By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (May 8, 2020) US Soccer Players - This week the United Soccer League announced details of its USL Academy League, a new national youth competition more than a year in the making which will debut next spring. It's the next step in the league's slow build at the youth level. While its conception predates the closure of the US Soccer Development Academy, it's a timely update in the same space as the future of the US youth development scene slowly takes shape.
MLS has stated its plans to start up a DA replacement in time for next season. Existing players like the ECNL and US Youth Soccer aim to help fill the gap as well. So it's natural to wonder if the USL's advancement into the space represents something truly new and different, or just another acronym in the alphabet soup of options. According to Liam O'Connell, USL's Senior Director of Youth Development, this new venture incorporates lessons learned from what worked and what didn't in the DA, even with the original intent to exist alongside it.
"We made this model through dialogue with clubs at every level of the game since I started this role in December of 2018," O'Connell said in a conversation with USSoccerPlayers.com this week. "The DA was a phenomenal thing… but as a model, it didn't work for significant parts of our country."
With USL now comprising some 129 clubs across three professional and semi-pro tiers, it hopes to mobilize that network at the youth level. The idea is to give as many kids in as many markets as possible access to a nearby pro pathway. It also bands together clubs regionally to provide quality competition without the exorbitant travel costs that have become all too common in elite youth soccer.
As large as the Development Academy got at its peak, comprising well over 100 professional and amateur clubs across several different age groups, it never fully covered the country's sprawling geography. That left significant areas underrepresented and under scouted. As a Federation-run entity, it was also top-down by nature, often inflexible and unresponsive to unique circumstances at the local and regional levels. The USL aims to be more pragmatic.
Like their first-team counterparts, USL Academy League teams will compete on a Spring-to-Fall schedule. It will span from Under-15 through U-19 age levels. Each club fields just one team, with a mix of "part-time pro" players (meaning youngsters who've signed with a pro team but are not quite ready for regular USL minutes yet), "full-time academy" (the core of the youth team's roster), and an unlimited pool of "part-time youth" (essentially call-ups from youth affiliates who are further back on the path towards the top levels). Other rules limit the number of Under-18/19 players to carve out space for younger ones.
"That 16-year-old might not be as good as that 18-year-old today. But it's the idea that if that 16-year-old has something special, could be in an environment with bigger, older players, with more resources, more professional coaching and direct access to the pro team, could it actually accelerate their development?" said O'Connell. "So you're already changing the lens with which people are evaluating and identifying talent. Now it's not just about, 'hey, who's the best player on the field today?' It's what qualities stick out that made me think that they have the potential to reach the pro level. A totally different way to look at forming a team."
The season divides into Spring, Summer, and Fall phases to allow players to come and go depending on their individual progress, their commitments to their youth clubs, or even their participation in high-school play, a longstanding issue in the DA.
"It's about creating this constant fluid moment movement up and down of players, because you need to," said O'Connell. "Development's not linear.… We believe, philosophically, those big decisions should be the players' and the families' decisions, not the leagues', not the clubs', not the governing body's."
It's hoped that this flexibility will help USL steer clear of the contentious youth politics that create friction and in some cases outright war between clubs.
"That [DA] model did not work for entire states that we have USL clubs in, not just a few cities," he noted. "And we're big, rural, spread-out country. There has to be something different that's done … there might be less kids in each community, but it's more communities collectively that can now be in the space. And that's why I think League Two [formerly known as PDL] is a really critical part of this."
Some League Two sides are seasonal in nature. Others are an extension of youth organizations. Many are accustomed to surviving in relatively remote areas and could help connect the dots on regional maps.
The new league can be a club's only youth offering or merely a high-end element of a fully-built pyramid, for example like North Carolina FC's, which is one of the largest youth soccer clubs in the world. Clubs can, as some already do, hand off their academy operations to local youth partners, even entire state associations, to operate. All must show a connection to their area's existing youth clubs in some healthy and sustainable fashion.
"We require that if the club is even going to apply to have an academy team, they have to prove to us that they have a youth network," said O'Connell, who previously spent several years at Sporting Kansas City building out the MLS club's regional affiliate network across the Midwest.
"I learned through my experiences with Sporting, you can change culturally how these youth directors operate. They feel like they're getting something from these relationships, they have these valuable assets that they get from the club that they can go to the membership and say 'look at what we get for being an affiliate'… you create these mutually beneficial relationships."
That also includes limitations, all the way to the point of eventually checking a club's books, on how much profit an academy program can generate.
"While we're not requiring these are fully funded [ie free to participants], it's certainly highly, highly recommended," said O'Connell. "We understand not every club can do that. But they do have to at least partially subsidize something … and if they have to have a participation fee associated with being on this roster, it can only be for necessary and actual expenses. So no youth affiliate nor pro club managing one of these teams can have the registration fee to generate revenue."
With MLS's new youth league still in formation, it's unclear how it might dovetail. USL officials have made contact with MLS and USSF to start wider conversations about cooperation and cohesion. This may also lay the foundation for a truly transformative evolution with some sort of domestic training compensation/solidarity payments system.
In effect, the DA sought to funnel its top talent towards professional clubs. With little to no compensation in return, that often instigated resentment and conflict. That lack of an overarching structure has also led some pro clubs to second-guess the wisdom of investing time and money in youth players who can fly the coop at will. A formal USL-MLS agreement could well pave the way for a dramatic shift in the forces that fuel (or hamper) player development.
"If we institute domestic training compensation, whether it's league to league or the Federation policing it, it will incentivize more owners of professional clubs to invest in development," said O'Connell, "which helps us get more kids in professional environments."
Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.
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