Surveying the Soccer Scene: the Future of Youth Soccer (u-20 and pre-15)

Going forward there is even more to be done to prevent wasted effort and allow for talented players to be identified earlier.  USSF has already taken drastic steps into the realms of youth soccer by first creating the DA in 2007 and now mandating the 10-month schedule switch for the 2012-13 season.  The next big step should be incorporating more clubs and adding other age divisions.  This could come in the form of absorbing USL youth clubs that meet criteria or to provide other incentives to swell the ranks of untapped player pools in order to provide more regionalized competition while maintaining the high quality of play.  This would also mean that the USSF would either create a u-13/14 league, or a u-20/u-21 league, or both.

The U.S. has dozens of professional affiliates and independent youth clubs that participate in the U.S.S.F. Development Academy League.  For the 2011-2012 season, the DA has a u-15/16 age division and a u-17/18 age division.  There is currently nothing available nationally above or below those age groups.  While there remains no centrally organized u-20 league in the United States, there is a rapidly expanding youth system below the Development Academy.

The older division would be a stepping stone for players between the now established u-18 DA League and NPSL/PDL clubs.  Currently there is not one unified path for 19 year old DA standouts to reach the professional leagues.  From fall to winter NCAA programs train players, and from May to August there are the Super 20, NPSL, and USL PDL.

The pink dots are Super-20 clubs, green are NPSL clubs, and blue is PDL.  The preceding map shows that it may be beneficial to the operating costs of involved clubs congregate the teams clubs from the three leagues under one umbrella.

This amalgamation will put a spotlight on the differences in ability among the wide range of teams operating at the u-20/u-23/national amateur level.  Competition between a professionally operated club like Des Moines Menace or San Diego Flash and a nearby Super-20 club may expose a significant gulf in class.  To address this disparity of ambition, the league office could make a distinction between clubs with their own professional goals and teams that solely act as reserve or development arenas.

This reformation would allow better teams to play against stronger opposition and would allow younger players without the current ability to play against premier college-aged talent to play against their own respective corresponding competition.  The new league structure would necessitate the removal of overage players from the teams’ roster or a more stringent application of the roster rules.  This would also escalate a split between NPSL and PDL teams that want to begin paying their players, and those that wish to remain as amateur operations [this division exists in Mexico].  By aggregating teams and players, the best can rise to the top without incurring tremendous travel costs.  Any one team would now find several other clubs within a reasonable distance that had previously played in a different league.

The USSF would need to strengthen its authority as this restructuring would represent an unprecedented intervention.  Clubs would need to be vetted and their practices approved by the national governing body, as is currently done with the Development Academy League.  Regional divisions within a regulated and highly competitive national league is the key for developmental soccer in this country.

The younger division might spark an outrage for concerned parents about the social pressure of sending a 13 year old to a national tournament or for parents of a 13 year old to foot the bill for a DA season’s tuition.  Alternatives to this would be to ignore the younger divisions or to making the younger division a more regionalized league by incorporating even more clubs by looking to youth clubs from USASA and other local organizations.  However, structures exist for u-13, u-14, and u-15 national tournaments, such as the annual Dallas Cup.

The problem would lie in the professionalized nature of this league, such as the increased competition and national spotlight on the u-13 level athletes.  There are, however, websites that rank the best national prospects at the youth level already, such as this article by Top Drawer Soccer.  “Professionalizing” the u-14 and u-13 age groups is not necessary, but it could help those select few players who are going to be able to break through at the next level.  This same argument is brought up with regard to the DA League’s 10-month schedule; that it sacrifices the majority of high school aged players’ social soccer experience for the benefit of the remote few who have the potential to succeed at the college or professional level.

United States Club Soccer (an independent governing body for amateur soccer in the U.S.) operates a series of leagues called the Pre-Academy Leagues.  For the 2011-2012 season, all the participating teams across three conferences are younger affiliates of teams that participate in the U.S.S.F. Development Academy League. The current list includes 9 teams in Texas, 13 in the Southeast, and 18 teams in the Northeast.  Starting in the fall of 2012, however, two new divisions will bring previously unaffiliated clubs (clubs that don’t currently have teams in the DA) in the southeast and west.  The Pre-Academy Leagues fit into US Club Soccer’s overall National Premier Leagues (NPL) – a nationwide system of youth teams ranging from u-12 to u-18.

Operating under the auspices of U.S. Club Soccer, the “pre-academy” league offers the same high level of competition and intelligent training schedule that incited the initial drive for the Development Academy, only for the u-11 though u-15 age groups.  Across several geographic divisions, youth clubs (a large percentage of which are currently participating in the USDA) now have the chance to develop players in a competitive atmosphere at a younger age.  This allows clubs with several age brackets the opportunity to groom their players from as early as 10 or 11 and keep these players on a well-thought out training regimen to best develop young talent.

According to the press releases on USCS, “The NPL has been created to provide a unified, league-based national developmental platform with the highest level of competition in given geographic areas, and to elevate and change the competitive youth soccer landscape based upon fundamental principles outlined in US Club Soccer’s 10-year vision.”

The Northeast Pre-Academy League and Texas Pre-Academy League operated at the u-13, u-14, and u-15 levels this past season.  The Southeast Pre-Academy League only conducted a u-14 competition with all member clubs involved.  US Club Soccer made two announcements in early June 2012 about the future of their National Premier Leagues (NPL).  The South Atlantic Premier League (u-13, u-14) will feature six teams while the Mountain Developmental League (u-13, u-14, u-15, u-16, u-17 includes twelve teams in two geographic divisions.

Other leagues within the NPL structure include clubs that currently field teams in the DA, Super Y-League, Super-20 League, and those who don’t participate in any other national endeavor.

There are also issues of geographic overlap.  Because the leagues that make up the NPL system are independently operated and loosely governed by US Club Soccer, there were Florida teams playing in the Southeast Pre-Academy League despite the existence of the Florida Premier League.  However, with the success and further expansion of the regionalized NPLs, teams will be realigned to their geographic league.  For instance, the four Florida teams that played the 2011-2012 season in the SEPAL will join the five existing teams and two new clubs in the expanded FPL for the upcoming season.

All of this equates to a net positive for the organization of youth soccer.  However, the problem still arises that clubs are operating teams at the same or similar age divisions in different league structures.  One example is Waza FC of Michigan, which has youth teams playing in both the Midwest Development League of the NPL and also the United Soccer Leagues (both Super-20 League and the u-12 and u-14 divisions of the Super Y-League).  Kendall SC of Florida operates teams in the U.S.S.F. Development Academy (at both u-16 and u-18 levels), Super Y-League (u-12, u-13, u-14, u-15) and Southeast Pre-Academy League (u-14) in the 2011-2012 season.

Several clubs including Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew, and NJSA 04 have teams in the Development Academy and then field a team in the Super-20 League.  The Chicago Fire have a rather redundant youth system with u-12, u-13, u-14, u-15, u-16, and u-17 in the Super Y-League, the u-15/16 and u-17/18 divisions of the Development Academy, the Super-20 League, the National Premier Soccer League, USL’s Premier Development League, and a team in the MLS Reserve League in addition to youth academy satellites in other states (Indiana, Florida, Michigan, Louisiana, and Mississippi).

Some players may be good enough for the u-16 team in the Super Y-League but not the u-15/16 team in the Development Academy.  Some players may have aged out of the Development Academy but aren’t yet good enough for the NPSL team (and there is a case for late-bloomers).  However, at some point this conglomeration of youth teams creates an inefficient overlap for club without the financial resources of the Chicago Fire.

Certainly if a club wishes to field teams in three or four different they should have the ability to do so.  But in the same respect, if a team wants to consolidate their youth development practices, there should be an effective league structure within which to operate.  Mexico has a national u-15 league, in which all the country’s professional clubs field teams, that joins the u-18 and u-20 leagues.  The benefits of this structural development can be seen in the strides achieved by Mexican youth national teams in the last few years.  While any steps taken in the United States should still allow for different paths depending on individual circumstances on a club by club basis, the country needs to streamline development leagues to give our young players the best opportunity to reach their greatest potential.

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