps and bounds here. This week that norm got flipped on its head. That's because US Soccer announced a set of dramatic measures to cut costs as a confluence of factors left the Federation staring at dramatic shortfalls. Just a few short years ago, US Soccer had the largest budget surpluses in its history.
The biggest and most shocking is the closure of the Development Academy. The national youth league has been a foundational element of player development for 13 years and a multi-million-dollar annual investment. Reports followed that the Fed was also slashing its staff by a reported 15% and shutting down most of its youth national team programs to cut costs.
New CEO Will Wilson added to the story on Thursday with a letter to membership in which he cited "the unanticipated and harsh economic impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic" as a key driver in all this. Wilson added that he is taking a 50% pay cut "during this period of economic uncertainty."
These developments are particularly striking in that they come just a few years removed from the Copa America Centenario windfall that left USSF with nearly $149 million in net assets and nearly as much in annual revenues. A confluence of factors have suddenly made those bumper crops a memory:
*The coronavirus crisis has forced cancellation or postponement of many revenue-generating national team matches and events. That's triggered a similar domino effect across the Fed's membership, from MLS on down.
*With much of the Fed's assets invested in the stock market and the like, the wider global recession is hitting those portfolios hard, in the short term at the very least and possibly for the foreseeable future
*Perhaps most dauntingly for the accountants, USSF has stumbled in its pay-equity faceoff with the USWNT. It lost the public relations battle so thoroughly that it led to the resignation of Fed president Carlos Cordeiro and raised the prospect of a costly settlement. The WNT players are seeking some $66 million in damages. While the eventual payout will probably be less, it should easily run into eight figures.
For several years, the Federation has been laboring under a cloud of criticism and doubt, some of it deserved, some less so, and those headwinds further complicate the current scenario. Some of these problems are of their own making. The broad economic shock imposed by the response to the viral pandemic is hammering all kinds of businesses and individuals in unprecedented ways, however.
It's conceivable that a return to some form of normalcy in the coming years can allow for a restoration of the shuttered YNTs and staffing increases. The demise of the Developmental Academy figures to be a more lasting legacy of this chapter, even with MLS immediately announcing a new youth league to replace it.
The fingerprints of the Development Academy can be found all over USMNT and the American player pool at large. It's been the league home of MLS's academies since their creation, the destination of choice for the most promising talents in the country, and far and away the top evaluation spot for national team scouts. As anyone who's read a USSF roster release over the past decade can see, the Federation has underlined its importance as the proving ground for tomorrow's stars.
For all the shortcomings that have provoked simmering frustrations among its stakeholders in the latter stages of its existence, it was an innovative response to the chaos of the youth soccer industry, and it bore substantial fruit.
Elite youth soccer remains a huge, messy, flawed beast today. It was even worse before the DA. Top teams often had to travel far and wide in search of competitive games, sometimes playing as many as four games in a weekend at showcase tournaments and routinely "club-hopping" in a cutthroat recruiting environment subject to influence by the worst instincts of coaches and parents.
The DA sought to change the paradigm, emphasizing core fundamentals from professional environments like proper training-to-game ratio (typically 4-1), coaches with high-level licenses and certifications and advanced technical, tactical, and recovery concepts. It was successful enough to make those the norm rather than the exception among top clubs, even if they would quickly be taken for granted amid the classic American expectation of constant growth and improvement.
Over time, the DA began to reflect the nature of the organization that operated it, for better and for worse. Whereas comparable competitions like the Elite Clubs National League and US Youth Soccer's National League had members' desires and feedback baked in to varying degrees, the Fed is a top-down body. That led to a tendency to dictate rather than seek consensus, and efforts to advance the DA became heavy-handed mandates.
Clubs felt pressure to make their DA programming free, or at the very least subsidized, for the kids. That was a realistic expectation for MLS and other professional sides, but a knotty challenge for many youth-only members. Meanwhile, those costs kept rising via required coaching courses, extensive travel, and the implementation of a 10-month season. There was also an unpopular ban on players participating in outside competitions like high-school soccer and Olympic Development Program events.
The Fed's financial commitments kept spiraling upwards too, from a reported $3 million in 2014-15 to a projected $9.4 million in 2021. There were success stories aplenty, like Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, and a litany of other USMNT mainstays. However, the rate of return on all that investment was a constant topic of evaluation and concern.
The Fed's unwillingness to institute FIFA's compensation/solidarity payments system bothered some of the clubs. Meanwhile, MLS's growing spending and ambition powered its top academy clubs to a level that left a sizable gap between them and their smaller local counterparts. That led to one-sided games that over time had some MLS youth programs lobbying to leave the DA altogether.
Internal political ramifications are also part of the picture. The DA lived long enough for many of its early architects and defenders to move on to other titles or depart the scene entirely, leaving it with relatively few defenders when finances grew more bearish. There was also pride before the fall. In 2017 the Fed launched the Girls DA, practically doubling the size, scope, and outlay of the whole thing in one fell swoop despite ECNL having already stood up a very comparable national girls league that was eager to partner with USSF.
One of the justifications for the Girls DA was gender equity, with some in the Fed seeing it as mandatory to have matching Fed competitions feeding the respective national teams. A desire for legal cover amid the long-running pay dispute with the WNT probably factored in there as well. The problem was, this stubbornly ignored the reality that the boys and girls youth landscapes were and are significantly different from one another and require pragmatism rather than absolutism.
So the Girls DA entered into head-to-head competition with the ECNL, which sparked heated competition for member clubs and a marked watering-down of talent in both leagues. In retrospect, it's not hard to argue that the whole enterprise was a costly overreach by the Fed. Moreover, the mentality that fueled its conception likely left decision-makers feeling they had no choice but to kill off both DAs to avoid the appearance of sexism. If the USWNT legal settlement does turn out to have factored into USSF's choices to do so, the irony will be thick enough to cut with a knife.
Now a great reshuffling is underway across the elite youth space, with clubs shifting to MLS's league, ECNL, or other alternatives and everyone waiting to see just what MLS's new offering looks like. Trust in the Federation seems to be at an all-time low. Those who see USSF's relationship with MLS as overly close have more fodder for those suspicions, though the pro league's increased power over the youth pathway carries with it increased financial responsibilities as well.
Everyone hopes that the fallout leads to more beneficial conditions for players. For now, that happening is anyone's guess.
More from Charles Boehm:
- Remembering what made the boys of ‘94 so special for MLS
- The 2020 US Open Cup and a test of US Soccer's will
- Training in a pandemic: How social distancing is testing soccer’s top sports scientists
- The pandemic reminds us what matters, and what doesn’t, about soccer
Logo courtesy of US Soccer