The US Development Academy’s decision to expand a u14 division and UEFA’s introduction of a unified continental youth competition share a common storyline. They are both examples of a private enterprise exercising the initiative in an area of soccer that is in need of professionalized structure before the respective governing body stepped in to oversee operations.
As a Tottenham Hotspur supporter of many years and a fan of high level European competition I was intrigued by the NextGen Series. NextGen is an independent youth tournament for elite clubs in Europe, including Spurs, which features clubs’ under 19 squads. The idea for a junior version of the almighty Champions League was crafted by League One club Brentford’s Sporting Director Mark Walburton and television producer Justin Andrews. This dream culminated in the debut season of the NextGen tournament in August of 2011.
It kicked off on August 17th 2011 and includes famous clubs such as Barcelona, Chelsea, Inter, Sporting Lisbon and Liverpool, producers of stars such as Messi, Ronaldo and Gerrard. The opening season saw Inter emerge champions after beating Ajax in a thrilling penalty shoot-out.
The second season starts this August, and for young talents it offers the unique opportunity to experience all aspects of a competitive, large, international tournament. The challenges they will be facing, such as adapting to unfamiliar styles of play, prolonged periods of travel and two match weeks, will help them when making the transition to the first team.
For football fans the tournament is a great chance to watch young players in the making and to experience the new football stars of the future.
The teams involved in the 2011-2012 tournament were some of the most well-known clubs in Europe: Aston Villa, Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur (ENG), VfL Wolfsburg (GER), Internazionale (ITA), Marseille (FRA), Ajax, PSV Eindhoven (HOL), Molde FK, Rosenborg (NOR), Sporting Clube de Portugal (POR), Celtic (SCO), Barcelona (SPA), FC Basel (SWI), Fenerbahçe (TUR).
The 2012-2013 edition saw FC Basel leave while 9 more clubs joined, namely: Arsenal, Chelsea (ENG), Paris Saint-Germain (FRA), Anderlecht (BEL), CSKA Moscow (RUS), Athletic Bilbao (SPA), Juventus (ITA), Borussia Dortmund (GER), Olympiacos (GRE).
UEFA decided in 2012 to create their own competition for 2013 which would mirror the senior Champions League and all but neuter the NextGen Series. The Daily Mail reported at the end of June that UEFA was planning a tournament to rival NextGen. “The competition seems to have been set up to limit the growing influence of the NextGen series, which last year included Barcelona, Inter Milan and Juventus, in addition to Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City.” The cynical (but not entirely incorrect) view holds that UEFA followed through on their Youth League, which was announced in early December, purely for monetary reasons. NextGen has been successfully pulling in Europe’s best clubs (including the most renowned academy programs) while increasing their television and sponsorship deals. Giving UEFA the benefit of the doubt, they saw a budding competition and sought to use that format as a basis to institutionalize a continental u-19 club competition.
Across the pond in the United States, there is a quite different story playing out with similar conclusions. The American soccer development environment is very much behind that of European countries, nevertheless significant progress has been made in the last few years. The advent of the national Development Academy, which now has 80 participating clubs, in 2007 was a milestone for American youth soccer but there is still much to do.
US Club Soccer, an independent organization not connected to U.S. Soccer, set about creating “pre-academy leagues” among its series of National Premier Leagues. The National Premier Leagues website spells out the following goals among others:
More specifically, the NPL provides a platform:
- focused on long-term player development;
- for the country’s top soccer clubs, allowing consistent, meaningful high-level games appropriately scheduled with higher training-to-game ratios;
- that allows players to be scouted and evaluated by U.S. Soccer National Staff and Technical Advisors
The NPL is an important component of US Club Soccer’s 10-year vision to refine the landscape for competitive youth soccer. This vision recognizes that:
- Properly-structured youth soccer clubs are the vehicle through which player development does and must occur in the United States.
- Clubs should play in leagues that provide meaningful games, allow establishment of the proper training-to-game ratio, and eliminate calendar congestion.
This is the language used by USSF to describe their premier youth leagues system:
What is the Development Academy?
The Development Academy is a partnership between U.S. Soccer and the top youth clubs around the country to provide the best youth players in the U.S. with an every day environment designed to produce the next generation of National Team players. The Academy’s programming philosophy is based on increased training, less total games and more competitive games.
The Academy also connects National Team coaches directly with the Academy clubs to develop and identify players and coaches for future Youth National Teams. Each Academy team is evaluated by a member of the Men’s Scouting Network at least ten times each year and each
From the initial press release announcing the creation of the Development Academy “…the youth clubs chosen to be part of the Development Academy will increase the amount of time spent on meaningful training while also increasing the quality of their matches.”
Upon further review, it seems like US Club Soccer’s National Premier Leagues provides the same opportunities for u-14 teams that the Development Academy does for u-16 and u-18 teams. Take also into consideration the fact that 38 of the 40 clubs participating in the initial three “pre-academy leagues” were clubs which fielded teams in the two divisions of the Development Academy. This first wave of NPLs were the Northest Pre-Academy League, the Southeast Pre-Academy League, and the Texas Pre-Academy League.
I’ve said in a previous post that US Club Soccer’s National Premier League program has done the heavy lifting for the recently announced expansion of the Development Academy’s directive to the u14 level.
“US Club Soccer has already laid down the framework to allow the Development Academy to grow. In many respects, USCS has done the dirty work on the ground level by establishing regional leagues for the most competitive youth clubs around the country. Participation in the youngest division may increase the likelihood that new clubs will strive to join the DA at the u-16 and u-18 levels, by adhering to a stringent set of regulations and operation guidelines. Because the Pre-Academy League allow clubs that participate in the Development Academy League the chance to play their younger players in a similar formatted competition, with regard to the training to game time ratio, the transition to the new age levels in the DA will be much smoother.”
If US Soccer’s Development Academy carries through with its plan to incorporate the very best u14 programs into a national league, undoubtedly it will have to choose many (if not all) of the clubs currently enrolled in US Club Soccer’s NPL program. The teams in the Pre-Academy Leagues as well as other leagues which feature clubs who participate in the u16 and u18 division of the Development Academy will be better able to adjust institutionally with the travel, training, and competitive rigors of the Development Academy system.
This therefore represents another example of the central governing body attempting to improve (or co-opt) an existing youth competition structure. In the case of the u14 division of the Development Academy, there is very little (if any) money to be made. There is, however, an opportunity to allow high level clubs the chance to groom talented players in a professional academy manner from a younger age. The US Soccer Federation also has the chance to give young referees new to the national program a chance to officiate more youth games before assigning them to professional leagues.
Mark Warburton, co-founder of NextGen, said at the time: “We want to fill a void. Apart from an exceptional few capable of jumping straight into first teams, many promising academy graduates have not been provided with enough consistent high-quality challenges. We think we can avoid wasting talent by helping more young players reach senior level.”
NextGen directors put forth the organizational effort to get the ball rolling. Aside from a few unclear rules (Tottenham breached squad rules by fielding a player who was too young) and scheduling mishaps, the NextGen series has been very successful. Due to the commercial success, monetary gain, and overall contentment from clubs involved, it is not a far-fetched argument to claim UEFA are not trying to save NextGen but to prevent the privately operated league from establishing itself. Instead of supporting the existing league, UEFA’s Youth League will attempt to replace NextGen by capitalizing upon its framework.
In the vastly different footballing worlds of the United States and Europe, similar stories can remind us what is important. The American national u14 developmental league stresses that first and foremost is the attempt to provide young soccer players the adequate platforms to best grow and showcase their talents in a nurturing and conducive environment. Any potential rivalry or clash between NextGen and UEFA’s Youth League is a lesson that we should not lose sight of player-first aims of youth soccer. It certainly does require capital investment to design the logistical framework for a continental league season, but if UEFA tries to market the Youth League in the same ways it commercializes the Champions League, priority will not be given to the well-being and development of players but rather the interests of corporate sponsors.