Thanks to an announcement from MLS and reporting from the Athletic’s Sam Stejskal, the picture of the new youth development platform has become a little bit clearer. The new league, which will, in part, take the place of US Soccer’s Development Academy, will be comprised of 95 founding members. While additional clubs may join in the future, the initial group will be comprised of the 30 MLS academies — 26 current teams, plus four expansion sides — and 65 elite academy teams that competed in the DA. Among those 65 non-MLS academies are five USL clubs.
The new league will focus on maximizing the potential of its players by providing year-round, high-level competition, as well as programming, education, and innovation in player development, coaching, environment, personal growth, and community outreach.
“The development of professional and elite players requires a comprehensive and integrated approach, beyond just the competition format, and we are having daily conversations with academy clubs across the country who are committed to building that environment with us,” explained Fred Lipka, VP and Technical Director of MLS Player Development.
According to the Athletic’s reporting, the new league will include five age groups: Under-13, -14, -15, -17, and -19. MLS will require its clubs to field teams in the U-15 and U-17 age groups, with participation in other age groups being up to the clubs. The addition of a U-16 age groups is also being considered.
The Seattle Sounders — who previously have fielded U-15, U-17, and U-19 teams in the DA, while using the Sounders Discovery Program as a way to provide training and the opportunity to compete in some tournaments for top players from Sounders Academy Partners in the U-12 through U-14 age groups — likely won’t change their approach with the new format.
It’s unclear what the actual competition structure will be once games are able to be played, but the expectation is that the league’s calendar will run from Fall to Spring the way that the DA did. There is the possibility that the league will effectively be divided into two largely separate competitions, with MLS academies in one and non-MLS academies in the other. The Athletic’s reporting suggests that there would be some crossover between the two groups, with 15-20 percent of games coming against teams from the other group at the U-15 and U-17 age groups. There’s also the possibility that, unlike in the DA, this structure will permit players to represent their high schools as well.
The new league isn’t the only place for academy teams to get competitive games, though. Some people within MLS have long complained about the lack of meaningful games within the old DA, pushing for a breakaway MLS-only league that would be supplemented with games and tournaments against international clubs. The higher level of competition against international opponents continues to be appealing, and can be expected to help fill out the schedule for MLS academies.
Elsewhere in the league, the USL academies that take part may also compete in the other new academy competition in the US, the USL Academy League. Exactly how it looks for those USL clubs remains uncertain, but it’s possible that they could field teams at several age groups, and then essentially field a group of their best players from each age group in the new USL Academy League.
More information is sure to be unveiled in the coming weeks and months, but we won’t fully know what the competition looks like until games are able to be played, which might not be any time soon.