Surveying the Soccer Scene: American Youth Soccer

The strides that the United States Soccer Federation’s Development Academy has made since its inception has produced much hullabaloo recently.  Just last month, both the u15/16 and u17/18 age divisions wrapped up their national playoffs with the New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas claiming the respective trophies.  This season’s playoffs saw more exciting American youth prospects than prior years.  The Development Academy (DA) has become the preeminent choice of age eligible soccer players in the United States.  But what about after high school?

If players are good enough, can find a national amateur team near their hometown or college’s town, and are willing to put in the time without an immediate tangible gain… they can play in the United Soccer Leagues Premier Development League or in the National Premier Soccer League during the summers of their college career.

What can players do if they don’t live near clubs in these leagues?  Or if a young player and his parents decide to pursue soccer before age 15?  What if players are competitive at a u18 level but can’t yet make the cut in the PDL or NPSL?  These are the questions I’m trying to probe in this exercise on the multiple structures of youth soccer in the United States.

During college, there are currently several paths for players to get from “youth” leagues to the “professional” leagues.  Most of these paths include college soccer during the NCAA season, as even promising prospects from MLS academies still play college ball, but in the summer athletes have a number of options.  Considered the most professional of the various summer leagues for college-aged players, United Soccer Leagues’ Premier Development League (PDL) offers a high level of competition with established clubs that are often scouted by Major League Soccer teams.

The second most well regarded national amateur league, the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), is growing in its number of teams and nation-wide profile.  NPSL allows new clubs to join for smaller expansion fees and operate a lower-cost business model while claiming to provide the same level of play on the field as the PDL.  United Soccer Leagues’ Super-20 League is a u-20 league that was designed as a stepping stone between youth leagues (Super Y-League) and the PDL.  There are many S-20 clubs in areas without PDL teams and several S-20 teams that also operate youth development structures.

The Development Academy had 78 teams for the 2011-2012 season.  Before the 2012-2013 season starts, two clubs will exit the league while Portland Timbers, Montreal Impact, Orlando City, and San Juan Soccer Club will all join to make a total of 80 teams for its first national 10-month schedule.

The stated purpose of the United States Development Academy is to provide a competitive atmosphere in which to nurture and develop young soccer talent, as the two following quotes from the initial press release point to.  “In a move designed to improve the development environment for players throughout the country, the U.S. Soccer Federation has taken the initiative in formalizing a nationwide development academy.”  “Created to provide players with the best possible opportunity to develop, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy is being initiated after a comprehensive review of player development systems in the United States and around the world.”

The advantage of creating youth clubs that encompass large areas, like Empire United of the Development Academy which combines the Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse areas, is to pool the best talent together to allow the cream to rise to the top.  This allows all the players to get a challenge during practices and for the team to represent well in regional competition.

Most players in the youth national teams come from Development Academy teams and we are seeing an encouraging trend of MLS clubs signing academy products to Homegrown Player contracts, which bypasses the draft process and more closely resembles the academy systems in other countries.  In order to qualify under the Homegrown Player rule, a player must have participated in an MLS affiliate team during his development for at least a year.  The team then places a claim over the player that the league will either accept or reject.

If a player doesn’t live near a Development Academy, there are still several age divisions of youth soccer organized by the United Soccer Leagues.  Between the Super-20 League and the Super Y-League, USL offers an opportunity to players in large geographic areas left out in the cold by the Development Academy.

In the past USL operated a u-19 division as part of the Super Y-League, but the Super-20 League took its place and grew to become a separate entity.  The specific goal of the S-20 is to create an atmosphere for players 17 to 20 who are not yet ready to make the jump from the youth game to a senior team like the PDL.  Players must be at least 16 years of age to be eligible to play for a S-20 team.

The season for most of the Super Y runs from May through August, while the S-20 has a heavy schedule in June and July to allow for students to focus on college during the academic calendar.  In 2011, the Super-20 League partnered with United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA) in order to increase the league’s reach through all of the 54 USASA member associations across the country.

Super Y-League (and with it the Super-20 League) fulfill a few functions that the DA is currently lacking.  Although the academy clubs claim a high level of professionalism, some of the organizations affiliated with the Y-League have been around for 20 years (the Y-League was a brainchild of the USISL before its merger process with the A-League to form what is now the USL).  At this time Y-League clubs have developed roots deep into their communities in a way that DA clubs can still only wish for.  USL is also charged with operating the Olympic Development Program.  ODP has been responsible for identifying many players who have gone on to play for the U.S. national teams.

The DA league only has two age divisions, a u15/16 league and a u17/18 league. The Super-Y League runs from u12 up through u17 while the Super-20 League had 53 teams in its 6 geographical divisions in both the United States and Canada for the 2011 season.  These age divisions sandwich what is currently available from the U.S. Soccer Development Academy League.

All of the Development Academy League, Super Y-League, Super-20 League, National Premier Soccer League, and Premier Development League contain academy teams from Major League Soccer clubs.  For this reason, it’s not hard to argue that the MLS has a strong interest in organizing and stabilizing this country’s development leagues.  In another post I’ll throw around some ideas on how to structure these leagues or which features to include in any possible reformatting.

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