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New Look Academy Structure for MLS

Steven Bichler takes you through what all of this Academy restructuring could mean for the local players

June 25, 2019 - Madison, Wisconsin, United States - Minnesota United defender Chase Gasper (77) breaks away from Forward Madison FC midfielder Brandon Eaton (6) during a friendly match at Breese Stevens Field.

In mid April, US Soccer chose to end the operations of their Development Academy program. Founded in 2007, the programs mission was “to create a more structured player development environment for elite players to develop to their highest potential.” The Development Academy has always been controversial given the cost to play in such academies. Some people back the high cost of non-subsidized academies by pointing out some of the most talented players the US has produced on the mens side came through the Development Academy. The difficulty comes in that the program wasn’t around long enough to accurately assess if the program was working. US Soccer chose to end the operations out of the necessity that MLS wanted to create their own developmental league. This change causes many issues and divides in soccer circles around the country. This could be a step in the right direction where the teams are responsible for developing their own players not US Soccer, or it can be viewed as another barrier for many talented players to not get exposure to the next level of their individual development.

This new league was created with “a focus on maximizing each player’s potential, the new development platform will not only provide high-level, year-round competition for players, but will provide important programming, education and innovation in the key areas of player development.” These key areas are:

  • Player Identification
  • Coaching
  • Environment
  • Personal Growth
  • Community Outreach

MLS taking the responsibility of developing the next generation of players from US Soccer should be viewed as a positive in my opinion. Ultimately you’d like to see each team being responsible, and not the league as a whole. MLS taking a step away from US Soccer controlling everything, and having a different approach, could be beneficial for the development of the player. However there are natural obstacles in all of these “buzz word” areas of a development in a person when you are trying to maximize their potential. How do you identify a player? So much goes into that, how do you judge what player is a better fit for your culture of your organization? Anytime you have to identify “talent” there are holes, ultimately it’s a guess. You learn how to make it an educated guess and make it less risky. This goes for all of the areas, what makes a good coach, how do you create that environment, what is best for the development of the person, and how do you teach them about the importance of the community they represent? There are answers to these questions, but who decides this matters as much as the answers. Ultimately you want the teams to be able to decide for themselves on what the right answers are for them.

The logistics of travel and competing will be a hurdle outside of LA, the upper east coast, and Florida. For teams like Minnesota United travel will be expensive, and in the past costs like these end up being paid by whoever supports the player. Only two clubs exist in Minnesota or its surrounding states (MNUFC and Shattuck St Mary’s), so travel will be not ideal for the Loons academy meanwhile 20 teams exist in California alone.

It’s understandable given the talent out in California and the opportunity to play year round outdoors. The difficulty will be when MLS decides to end homegrown territories, and players can choose to play with the place with the best opportunities. In this case how do you make travel easier (and less expensive) while sustaining the higher level of play needed for development? There should be no reason players are missed in California at that point, but in states like Minnesota players won’t get the opportunity to represent their club as easily. The benefit of local players is they understand what they are representing to the community, think of players like Gerrard and Liverpool, it truly means something more and it’s impossible to replicate. Now when a special talent comes around, sure they will try as hard as they can to have the chance to develop that player, but that player doesn’t have to choose you now. It all comes down to what the club wants in the role of the local player, do they feel they have a responsibility to develop them? If MNUFC won’t have to develop local players from Minnesota, who will?

This will exist everywhere in the soccer landscape, beyond just MLS. Who gets passed on the responsibility of developing these talented players for a hopeful career, and how do we make sure as a soccer community we are “maximizing each players potential?”

This new league in theory should allow more flexibility in the opportunities for teams to travel outside of the league and face teams from other countries. This is crucial in developing talent you can hopefully sell to Europe, as this allows a broader scouting opportunity for this teams to track players they may be interested in bringing in. If MLS allows individual clubs to run the development of their players/assets/children rather than the league itself this could be very good news for the top percentile of players in this country.

Unfortunately this type of closed academy system can also shut out many, who may be good enough from competing against the top teams, if there is no room on a team or they don’t have the financial means to play for the team. This has been a problem for youth soccer in this country as long as I can remember and as far as I can tell, it won’t go away just yet.

Now for top clubs in the world they develop players to either play in their first team, or to hopefully make money on them. At the end of the day the owner wants to have minimal costs with their operations of the club, and especially in an academy where costs can get expensive very fast. Now people who are way smarter than me think this can shut out the local player, and I agree but the teams can make a concerted effort to place a priority on these people and involve them in the organization. Let people grow with you, because if you mess this up MLS other organizations will fill the void.

USL’s academy structure will try and align with the US professional calendar and offer players in the academy “three seasons of play.” This is a step in the right direction and USL seems to be taking this very seriously, even though currently independently owned teams from outside of MLS are not getting training compensation or solidarity payments for their players they move on to a new team. Learn more here, but essentially it is money teams are owed for developing a player under FIFA regulations.

USL aren’t the only teams focusing on the youth, there are several more grass roots organizations realizing the importance of providing opportunities to young players. Minneapolis City is a club in the area who are doing that by recently announcing their Futures Program for players under 20, launching later this summer.

If someone from MLS Academy League happens to stumble upon this there are easy ways to make people happy. Don’t just put first team players in Zoom calls for local players, offer real incentives for everyone. Allow partnered clubs who develop your local academy players coaches development, and chances to come in and learn from your staff, or even better a pathway into the program. Don’t try and turn this into a short term money grab, build a program that allows you to develop players and have a chance of making sustainable long term income. Allow opportunities for local players not in the academy to come watch academy trainings. Make the environment about everyone improving and create a pipeline from within your area. You have a chance to make this something really special, and doing this perfectly is going to be a large reason you succeed or fail. Don’t mess this up.

Oh and maybe take the women’s side of development seriously for once, because somehow thats even worse.