A couple weeks back, the US Soccer Development Academy announced that it would officially switch to the 10-month schedule practiced and recognized by most of the FIFA world for the 2012-2013 season. This would effectively make the DA a replacement for high school soccer as the switch blocks players from competing in scholastic leagues. American youth soccer fanatics with internet access have long been haranguing the detriments of the high school system: limited practice each day, multiple games in a week, three month schedule in large swaths of the country, the physicality of play, the lack of proper officiating, uneven application across leagues and states, and the lack of concentrated possession based development in the face of huge gaps in quality between teams. These bloggers and (let’s call them) “soccer activists” have been making noise telling youth players to skip the high school route for a while now, but until very recently there was no viable alternative.
For the current season the US Soccer Development Academy League (formed in 2009) has 78 participating clubs spread geographically through 10 divisions. You can see the map and national clustering on the East Coast, in California, and in Texas here. From US Soccer’s page on the DA program, “The Academy’s programming philosophy of increased training, less total games and more competitive games is based on U.S. Soccer’s Best Practices utilized by the U-17 U.S. National Team Residency program.” This directly addresses several of the most pressing concerns observers have had about high school soccer.
Today the internet is ablaze with people similarly lambasting the college soccer system, myself included. But what the general public might not fully understand is that there is not currently an adequate system to accommodate the thousands of NCAA players. The Development Academy league has grown tremendously since its founding, but only provides access for players up to age 18. After a player reaches the traditional high school graduation age, what are his options?
Firstly, if the player is a tremendous youth talent such as New England’s Diego Fagundez, he can sign a Homegrown Player deal with MLS. Secondly, if a player didn’t play with an MLS affiliated youth club like Josh Gatt, he can test his luck in Europe. For the remaining 99% of American youth players, there aren’t very many other options. The current system highly favors the collegiate route and there aren’t any competitive leagues that run concurrent with the short NCAA season to offer viable alternatives.
There are however, a series of supplements built around the college process. Summer leagues like USL’s Premier Development League (PDL) and the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) are both national amateur leagues that allow college aged players to play in a competitive atmosphere without losing NCAA eligibility.
But clearly there are more athletes involved in the three divisions of NCAA soccer than there are in the PDL and NPSL, which speaks to the fact that there are large numbers of college players who aren’t interested testing the national amateur or semi-professional waters and who probably aren’t looking to make a career out of playing soccer.
There is a very considerable gap between the high school aged Development Academy and the level of play in the MLS Reserve League. MLS academies send a number of players (anywhere from five to fifteen) off to college each year while retaining their Homegrown Player tags on these prospects. MLS clubs allow a few slots on their roster in reserve fixtures for “guest players” who are not under contract with the club, but this opportunity can only be extended to a few NCAA players and is usually reserved to senior players the first team is considering signing. Even with the expanded 30-man MLS roster, any given year there are hundreds of college-aged players competing for very few roster spots.
American lower division clubs offer an opportunity to bridge the gap. United Soccer Leagues (USL) and North American Soccer League (NASL) organizations don’t have training facilities that offer the same development possibilities as MLS clubs, but can provide a level of play that can more adequately stimulate player growth. We have recently seen US youth international Gale Agbossoumonde sign with the Carolina Railhawks of the NASL for the 2012 season. Many players who get drafted out of college but don’t impress the coaches enough to earn an MLS contract (like J.C. Banks who was drafted by Toronto FC but released before the start of the season) end up in the lower divisions. Young MLS players who went through the draft process and hung around the bench or reserve team without improving quick enough to justify through roster spot (like Conor Chinn who was drafted by New York) also wind up in the American lower divisions. USL or NASL is an option for players who have completed the NCAA system and can’t make it in MLS, but because the scheduling of these leagues is concentrated during the summer this avenue is not a replacement for college soccer.
College soccer is quite clearly not perfect for developing MLS-ready players. PDL and NPSL are doing their part by offering relatively high quality of play during the summer and putting college aged players in a shop window for USL, NASL, and MLS clubs. Unfortunately, however, until a comprehensive u21 or u23 program pops up in the United States, similar in structure to the Development Academy, the NCAA is the best available route for young players. While people on the internet are running around with their heads cut off, yelling about the abomination that is college soccer (its clock counts down!), MLS clubs are learning to work within the existing system by joining the NPSL (Red Bulls, Chicago) or the PDL (Portland, Vancouver, Seattle) and allowing the NCAA to spend its own resources to develop MLS youth prospects.