En Route: MLS Academies Look To Set The Standard

Youth soccer in America finding an identity.

Three years ago, U.S. Soccer began an initiative called the Development Academy. At the forefront of the progressive youth soccer adjustment was the introduction of MLS academies to the scene.

Currently, there are only two American MLS teams without academies in the Development Academy, and both of those clubs have plans to join the system soon. So with the introduction of professional clubs to a youth structure that had been around for years, would there be backlash? How would the professional teams do against established clubs?

Goal.com asked youth directors around MLS their thoughts on the project and on the future.

After discussing the Development Academy with various directors around the league, the message was clear: MLS teams want to develop players. “We are different in that player development is paramount and winning will be a by product of development, not the opposite,” Brian Crookham, Colorado Rapids’ Director of Youth Soccer, told Goal.com on Monday. A not so subtle jab at youth clubs that still polish their trophy case more than help their players advance.

John Maessener, D.C. United’s Director of Youth Soccer agreed, saying, “We are serious about player development and have shown that our system, even as it is relatively new, is a very good environment for top level players to develop.” Oscar Pareja, FC Dallas’ Director of Player Development, chimed in with, “The professional clubs should set the highest standards in soccer here in USA.”

The general consensus among the teams is that MLS clubs want their players to know the purpose of the academy is to help them reach their full potential. The emphasis that may have been stressed in the past on results is no longer an issue.

An important change to the previous system, that most of the clubs singled out as one of the best parts of the Development Academy, is the professional training environment that MLS clubs could offer. While it hasn’t always been that way, Crookham stated, “The bottom line is that the daily environment must be better if we want to produce better players and I think there has been some movement in that direction.”

Maessener was very upbeat about the potential of developing players in professional training: “In order to be able to produce world class players, you have to have world class training programs for players to develop.” He went on to say, “This country is used to being the best, I’m confident if we do the things that we all know need to be done, we will be a world power in the next 10-20  years.”

Pareja stated that FC Dallas gives a player a chance “to develop in a professional way, offering all our resources to reach their potential.” Development Academy offers Sparq training, as well as statistical analysis to their teams. Pareja singled out Sparq training saying, “Identifying areas where we can work on is crucial for the coaches.”

One of the major challenges that MLS academies have faced is dealing with local clubs that have been in the area for a long time. Youth clubs are a business, and they are not fans of competing businesses so when MLS academies were developed, there was a backlash.

Rapids’ experience with the local teams seems to be the status quo, Crookham explained, “We had clubs that jumped up at the beginning wanting to be partners, and we had clubs that circled the wagons and protected what they feel are their territories.” Obviously, the lack of support is not ideal for clubs that should handle the top youth players. However, as Maessener noted, some of these clubs have been doing this for a very long time, but they are beginning to understand that the MLS teams are “serious about player development.”

This is not an idea that is going to change overnight, the process of MLS clubs winning a territorial battle might never be over. However, they have begun the process to stake some claim in the local areas.

Possibly the most promising future of the Development Academy is the chance at an all-MLS youth league. Maessener said that clubs are “always talking about ways to separate MLS Academies from the rest to set the standard in this country as it is around the world and as it should be.” Crookham added that MLS clubs are not necessarily in the best interest of the Development Academy.

Instead he offered, “Oversight that is good for a traditional youth club doesn't fit with our goals or philosophies.” For these clubs, the goal is player development and getting players ready for the professional level. There are obviously certain clubs in the Development Academy that don’t have the same beliefs, which does make the competition between these clubs vastly different in terms of goals and success.

Maessener pointed out that the MLS teams have begun to distinguish their clubs by introducing the MLS Youth Cup. (D.C. United won the event in 2009.) Another element unique to MLS clubs is the ability to transition to a professional contract from the academy teams. Maessener talked about the benefit of in-house player development for MLS clubs, “the Home Grown Player rule helps to bring the best, most serious players into our systems and makes it possible for the very best young players to sign professional contracts directly from their Academy teams.”

While it all sounds great on paper, there is still a ton of work to be done by the clubs and the Development Academy. In an ideal world, a hierarchy would be established with the MLS Youth Academies taking the lion’s share of talented players in this country. Maybe it is time for USSF to step up to the plate and help guide the clubs in the right direction. However, there are far too many clubs too uneasy about letting go of control in youth soccer. So the question remains; can the academies be successful with half the teams concerned about results and the others stuck on development?

J.R. Eskilson is the youth soccer editor. 

For more youth soccer news visit Goal.com's dedicated page.