clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘All about the money’: The decline of Minnesota United’s youth academy

Parents of academy players said ownership and upper management viewed the youth system as “a money suck and a waste of time.”

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Minnesota United FC Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

It was simultaneously shocking and unsurprising.

When Minnesota United cut or furloughed its entire academy staff, parents of academy players were largely left disappointed, but not surprised.

“There’d been talk for a little while that something like this would happen,” one parent said.

Several academy parents spoke to E Pluribus Loonum on the condition of anonymity, concerned for the reputations and career prospects of their children.

Following U.S. Soccer’s closure of its development academy in April, parents began to worry about what would happen to Minnesota’s youth program. United’s academy should have been fine — it was one of 94 to be a part of Major League Soccer’s new “elite player development platform,” which will provide year-round competition.

But parents saw a growing divide between Minnesota United’s front office and the academy.

It was evident “pretty early on in my son’s academy experience,” one parent said. “The ownership and upper management couldn’t be bothered with the academy. They saw it as a money suck and a waste of time.”

In a sentiment echoed by a former coach, one parent suggested: “If it wasn’t mandated by the MLS that they have an academy, they wouldn’t have anything.”


Minnesota United launched its academy on February 4, 2017, a month before it began play as an MLS franchise.

The club started small, creating U13 and U14 teams, expanding into older age groups as players reached those levels.

Even in just a few years, there were some developmental success stories: Then-15-year-old goalkeeper Fred Emmings signed as the Loons’ first Homegrown Player in January, and other prospects, like Patrick Weah (16 years old) and Bajung Darboe (13) drew attention.

But there were signs of dysfunction within the academy.

“We always felt like they were understaffed — unable to handle the demands of operating the academy,” a parent said.

“The whole coaching staff had to wear a lot of hats,” a former coach, who also spoke to E Pluribus Loonum on the condition of anonymity, said.

And when teams traveled and encountered other MLS academies, there were stark contrasts between what Minnesota and other clubs were putting together.

“It was apples and oranges,” a former coach said, pointing to significantly larger staffs at similarly new MLS clubs like Atlanta United and LAFC.

United’s website lists six staff members for its academy: Academy Director and U17 coach Tim Carter, an academy manager, coaches for the U13, U14 and U15 age groups, and a goalkeeper coach.

U13 coach Dane Obermayer had been previously let go by Minnesota in an unannounced move, a parent said. An academy source said his position was only part-time, requiring him to have a day job in addition to coaching.

While the club hasn’t announced any personnel decisions from last week, multiple outlets have reported that all but one full-time academy staff members have been cut, and the remaining staffer has been placed on furlough.

It appears Academy Manager Joe Dettlaff will remain with the club. He’s served as an intermediary between families and the front office over the last week.

Reached by phone on Wednesday and asked about the changes to United’s academy, Dettlaff said that “I can’t talk about it” and ended the call.


In their conversations with E Pluribus Loonum, parents were quick to point out that Minnesota United’s academy felt like “a family” for players.

The Loons’ system was able to provide quality training for elite prospects, they said, making it successful in at least one regard.

But it never felt like it was about growing the youth game in Minnesota, some said. They thought it was about the money.

“There’s this consistent obsession with money,” a former coach said. “It seemed like the ownership was concerned with basically ‘How do we lose as little money as possible with an academy?’”

United’s academy was one of two in MLS to have a pay-to-play model, which required families to pay an annual fee. The club has previously said that U15 and older teams were fully-funded.

That wasn’t much of a concern for some of the parents interviewed, especially those who came from suburban traveling clubs that also had costs involved. There were scholarships available — though one parent described United as “reluctant” to offer them.

Academy sources said fees doubled between the 2018/19 and 2019/20 seasons and scholarship availability decreased.

The club’s actions were drastically different from public statements, parents said.

“It feels like while they’re talking about how important the local community is, investing in our local youth, it’s the opposite of that,” one parent said. “It just feels like it’s all about the money.”

One parent suggested that club leadership’s view of the academy’s return on investment was only based on players reaching the first team or leaving for other teams at United’s profit, not about community investment.

“That’s what honestly hurts the most,” that parent said.

Another parent lamented the lack of publicity that the academy received.

“They didn’t ever put an effort into showing the players to the community at all,” they said. “Which we found frustrating as parents.”

Minnesota United published approximately 1,100 articles and other pieces of digital content to its “News” page in 2019. E Pluribus Loonum counted fewer than 15 headlines that contained obvious references to the academy.

One parent said the connection between the youth teams and the first team was tenuous at best, lacking exposure to United’s professional players and facilities.

“I would’ve expected some of that,” they said.


It seems that the future of Minnesota United’s youth system was out of the academy’s hands before last week’s decision. In an early June email to a parent, which was obtained by E Pluribus Loonum, Carter said discussion over future programming was “currently ongoing and involves the highest level of leadership in our club.”

Academy families found out about the shakeup from The Athletic’s initial report.

E Pluribus Loonum obtained the TeamSnap message — which contained no reference to the structural changes — sent by Dettlaff to families at least around an hour after that story was published:

Hello Players & Parents,

We hope everyone is safe and doing well. We’d like to invite Academy families to join a zoom call this Friday, June 26th at 6:00 pm for an Academy update with Manny Lagos.

Please let me know if you have any questions.

Thank you,

Joe

The Zoom meeting began with a presentation on Minnesota United’s stance on racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement, which one parent described as “an attempt to put a positive start on what otherwise was going to be a difficult call.”

Then came prepared remarks from Lagos before a “very disorganized Q&A.”

Dettlaff moderated the discussion but was “cherry-picking certain questions or taking the edge off certain questions,” one parent said.

Another parent disapproved of Lagos’ conduct on the call, which lasted an hour.

“It felt like the mood that he was projecting to everybody kind of seemed to be arrogance,” they said. “Like, ‘You know what? We’re not going to do anything for you, but you don’t have anywhere else to go.’”

Though families said they received little concrete information, they were encouraged to train with local clubs.

Some, especially those among the older age groups, immediately thought about moving to other MLS academies, namely Sporting Kansas City.

The challenge, though, was that Minnesota United would still retain rights to signing players who went elsewhere. Families were told that it would be the responsibility of a player’s new club to talk with Minnesota over transferring rights.

About 75 minutes after the June 26 Zoom meeting ended, Dettlaff sent a follow-up message to families:

Hello All,

First, thank you for taking the time on a Friday night to join us on the zoom call. As we ended the zoom call, I heard somebody ask why we didn’t answer all the questions in the chat. Unfortunately, the zoom call had been ended so I was not able to respond.

If you still have any questions or would like more clarification about an answer, please reach out. We will work to get your questions answered as best we can and will gladly setup a call or another zoom call with all families to answer your questions.

Please understand that as I went through the chat, many of the questions/statements were similar and were asked to Manny in a few different ways. I apologize if your question was missed and please reach out via phone or email so we can get your specific question answered.

Thank you!

-Joe

Lagos held follow-up calls with individual families on Thursday, academy sources said.

In one conversation with a parent, Lagos said players could freely go to non-MLS academies, but gave different information on joining another MLS club. Lagos told the parent that instead of Minnesota United working with the other team, families will have to secure a release from Major League Soccer itself.

“That’s a very big frustration,” a parent said. “I don’t know anybody that I can talk to at MLS.”

Little is clear about how Minnesota United’s academy will actually operate or rebuild in the future. The Athletic has confirmed that MLS clubs are still required to maintain development progams. It seems likely that United will not have an academy for the 2020/21 season.

Some parents said they would be willing to forgive the club and return when programming resumes while others said they’ll be sending their players elsewhere.

E Pluribus Loonum asked for a brief phone interview with Lagos on Thursday. United did not respond to the request.