Even with its stadiums shuttered and players on lockdown, Major League Soccer’s influence over the sport in the USA and Canada is expanding. With two rapid-fire announcements on Wednesday evening, one from MLS and one from the U.S. Soccer Federation, the first-tier professional league assumed de facto control over the highest level of American youth player development.
First came word from the USSF that the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, the governing body’s ambitious initiative that imposed training and coaching standards (including banning high school play) while pitting the country’s top clubs against each other in year-round competition, was shutting down immediately. The 2019-20 season, the USSDA’s 13th, already and been called off because of the coronavirus pandemic. But now it’s gone for good. Launched in 2007 for boys and in 2017 for girls, the USSDA grew to encompass hundreds of teams from U-12 through U-19 and more than 20,000 players.
A few moments later, MLS announced its intention to fill the breach with the creation of a “new elite competition” for boys intended to serve both the academy teams run by its members and select “non-MLS academy teams that previously participated in the [USSDA].” Details are still being ironed out, but MLS said the new platform “will provide year-round high-level matches” as well as “both regional and national tournaments with international teams.”
And with that, MLS became elite youth soccer’s gatekeeper. It will set the coaching and playing standards, define the budget and decide which non-MLS clubs are invited to participate. The remaining organizations will be tossed back into youth soccer’s teeming alphabet soup, which has grown more layered and complex in recent years and features U.S. Youth Soccer local, regional and national leagues, U.S. Club Soccer competitions—including USSDA rival ECNL—the USL’s nascent academy initiative and more.
“As we currently have 2,500 elite players and 250 top youth coaches in our academies, MLS is uniquely positioned to provide a new and enhanced platform that will include high quality coaching, professionalized environments and enhanced player identification,” MLS VP of competitions and National Soccer Hall of Fame defender Jeff Agoos said.
That had been the goal of the USSDA. Knitting together the youth soccer cultures of a continent-sized country isn’t easy, especially as differences created by geographic distance were exacerbated by the rising ambition and reach of the MLS clubs. They didn’t capture every USSDA title, but they did win a significant majority (of the 20 U-19 and U-17 crowns awarded in the 2010s, MLS teams took 15). Stratification rose. So did expenses.
And the payoff wasn’t clear. While some clubs (FC Dallas, New York Red Bulls, etc), produced pros, others saw players poached. And it isn’t clear whether the men’s U.S. national teams ever benefited. The senior side missed the 2018 World Cup. And the U-23s failed to qualify for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.
In other words, Wednesday’s announcements had been coming. Some non-MLS clubs wanted increased control, or sought to limit the cost and burden of travel. Some MLS clubs wanted more consistent top-flight competition. In the end, the USSF cited cost and the coronavirus as the reason for the shutdown. But those really were the final straws, rather than the catalyst. The USSDA was projected to lead to a loss of nearly $7 million in the Federation’s fiscal 2020, and a deficit greater than $8 million in fiscal 2021.
"The extraordinary and unanticipated circumstances around the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in a financial situation that does not allow for the continuation of the Development Academy program into the future. We know that suddenly discontinuing a program that has been with U.S. Soccer for many years is shocking, but these unprecedented times required acting now,” the Federation said.
“While we do not have all the answers on what the future will look like across the youth soccer landscape, as the governing body of the sport in the United States we are committed to doing as much as we can to assist during these extremely challenging times.”
It’s impossible to imagine that the tectonic plates will finish shifting by the September start of the new youth soccer season, the coronavirus notwithstanding. The USSDA was fleshed out over years, as additional age groups and a girls division were added. But it’s clear that MLS will take the lead in crafting the new order. It can now begin to tailor a competition that focuses on the age groups and scheduling MLS clubs prioritize. That almost certainly will include matches against local or regional non-MLS teams—not every youth soccer game should require a flight—and that will help MLS technical directors keep tabs on area talent. It also likely will include more foreign opposition, like that scheduled during the U-17 Generation Adidas Cup that MLS has hosted annually since 2007.
Those USSDA clubs that are left behind, not to mention players and teams from the large swaths of the country outside an MLS market, will have to react. MLS also said Wednesday that it’s “evaluating the potential to provide future competition opportunities for girls.”
The size of the country, the distance between pro clubs and the relative immaturity of the American academy system—not to mention the economic issues (pay-for-play, training compensation, etc.) and soccer’s uncertain place in the sporting hierarchy—make the creation of a coherent youth soccer consensus almost impossible. Wants and needs differ across time zones and competitive levels. The USSDA was worth the try, but ultimately it couldn’t handle that array of shifting, cumbersome burdens. Now MLS will create a streamlined competition to suit its needs, while the remaining clubs and organizations will try to craft a bit of order from the chaos.