En Route: MLS Academies Distance Themselves From The Pack

The growing rift between MLS and non-MLS Academies is a sign of the times
“You know MLS Academies work on a budget between $200,000 and $500,000 annually,” a Development Academy Technical Director remarked to me recently.

 “Really?” I replied.

“And here I am competing against them with a budget 1/10 that size.”

While MLS Academy Directors were not as forthcoming with their budgetary means, the fact remains there is a gaping hole between the two sides. The staggering difference in the assets of the clubs is turning into a battle of David vs. Goliath in the Development Academy.

"There is a big advantage for the MLS clubs," Tony LePore, Development Academy Director of Scouting, said last month in a telephone interview when asked about an edge for the professional youth clubs.

LePore’s sentiment is pretty common among Development Academy coaches and technical directors.

Darren Sawatzky, Sounders Academy Technical Director, called it a “massive gap.”

“All of them are working, all them are putting time and resources into it,” Sawatzky said. “But there is definitely a difference when you go visit an MLS club opposed to some of the youth soccer grassroots clubs.”

However, Sawatzky still thinks highly of the work of some non-MLS youth clubs.

 “I think there are some youth clubs that do a better job than some of the MLS clubs. They do an unbelievable job, but the reality is the MLS clubs have a professional team.”

 So the question is how do non-MLS Development Academy clubs close this gap?

Well, the fact of the matter is they might not even bother. There have been murmurs for a couple years from MLS teams about setting up their own league.

“It could happen in five years,” Real Salt Lake–Arizona Technical Director Mike Munoz replied when asked about the potential MLS only league.

LePore in the past has been quick to dispel those myths, suggesting that the professional and non-professional youth academies are working together to make sure every club is improving.

His idea for advancing the quality of the Academy is to remove the teams that don’t meet the Development Academy standard. Yearly, the officials of the Academy analyze the clubs who are falling behind the rest of the pack.

It is not a one-time notice for the clubs. They are advised throughout the year about how to improve their training methods. If they fail to reach the targets set by LePore and his staff, they are likely to be stripped of the Development Academy emblem.

To replace them, multiple clubs apply each year for those spots that are freed up. LePore maintains the current number of 78 clubs is around the range he believes is best for the Academy.

Given that number remains, it means that roughly 20% of the Academy will be MLS funded clubs. There are a handful of others that are full-funded like the Cosmos Academies and Texans SC Houston, but the majority of the academies are still pay-for-play clubs.

The gap between those clubs and MLS academies continues to grow as MLS youth directors realize the potential of their resources. LePore mentioned Red Bull New York exploring a system to accelerate players’ high school studies so they can join professional level practices earlier. Chicago Fire Academy have transitioned from the required three practices a week to five practices a week to match other clubs across the globe. RSL-AZ established a residential academy in a new territory to tap into a deeper talent pool.

What RBNY, Fire, and RSL are doing with their youth academies is not groundbreaking to youth soccer, but it is innovative for the U.S. development system. It does suggest MLS teams are willing to devote their resources to establishing a presence in the youth game, a positive sign for MLS’s future but an interesting dilemma for non-MLS clubs attempting to compete for the talented players.

Previously successful clubs like Baltimore Bays, Derby County Wolves, and Indiana United have still found success in the Academy despite being non-profit clubs due to great coaching and smart management. One has to wonder how long those advantages can last once MLS academies throw their money around toward the coaching staffs of those clubs.

Perhaps, MLS and USSF should look at the Academy’s structure and player signings in a different light. Instead of MLS clubs establishing territories (state by state), they should establish satellite clubs. Philadelphia Union do something to this effect with their youth academy. Union list 32 youth clubs as their partners on their website. While Union do not have an academy of their own, they are attempting to cultivate the best talent in their geographical region from multiple sources.

To sweeten the pie, MLS teams could offer a financial incentive to clubs who develop players capable of playing at the next level. This would accomplish two goals: 1.) The emphasis on winning would be downplayed, as the end-goal would now be producing talent for MLS clubs. 2.) The gap between non-profit youth academies and MLS youth academies would be recognized and remedied. The best players would play for MLS academies and the best developing academies would still have a role in the U.S. youth system.

Ambitious as it may seem, the question is no longer what to do if MLS academies take over the Development Academy. The question is how will U.S. Soccer respond to the elephant in the room.
J.R. Eskilson is the Youth Soccer Editor at Goal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @NCAAsoccer.

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