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Exclusive: Lagos and Quinn break down new Minnesota United academy structure

Noel Quinn will head the new system, which relies on a pool model among other revisions.

Graphic courtesy Minnesota United

Minnesota United has announced a revised academy set-up that will place a stronger emphasis on training and internal competition through a pool system. The club has also appointed Noel Quinn as the director of the youth development program.

Quinn arrives as an experienced coach in Minnesota at the high school and college level. He also has a UEFA B coaching license and is nearing completion of the A level license, the club said.

Quinn and Manny Lagos, United’s Chief Soccer Officer, sat down with E Pluribus Loonum to discuss the new academy and state of youth soccer in Minnesota.

The new academy will operate with a pool system that incorporates 35-40 players at each age level. United will field U15 and U17 pools, plus a U19 version in the short-term. Development efforts at younger age levels will take place through larger community events.

The Loons will also be launching a U23 reserve team, which Lagos said will begin play in 2021 barring COVID-related problems. It’s unlikely the reserve side will play in the USL, he said, and will instead compete in the MLS Reserve League.

An academy based on pools will be unique within MLS, though Lagos said Liverpool’s similar system was an inspiration for United’s model.

There will be less of an emphasis on playing matches and more focus on training and individual development.

“It’s not going to be traveling around the country, playing in leagues,” Quinn said. “It’s going to be training-based, pool-based, it’s going to be merit-based. It’s going to promote and instill our mentality of internal competition. We need young people, at an individual level, being competitive, trying to make these top-level teams. It’s not about creating a superstar team at U10 to win the USA Cup. It’s about creating environments for young players to push themselves.”

In addition to the academy, players will be involved with local youth soccer clubs. Lagos estimated that most players will spend 60-75% of the time training with the Loons, up to 75-80% for top prospects.

Asked about a pay-to-play format, Lagos said that “none of the top players in this will pay at all.”

“This is about accessibility and about creating opportunities for everybody in this community and making sure that nobody gets left out,” he said.

These academy changes follow a year-and-a-half audit completed by Lagos. He and Quinn presented Loonum with a detailed assessment of Minnesota’s youth soccer landscape.

One of the key problems they found was a scattered structure to the youth game.

“There’s never been an illustrated and clear pathway for Minnesota youth soccer players to play professional football,” Quinn said.

Competing divisions can create confusion for players, and talented prospects from underserved communities often play in grassroots leagues outside of the travel or club soccer set-up.

Scouting and building connections across all levels of youth soccer will be a priority for new full-time coaches at the academy, Lagos said.

Another consideration for United was Minnesota’s location: The Loons are the only MLS club not to have an opponent in a bordering state, which makes travel long and expensive.

The new academy system compensates by putting more emphasis on training and less on competitive games in other markets.

That philosophy is something Lagos said he hopes other youth clubs adopt.

“We want to be transparent to other clubs to teach them, ‘Hey, where is your value of internal training versus travel to Chicago?’” Lagos said.

There have been questions about how Minnesota United will handle homegrown rights with the benefit of a larger academy. Lagos downplayed those concerns.

“From a homegrown rights standard, we found out very quickly we will have no issues whatsoever,” Lagos said.

Beyond on-field operations, Lagos said he hopes to make the academy more transparent in its philosophy.

“We were a little bit too guarded with that stuff,” he said. “We want to open that up ... Our intention to be truly communicative, collaborative has to be by being transparent, really telling clubs and the community and kids what we think it takes to become a Minnesota United professional soccer player.”