US Soccer's killing the Development Academy League is a great thing, IF you want professional clubs to “invest” in player development that may eventually translate to US Soccer competitiveness on the international level.
The DA Was Never Designed to Invest in Player Development
The development academy was NEVER an actual academy run by US Soccer. It was simply a league designed to foster and promote high level play under more rigid training rules. It was branded by US Soccer, but really operated and financed by the participating clubs.
Training was always left solely in the hands of the individual clubs and team coaches that were accepted to the DA. Sure, there were recommendations by US Soccer Youth coaches, but the model was flawed from the outset because the non-MLS clubs had ZERO incentive to invest in players. It was a Pay-2-Play model, unless the athlete was fortunate enough to be accepted to a fully-funded MLS development academy. Non MLS clubs subsidized the DA teams on the backs of the non-DA teams in the clubs and it gave them some marketing prestige in selling a "pathway."
For over a decade the MLS teams had ONE small incentive to invest in players ... exemption from certain draft rules under the "homegrown player" designation. As the years went on, these MLS teams watched youth player after player leave the MLS youth academies and sign with Latin American teams and European team and these MLS teams received nothing, NADA, zip.
Another problem existed between the DA’s haves (fully funded programs tied to MLS teams) and the have not’s (non-MLS and fully funded programs), which was competitive play. The MLS academies lamented that the non MLS DA programs were simply not at the same level. It wasn’t for lack of trying, because the MLS DA programs could poach the best from the non-MLS DA teams at virtual will. US Soccer at the MLS urging agreed to separate the DA into two divisions.
Finally in 2019 (beginning April 18, 2019), the MLS changed courses and stated that it would for the first time, support training and solidarity payments under FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (the “FIFA Regulations
” or “RSTP
”). This singular act began the eventual march towards elimination of the DA.
The MLS’ about face on RSTP was the first nail in the DA coffin. Because the MLS only supported RSTP for MLS academies, a rift between the non-MLS and MLS DA clubs grew wider and wider with many clubs questioning participation if they were relegated to Division 2.
On top of all of this, the USL has been feverishly looking to increase it relevance, and announced its own USL Development Academy (USL-A) for U15-U19 prospects that would fall outside the US Soccer’s DA league (another nail in the coffin).
The Development Academy has little to no relevance to the US National Team’s Performance
Those that point to the failure of the US Soccer men’s national team and attribute the US Soccer Development Academy league as bearing some sort of responsibility (many on this board) lack a fundamental understanding of professional development at a world class level.
The DA was doomed and always has been doomed as a true development academy for the US National team because 16 year olds do not make up a senior US National Team (that has any chance of winning). The players that make this team are developed through professional teams and their U23 academies/training regiments
In the US, the MLS academies (U19-U23) are substandard and the teams play in the 3rd Division (USL-1). The USL-Champions division is the 2nd Professional Division. The youth academies were always a bad investment (until now) for the reasons cited (lack of RSTP)
The hole in player development has always been and remains the 18-22 year olds. European and Latin American teams are just so much better because there is good money to be made and adoption of the FIFA transfer rules by every single nation encouraged investment in the under 18’s.
The model for youth development around the world is:
- Professional Club funds its youth academies
- Player’s move up and are transferred and signed from one lower level academy (Division 3 to 2) and eventually reach a Division 1 youth academy.
- The youth player is constantly challenged and eventually signs a professional contract at 16 or 17.
- The youth player excels as a young adult and is sold to another team (preferably in another federation) before 21.
- Solidarity and Training Compensation (5%) flows down from the buying club to the selling club and all the academies and everybody see an ROI on its investment.
The model for youth development in the US (pre-2019):
- Parent’s fund development of player
- Player excels and finds way to DA.
- Player turns 18 and one of 3 things occurs:
- Player goes to college and becomes non-competitive from an international level, eventually becomes a salesman, banker, etc.
- Player signs with MLS team and continues training in substandard play environment.
- Player signs with international team without his academy receiving anything and trains in high level professional environment.
With the elimination of the DA and the MLS taking on responsibility for a professional youth academy system, we are now starting to move towards a proven system.
Don’t cry about the DA, rejoice in its death, US Soccer got it right.
As discussed, the DA has been on the way out for some time and was going to be diluted by the USL with their new youth development academy program. The MLS got the ball rolling with acceptance of FIFA solidarity and training fees, that now gave them (for the first time) a true incentive to invest in players because a potential ROI was on the horizon.
What About the Girls
The Girls DA was simply a replacement for a system that wasn’t broken (i.e. ECNL/National League to College to National Team). The girls will go back to ECNL and National League (US Youth) and NPL (US Club) and have all the same opportunities they always had.
Because the economic considerations are much different between professional play for women v. men, the girls/women’s system of development is motivated not by money, but college and national pride.
What Has Really Changed?
For those with no national team aspirations … the patch on his/her uniform. For those with professional/national team aspirations, a much better training environment is around the corner. These athletes will continue to work towards finding a home in a fully-funded MLS academy … but now the MLS teams have a financial incentive to invest more heavily in their training programs because RSTP $$$$ is in play.
RSTP will change the landscape of the Pay-2-Play model for elite level youth. We will likely see the following occur:
- MLS teams will expand their footprint with partnerships between the team and other clubs. The new sales pitch will be “Our club is an MLS team partner, and the pathway is our Rec Program to our Academy Team to our MLS partner’s academy.” The smarter MLS clubs will contractually agree to share RSTP monies with the partner club, thus, encouraging elimination or reduction of pay-2-play. The more progressive MLS clubs will create additional schools like programs (think IMG Academy). and
- MLS and USL are about to go to war over the 18-23 year olds. Currently the MLS “B” team plays in USL-1 (3rd Division). This isn’t going to fly down the road. The MLS will make a play to form a 2nd Division League if the USL rebuffs changes to the USL that the MLS will demand. In this war, the USL will ultimately lose.