As the USSF continues to clean house from their mishandling of…well…everything…another domino has fallen: the youth DA program.
US readers with kids in the youth club ranks were acutely aware this was coming. Clubs from Colorado to Georgia were dropping out of DA and joining ECNL over the past year. The smoke signals and rumblings were all there.
With the suspension of all youth and professional soccer due to COVID-19, US Soccer had the out they were looking for in terminating DA. It was a massive financial commitment. It’s results were debatable. And it was the product of a previous failed regime.
So now what?
MLS has wasted no time in trying to fill the void. On Wednesday they announced a new “elite youth competition platform.” This program will “provide year-round high-level matches for MLS club academy teams and non-MLS academy teams that previously participated in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy.”
But will it work?
Can MLS properly fund youth academies?
The US is behind the rest of the world in developing male youth soccer talent for a number of reasons. Tops among those is the pay-to-play club system. It’s unlike anywhere else in the world for a reason: it doesn’t work.
If the US men’s program was to ever catch up to Europe and South America, it needed to embrace the academy model. In the rest of the world, top talent is identified at young ages and receives world-class coaching at little to no cost. Clubs actually invest in talent at the youth level. And it’s worth it.
Think of the academy model like angel investing. If you spread some seed money to a dozen start-ups and one hits, it more than makes up for the other investments.
A homegrown academy product for a professional club pays off by either: 1) making the senior team, providing inexpensive labor that you didn’t have to pay a transfer fee on, or 2) by selling him to a larger club for a small to massive fee.
MLS needed to get to a point of financial viability for an academy system to work. After 25 years, it (hopefully) has.
For MLS clubs to sustain a successful academy program though, the league itself needed to change its transfer policy. Luckily, they did just that in February.
MLS used to take a 25% cut of non-homegrown transfer fees (think Miguel Almiron from Atlanta United to Newcastle). However, in February that number slid down to a 5% take. That should make more transfers like Aaron Long to the Premier League an actual thing moving forward. Clubs will realize enough financial benefit to pull the trigger on those $2-5M deals.
If those clubs then invest a portion of the profits in development academies, it becomes a huge win (finally) for talented youth players in the US.
Well, male players, at least.
What about women academies?
The women’s program is a different animal.
Thanks to Title IX — and generally being more progressive in pushing female youth athletics– the US has dominated women’s soccer for the better part of two decades. The USWNT is the gold standard.
However, now that European clubs are investing in academy level training for girls more and more, that will likely change. The women’s program may slowly begin mirroring what we had seen on the men’s side.
Will MLS also invest in girl’s programs? It’s a big ask. If a MLS club is not tied to a NWSL team, what financial motivation do they have in doing so? Yes, it’s the right thing to do. If the money isn’t there though, can it actually be mandated?
Given the timing of the DA’s demise, this could be a major transitional year in girl’s youth soccer. Many of the biggest clubs in the nation are without a top platform. DA’s rival league — ECNL — is rumored to not have the capacity to take an influx of so many new clubs this year.
While sources have said major west coast clubs are in discussions to form a “DA 2.0,” that may be difficult to pull off. DA’s instant demise provided those clubs with no runway to form or find an alternative.
The talent pipeline for the US’ strongest international team in any sport may be the group most adversely impacted by the loss of DA.
Don’t screw this up, MLS
Getting a DA-type program out of the hands of the perpetually incompetent USSF and into a successful and growing league like MLS is a positive. Now, MLS should hire more scouting and development talent from overseas to help build these academies properly.
And they must figure out some way — any way — to provide a consistent platform for female development too.
MLS has gotten many things right over the past 25 years. The ball is on the spot for them on this one. Let’s hope they convert.