MLS vs. non-MLS: Can the Development Academy keep itself together?

By and large, it’s been a pretty good season for the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, which concludes on Saturday with its Under-15/16 and U-17/18 national championship matches in Carson, California.

ussda-logo-bigThe DA’s dubious “WorlD ClAss” catchphrase remains more of a punchline than a promise among seasoned youth soccer watchers, and the quality of play still varies from game to game and region to region. Few involved understand or appreciate the U.S. Soccer Federation’s recurring insistence on holding major postseason events in Texas summer heat. (Few who’ve experienced North Texas in late June would argue that the style and quality of play at the playoffs/showcase event in Frisco wasn’t adversely affected by its timing and location.)

But with few exceptions, the amount of investment made by clubs across the system continues to tick upwards. The DA also benefits as the U.S. Men’s National Team’s fanbase slowly but surely takes an increased interest in the process of player development, and the gradual growth of Major League Soccer’s commitment (both ideologically and financially) to its “Homegrown Player” program has a positive knock-on effect too.

The federation’s investment in a new website for the league made for a far more accessible and impressive digital presence. And many member clubs, especially some of the most progressive professional ones, are spending more time, money and effort on coverage and promotion of the developmental pyramid.

Those that make youth development a priority are usually rewarded for it, even if it takes a few years: Witness the relative prosperity of clubs like FC Dallas, LA Galaxy, Philadelphia Union and Vancouver Whitecaps.

But the persistent divide that is arguably the DA’s deepest concern remains: The differing outlooks and occasional outright antagonism between MLS and non-MLS member clubs.

ussda-broll-3For years, I’ve heard talk of MLS academies’ desire to break away from the DA and compete only against one another. The justification for this seems to revolve around the idea that youth-only clubs have a fundamentally different outlook – many hate and fear losing their players to neighboring MLS clubs, so they try their best to beat them on the field whenever possible, which leads to bunker-and-counter, long-ball and other tactics that seek an immediate result instead of long-term development.

And it seems to be a two-way street: I’ve heard from more than one non-MLS DA coach who’s convinced that both MLS and USSF share the goal of pushing youth-only clubs out of the DA whenever they get the chance. While it may sound paranoid, it’s more understandable when you look at the ease with which MLSers have been admitted to the DA over the years compared to the significant hurdles that youth-only organizations generally face.

The MLS perspective, as it’s been explained to me, is that pro clubs whose endgame is grooming future professional players would be best served by playing other pro clubs. That way, everyone on both sides will have the same motives and goals, and difficult concepts like building out of the back can be more easily fostered.

pregame fives, Union vs. PDA, DA U-18sNaturally, there are lots of ways to react to this idea. But regardless of what you think of it, it’s out there, and it’s helped lead to the creation of events like the Generation adidas Cup. I suspect the main reason MLS youth clubs haven’t broken away already is one of scale and economics: As large as the league’s footprint has grown (and it’s slated to keep ramping up at a similar pace), it’s still cost-prohibitive for those clubs to jet back and forth across the continent to play one another all season instead of competing against worthy opposition much closer to home.

But for now, everyone in the DA need one another, and are better together. Last week I drove up to Chester, Pennsylvania to watch the Philadelphia Union host PDA in a U-18 quarterfinal match, the only DA playoff game anywhere near me (which is itself a telling sign of the dominance of California and Texas). I witnessed a compelling, well-balanced contest that in some ways epitomized the MLS/non-MLS dualism: The Union’s well-funded academy system vs. arguably the largest and most successful of the old-school youth-only clubs.

Philly may have hurt their own prospects by moving up several U-16s to play in relief of a few important U-18s who themselves had played up the day before, having traveled to Toronto to play a USL match for Bethlehem Steel, the Union’s reserve team. (The dropoff can’t be considered excessively steep, however, given that some of those U-16s are U.S. youth internationals.)

Conversely, PDA had about as much blue-chip talent on their side, with youth internationals like Isaiah Young (U.S.) and Chaz Burnett (Trinidad & Tobago) – and Burnett’s younger brother (by a year) Josh was influential too. Young and both of the Burnetts scored to deliver a 3-1 win that advanced the New Jersey side to the national semifinals. While PDA did defend for significant periods, they did so effectively, and also pressed well at opportune moments, showing superior attacking talent on balance, at least until the Union’s Raheem Taylor-Parkes entered the match (and nearly turned it around) in the 70th minute.

20160707_170856While one observer dubbed PDA’s gameplan as custom-tailored to beating MLS opposition, what I saw was two talented teams with differing, but effective styles – styles that the players are likely to encounter in the future. It was a game that all involved benefited from, even in light of the high stakes; hardly the sort of encounter that needs to be eradicated in the name of improving player development.

While it does seem to take a certain economy of scale to go toe-to-toe (PDA is a mammoth organization), the non-MLS clubs continue to hold their own in competitive terms. Four of the eight U-15/16 quarterfinalists and three of the eight U-17/18 quarterfinalists came from outside MLS, though both the championship finals are all-MLS affairs.

The debate will smolder on, I suspect, and smart people have predicted to me that it’s only a matter of time before the MLS youth clubs go their own way. So for now, despite its flaws, I’ll appreciate the diversity of the DA’s current membership, and the useful variety it offers for players and coaches.

By | July 15, 2016 | 4 Comments | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

  • I’ve heard the rumors for years now also. One reason was they expected MLS DA clubs to distance themselves greatly from the NON-mls clubs, and it doesn’t appear like that has happened because of the discrpeancy in resources. If it did happen, I though it would set US Soccer back even further. Soccer in this country is already fragmented with way to many players. Having separate leagues for MLS and non mls clubs would be a disaster to player identification. Part of the issue with MLS DAs is they will pass on quality kids that can be or are great soccer players, but aren’t be projected out as professional players for their club, so why take them and fill a roster spot.

    Atlanta is the perfect example of the difference. Atlanta United threw a huge gala and a party for its academy players, Concorde and GA United might have bought the team a pizza and needs money from players to help with the costs. Atlanta United is free, the others are ~2,000 each

  • BG

    MLS wants the best talent in their market. Local youth clubs want to keep their best players in order to secure their job security and upward career mobility. There is no incentive for a local youth club to let their talent go to an MLS club other than doing what might be right for the player. Until there is some sort of financial incentive that MLS clubs can offer, local clubs will fight to keep their own players even if that may be to the detriment of the player.

    In speaking with a youth club director, for MLS to create a “DA” type league of their own, it would require approval of the US Soccer. Sunil Gulati, the head of US Soccer is an elected official and as such needs to appeal to his largest constituency, soccer coaches. There are 1000x more local, non-MLS affiliated coaches, and approving an MLS-only youth league would mean he would certainly lose any re-election campaign.

  • Antonio Paladino

    Not sure why MLS clubs have a superiority complex, it sure hasn’t trqnslated well to the professional level. The bottom line is that while MLS clubs have the funding, non MLS club players have the heart and determination needed to succeed. Of course the MLS clubs want to split. What kind of picture does losing to non MLS teams paint to those kids eyeing up a new club? Not a pretty one.

    • Casa Mia

      I think NON-MLS clubs have incentive to beat MLS clubs because they are trying to prove themselves. It’s like when a Greece beats Portugal in the Euros, or Iceland beats England, or in college when a team upsets the #1 seed and every storms the field or court. The underdog has something to prove. PDA is great, no question about it, but I do see some of these MLS teams play against non-Academy teams with kids playing up or using the end of their bench. Red Bulls played in the Academy playoffs a couple of years ago with kids who were playing 2 years up. The Red Bulls II players were playing with the first team, The U-18’s were playing with Red Bulls II, the U-16’s were playing with the U-18’s, the U-14’s were playing with the U-16’s. My non-Academy teams didn’t have the luxury to have that many players and therefore, played at full strength. When we played some of those teams at other times, we weren’t so lucky.