MLS and the USSF are heading in the right direction in youth development matters

DC United academy product Andy Najar, age 17, battles against Landon Donovan
Photo courtesy of Nick Eckert, more of his work available here.

In the last week or so, we’ve been lucky enough to read two great pieces on the changes in American youth development by Bill Archer and Tom Dunmore. Ever since our elimination from the World Cup by Ghana (and Jurgen Klinsmann’s subsequent comments), the manner by which American soccer develops its young talent has been at the forefront of discussion topics.

I’m glad Bill wrote what he wrote not only because I happen to agree with it but because I got a far better sense of what the ODP/State Cup system was and how it apparently related to all the other youth development schemes out there. I didn’t play competitive soccer growing up and my brother, who did, decided he didn’t need the aggravation of playing on our high school’s hyper-competitive team and ended up attending UVA to study history rather than to play on the varsity.

The only YD setup I was familiar with was the MLS-based systems that have entered existence since I’ve been writing about the sport. Thus, it was really informative to get a summary of how ODP worked and from the looks of it, it didn’t work one bit. It’s clear to me now that when people like Klinsmann moan that our system is pay-to-play, that’s the system they appear to be talking about primarily.

And that’s precisely the system that MLS academies and the USSF Development Academy System are working to solve, literally as we speak. It’s not so much that Klinsmann and the baying hoards are wrong. For the most part, they are not. It’s that there are solutions taking hold and bringing in someone with the specific mandate to blow them up and start over just doesn’t make any sense.

That said, while I agree with the sentiment that MLS is coming in and blowing away all the other YD options, I think he should’ve given a bit more credit to the other USSF Development Academy Clubs. I think they play an equally important role in two specific areas:

  1. In soccer-heavy areas outside MLS regions such as Raleigh-Durham, St. Louis, Baltimore, and the whole of Florida, the USSF Academy clubs provide a good learning environment and top competition for kids who don’t live in MLS’ 14 current US markets.
  2. In some areas, it just might not be possible for a single club or academy to find every talent. For example in SoCal, Houston, or New York, there’s more than enough room for multiple USSF Academy clubs as opposed to just one MLS team trying to cover hundreds of kids over hundreds of miles.

Now, one question I’d love to ask MLS development types is how do the MLS clubs work with the other clubs. For example, what if it was Potomac Soccer Club in nearby Rockville or McLean Youth Soccer in Virginia who found Andy Najar on that playing field? They both have their own teams in the USSF academy league. Say he lights up the Academy league, how does DC United get him on to its academy’s roster without leaving the smaller clubs pissed off? Now, maybe the smaller clubs simply understand their status compared to the MLS academies and justify it by adding Najar to their alumni page and hoping his future glory rubs off on them in some way. But if the plan right now is for all the non-MLS academy clubs to simply supply the MLS academies, I can see some fissures opening up in the, so far, seemingly well-operated USSF Academy System. I might be wrong here. I’m just curious to hear how that relationship works within the academy structure.

Moving on to Dunmore’s piece on how college soccer does or doesn’t relate to elite talent development, I am one of those who believe that college soccer, while not ideal in many ways, will continue to provide talent to MLS and the US national team. I don’t think it’s the right place for truly elite talent, but those who say that it (and the collegiate draft) should be entirely eliminated are both unrealistic and shortsighted.

If I had to pick a sport whose talent development system to call my favorite, I’d say it’s hockey. In hockey, American and Canadian players can choose between attending a US college and getting some education or playing fully professional major junior hockey starting at age 16 in the Canadian Hockey League. Both systems have their pluses and minuses but both systems regularly produce elite talent whether its college players like Zach Parise (North Dakota), Martin St. Louis (Vermont), and Ryan Miller (Michigan State) or CHL guys like Bobby Ryan, Sydney Crosby or the scores of other Canadians who’ve come through major juniors. The point is that both systems place plenty of players in the NHL and Olympics.

American soccer needs a system where both systems work. I think, with the development of an elite MLS/USSF-led development program we’re finally building the system analagous to major juniors to go alongside the collegiate game. That said, I think college hockey is a far better vehicle for talent development than college soccer (far more games + better rules), but hopefully the NCAA will move to make the kinds of changes to its soccer rules and regulations to make it a better development venue. Of course the NCAA is an infuriatingly slow-moving and political organization, but there’s evidence that’s already underway.

I think it’s irresponsible to simply say that we should send any 15-year old who believes they can play professional soccer into massive European-style fully-professional academies. I saw the recent NYT piece on Ajax and wasn’t wowed, I was terrified. I found the whole system utterly dehumanizing and even more than that, totally dechildhooding. (Apologies for totally making that word up.) I don’t want that. I don’t want soccer players chewed up and destroyed before puberty like figure skating, gymnastics and tennis.

If I had to choose between the US winning the World Cup and the US not turning soccer into a sport that damages and chews out its young, I’d choose the latter every single time. A trophy, any trophy, just isn’t worth the kind of damage that I’ve seen in so many other sports, here and abroad. That said, I don’t think that kind of binary choice has to exist in American soccer.

The key now isn’t to overreact to every disappointing “phenom” or disappointing result that rolls down the pike. If there is a next step to take, it’s to monitor the USSF academies and ensure best practices are spread across all teams in all areas, whether they emanate from MLS organizations or other clubs. Also, the USSF needs to keep pushing the NCAA to make it a better venue for developing players by trying to get D-1 teams to play more matches, practice a bit more, and get its rules closer to the FIFA standard.

Believe it or not, but I think we’re finally heading the right direction in terms of elite talent development. And whether you like it or not, it’s the much maligned USSF and MLS leading the way.


8 thoughts on “MLS and the USSF are heading in the right direction in youth development matters

  1. I thought that the point of the MLS “academy teams” was that they don’t play many games…in contrast to your typical travel team. They spend a lot of time training and practicing but only play actual matches occasionally against similarly situated teams. Is that what the “USSF Development Academy” teams are all a part of or are they separate entities?

  2. I am currently under the impression that the USSF Development Academy is the “league” that the MLS academies play most of their games in. The MLS academies may play the occasional tournament like last week’s SUM Cup, but that the vast majority of their games come in the USSF Development Academy league.

  3. That’s a lovely slogan but not much else. Is your intent to see that zero American professional soccer players ever see a college field? If so, say so, but that’s hugely unrealistic.

  4. I have always viewed competitive youth soccer in the US primarily as a way for suburban parents to provide a way for their kids to excel in sports without competition from…other kids.

    Increased prominence of meritocratic (?) academies–where there is some incentive for the club/org. to find and develop the best kids–would end this, of course. The best kids would always have more of an opportunity to play. In fairness, this is already happening, as you and Bill pointed out.

    I think you what we are going to see is a two-tiered system where all but the best suburban kids pay-to-play, most of the best kids of all stripes play for academies, and the vast majority of soccer-playing kids don’t play competitive soccer outside their HS team. As bad as that may sound, it’s better than what we have and a hell of a lot better than what we had.

  5. Aaron, who said anything about 0% college players? I am just saying we need a professional youth environment where kids 16 and up are learning from the pros so when they are truly ready it isn’t that big of a jump. College is college, not the best environment, not the worst either.

  6. This is USSF Development Academy:

    The Development Academy is a partnership between U.S. Soccer and the top youth clubs around the country to provide the best youth players in the U.S. with an every day environment designed to produce the next generation of National Team players. The Academy’s programming philosophy of increased training, less total games and more competitive games is based on U.S. Soccer’s Best Practices utilized by the U-17 U.S. National Team Residency program.

    What you call the MLS academy approach is really what they’re doing as participants in USSF’s Development Academy.

  7. Pay to play needs to end for elite players; the same ‘travel’ or ‘premier’ system can exist for those who want to pay and be mediocre. The best need out of that sort of system. Obviously this is what USSDA is designed to combat.

    I’m not sure what the ‘state cup system’ is or how a national competition (USYSA) differs from, well, a national competition (USSDA), but I’m also tired of hearing how ODP is the reason we haven’t produced a boatload of Messi’s by now. ODP should function not unlike regionalized academies in other big nations (France, Germany) where players attend on a weekly basis for technical training. In some states, it is like that. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

    The system has problems that, I think, are slowly being corrected. College will likely always have some place, but it’s true that we’d prefer about 90% of our elite talents in professional environments. And if you’d prefer the US to not win a WC than to have professional academy environments available (which apparently aren’t for your weak heart), then why write a blog post about it all?

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