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U.S. Soccer closes up shop on the Development Academy

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USSF effectively gets out of the player development game, while MLS launches new academy league.

Max Aquino/Sounder at Heart

The USSF announced on Wednesday that they had decided to end operation of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, effective immediately. The DA, which was founded in 2007 with just boys teams and added girls teams in 2017, lists over 160 member clubs on their website. With all but a few clubs operating teams in at least two age groups, and some operating teams in as many as five age groups and in both boys and girls competitions, the DA represented hundreds of academy teams and thousands of youth players around the country.

The DA had previously suspended all official operations through the end of April and cancelled the 2020 Allstate Spring Cup amidst the spread of COVID-19, but the total closure still comes as somewhat of a shock — as recently as a day prior to the announcement discussion of the elimination of the DA seemed to be little more than rumor and barely-substantiated speculation.

In the DA’s absence, MLS and other leagues will step up to fill the void. On the heels of the federations announcement, MLS announced that they would launch their own “elite youth competition platform” to provide MLS academies the opportunity to compete against each other as well as against some non-MLS academies. The new MLS-led venture will seemingly attempt to replicate much of the competition provided by the DA league season, tournaments and cup competitions, and the Generation Adidas Cup, as “the new platform will include league season matches and both regional and national tournaments with international teams,” according to a statement from the league.

The new competition represents a continuation of the intertwining of the fates of MLS’s ability to develop youth players and the U.S. Men’s National Team.

A“s we look ahead to the 2026 FIFA World Cup here in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, now more than ever it is incumbent on us to establish a competition that sets a new standard for elite youth play and allows athletes to achieve their full potential,” Todd Durbin, MLS Executive Vice President of Competition & Player Relations, said in a statement.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Talk of an MLS academy league that was separate from the DA had been going around for some time, with the implication being that some MLS teams felt that the level of competition from some of the non-MLS academy sides was too low for the effective development of their youth players. Those people may be getting part of what they wanted, a new league being operated by MLS, but maybe not how they wanted it.

In filling the gap left by the DA’s closure rather than forming their own separate league, MLS will be including some non-MLS academies, but it’s unclear which academies will be joining the new operation. Distrust of MLS is not uncommon among youth teams outside of the league as a result of what’s often perceived as the league’s poaching of players, as well as things like the restructuring of the boys U-19 age group in the DA into two tiers that took place in 2019 which saw top teams like Redmond’s Crossfire Premier moved to a lower tier of competition in favor of MLS academies.

The Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), previously the DA’s biggest competition, has long been the leader on the girls academy side, and are now attracting some of the top non-MLS academies. With a respected, and maybe most importantly pre-existing, structure, it makes sense why clubs would choose the ECNL over a new MLS-led competition. Six of the top academies in California — Arsenal, FC Golden State, Pateadores, Real So Cal, San Diego Surf, and Strikers FC — have already been announced by ECNL as new members for the 2020-21 season, as well as Crossfire, whose girls teams already competed in ECNL. While the ECNL draws top non-MLS academies, MLS academies may actually be left with more watered down competition, and the entire youth development system in the U.S. becomes even more splintered.

Sounders Academy players turned pro
Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

It remains unseen exactly what the MLS youth development competition looks like. While there’s cause for skepticism and concern, there’s also room for some optimism. The league’s relationship with the USL could provide some idea of what teams may be involved in the new format, as it’s possible that MLS academies are joined by their USL counterparts, creating an academy competition where all or most teams represent the path to a professional team. While Durbin’s comments suggest a commitment to developing players for the national team, as was the purpose of a competition operated by the USSF, the new youth development league could provide an opportunity to focus more on developing players for the academies’ professional teams than for the national team’s player pool. There has also been talk of eliminating the U19 portion of the league, as many of those players are now being signed directly to USL contracts.

MLS also announced that they are “evaluating the potential to provide future competition opportunities for girls.” It’s a statement that makes no guarantees, and leaves the girls teams which had been competing in the DA with little option other than to join - or rejoin, as the case may be - the ECNL Girls competition. From a competition standpoint, it likely makes the most sense for those teams to compete in the ECNL — it’s an elite level of competition, the leader in the girls soccer development — it is disappointing to see MLS, given the opportunity, opt not to step up in support of the girls’ and women’s side of the sport.