By now, local youth soccer clubs are used to adjusting.
Around the country, they’ve grappled with how — and whether — to play during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Minnesota’s clubs have worked around another dynamic situation: the state of Minnesota United’s academy.
United essentially disbanded its academy in late June, firing all but one academy staff member and placing that employee on furlough. Then, on July 14, MNUFC Chief Soccer Officer Manny Lagos sent an email to academy families promising an “exciting announcement” in “10-14 days.” Tuesday marked 21 days since that message.
In that span, local youth soccer clubs completed the tryout process for the upcoming season, and have either filled rosters or are actively creating them. Without an update from United, there’s added uncertainty.
“Between the Minnesota United situation and the COVID situation, coaches or coaching directors in general are going to plan on having a little more flexibility,” a local youth soccer club executive said.
Club leaders spoke to E Pluribus Loonum on the condition of anonymity to protect their working relationships with Minnesota United.
Following the Loons’ decision in June, academy players have scattered. An academy source with knowledge of player movements provided the following breakdown of former academy players’ new clubs:
Minnesota Thunder Academy - 25+
Shattuck-St. Mary’s - 10+
Sporting Kansas City - 6
Real Salt Lake - 2
FC Barcelona (Arizona) - 2
Portland Timbers - 1
FC Cincinnati - 1
One source said Lagos asked clubs to refrain from recruiting United’s academy players, but that an “open market” mentality led to many players returning to the clubs they played for before MNUFC.
That could benefit those clubs — elite-level youth players will help teams — but uncertainty around the future of the Loons’ program is cause for worry.
“It’s going to cause a problem if United come back and start offering a full-time season again and we have to lose those players,” said a club official who has only been putting two or three former academy players on a team to mitigate losses.
Over the past couple months, Lagos has held regular Zoom conference calls with youth club executives, a source said. While club leaders appreciated the communication, it wasn’t always accurate.
“On a whole bunch of calls he would pitch us something,” one club executive said, “and then the next day, something would come out (as a news report) completely contradicting what he’s (saying) ... The next week he’d be like ‘I’m sorry, they don’t tell us anything.’ The whole time, he was claiming MLS tells them nothing.”
A club leader added: “I think Manny tried to keep us informed. He seemed to not really know what the hell was going on.”
Disconnect between Minnesota United and Major League Soccer likely stems from the latter’s new Elite Youth Development Platform, which is designed to replace the now-defunct U.S. Soccer Development Academy.
While Lagos has told parents United will compete in the new set-up, the specifics are unclear. MNUFC will be one of two clubs in the program from Minnesota, joined by Shattuck-St. Mary’s.
That’s concerning to some youth club leaders. With Minnesota United’s program largely up in the air and Shattuck-St. Mary’s often focused on out-of-state recruits, clubs are concerned about opportunities for local talent in the Twin Cities market.
Though the MLS Elite Youth Development Platform launched with 94 clubs, the set-up remained open to others. A source said Fusion Soccer Club, Maplebrook Soccer Club, Minneapolis United, Salvo Soccer Club and St. Paul Blackhawks — and potentially others — were all encouraged to apply, submitting presentations and participating in videoconferences with MLS officials.
One club leader looked to Salvo as an especially strong candidate for a spot in the new development system. Salvo’s staff includes former Minnesota United head coach Carl Craig, former Loons defender Brian Kallman and Andy Seidel, who was one of the academy employees fired in June.
MLS added 19 academies to the Elite Youth Development Platform on Tuesday. None were from Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota or Iowa.
After being notified of their club’s rejection last week, one youth club leader expressed frustration with the result. “Minnesota United is running a monopoly,” they said. “It’s kind of a cluster right now.”
One club leader alleged that Minnesota United “vetoed” applications from other local youth soccer organizations to protect its status in the league.
In a previous email to families, Lagos said that “with MNUFC competing in this new vision, this will be the only MLS Academy in this market.”
The club leader suggested that was an indicator that United had a role in the potential addition of other local clubs.
An executive from another club suggested that the decision not to add local clubs “makes sense.”
“There’s really no club here that could even afford that,” they said.
It’s unclear what MLS will require of Minnesota United in its new academy set-up, or how the Loons plan to fulfill those obligations.
Lagos wasn’t available for comment.