United Soccer Leagues Evolves its Extensive Development Model

In case you haven’t seen the press release yet, United Soccer Leagues announced on Wednesday that they will align the Premier Development League and the Super-20 League for the upcoming summer season. Each league is a part of USL’s overall development scheme and the move strives to clarify and solidify the path forward for talented young players in the United States.


In case you’re not on top of the alphabet soup of American soccer, USL is an umbrella organization that operates a national professional men’s league (USL-Pro), a national professional-amateur women’s league (W-League), a national mostly college aged and mostly amateur league (PDL), a national under-20 men’s league (Super-20), a national under-20 women’s league that aligned with W-League for the 2013 season (W-20), and youth legues for both boys and girls from u-12 to u-17 (Super Y-League).

Wednesday’s announcement is another step in USL’s growth to provide the best development path for young players in this country. 2013 has already provided two important strides forward for USL-Pro’s role in player growth. In late January, USL and MLS each announced an affiliation in which MLS clubs would partner with USL-Pro clubs to provide four players on loan and MLS Reserve teams would play competitive matches against USL-Pro clubs in the 2013 season ahead of further integration in the next two years. In February, USL-Pro announced the addition of 5 special roster slots for academy players. These players must be under 21 at the start of the season, have neither collegiate or professional experience, and be from a USL-Pro club’s “region, an affiliate youth team or from an MLS affiliate.”

Four USL-Pro clubs partnered with MLS clubs in the 2013 season (Orlando City with Sporting Kansas City, Harrisburg City Islanders with Philadelphia, Richmond Kickers with D.C. United, and Rochester Rhinos with New England Revolution) with varying degrees of effectiveness across the board. Revolution loanee Bilal Duckett was called up to his MLS parent club for a match in Portland in early May. Orlando City and Richmond Kickers both used their loaned players to surge to the top of the regular season league standings while Sporting Kansas City’s forward Dom Dwyer scored 4 goals for Orlando in the Championship Final.

Richmond Kickers were also on the cutting edge of the academy player rule by signing brothers Evan Fowler and Vaughn Fowler to senior team contracts and signing goalkeeper Christian Alcorn to training-only deal in July. Pittsburgh Riverhounds signed two youth products, Steven Munn to a training-only deal and Tyler McCarthy to a “USL Standard Player Agreement for Academy Players,” for the last month of the season.

Tyler McCarthy didn’t feature on the bench in USL-Pro but did make a 5 minute appearance for Pittsburgh in an international friendly match against 2013 FA Cup winners Wigan Athletic. Vaughn Fowler featured for 10 minutes and Evan Fowler played 5 minutes at the end of Richmond’s 5-2 victory over Dayton Dutch Lions in August for each player’s only senior team appearance of the season.

“We will now have a more fully connected three-tiered developmental model for elite player progression with USL PRO, the PDL and the Super-20 League.”

This would provide players an opportunity to earn promotion from youth teams to the S20 and PDL teams operated by the same soccer club, similar to when Orlando City PDL signed two players from its youth academy this past July.

This past week’s announcement may get swept under the rug by a majority of American soccer fans as it doesn’t deal directly with MLS, but the alignment of Super 20 and PDL can produce huge results but helping to unearth previously overlooked youth talent. There were 52 Super-20 clubs competing in the most recent season and 63 clubs in the PDL. Only a handful of clubs operated teams in both leagues in 2013 but that is set to change.

 In 2013 the league featured two MLS-affiliated teams, four USL PRO affiliates, and 12 PDL affiliates.

After some diligent researching, I’ve figured out that those affiliates mentioned from the 2013 Super-20 League season are:

  • Chicago Fire (MLS)
  • Columbus Crew (MLS)
  • Dayton Dutch Lions (USL-Pro)
  • Harrisburg City Islanders (USL-Pro)
  • Orlando City (PDL, USL-Pro)
  • VSI Tampa Bay FC (PDL, USL-Pro)
  • Texas/Houston Dutch Lions (PDL)
  • Toronto Lynx (PDL)
  • Ottawa Fury (PDL)
  • Western Mass Pioneers (PDL)
  • Long Island Rough Riders (PDL)
  • Reading United A.C. (PDL)
  • IMG Academy (PDL)
  • Northern Virginia Royals (PDL)
  • Chicago Inferno (PDL)
  • Jersey Express S.C. / Ironbound SC (PDL)

In addition, two clubs from the National Premier Soccer League, an independent league that is roughly equivalent in the PDL, also operated youth teams in the Super-20 League. They are Junior Lone Star FC from Philadelphia and Regals SCA from Houston.


While a certain amount of excitement is due for USL’s intention to establish a clear path for young players to advance through the ranks of one club, important questions remain. Simply put, will USL urge existing PDL franchises to invest in a youth structure, or convince the current Super-20 teams to expand to the competitive U-23 level, or a combination of both?

Another question is that of the cost of maintaining a youth system. Rochester Rhinos used to run its own academy-like program for local youngsters but distanced itself from the operation before the team joined with youth teams the Syracuse-Cortland and Buffalo-Niagara areas to form Empire United in the U.S. Development Academy League (that team is now called Revolution Empire after signing a deal with the New England Revolution of MLS).

If one of USL’s most celebrated professional clubs decided to shirk the cost of running a youth development system, how can it convince amateur clubs with much smaller revenue streams to invest in one?


3 thoughts on “United Soccer Leagues Evolves its Extensive Development Model

  1. This is less about development and more about internal office staffing (less workload for SYL staff), creating a perception that S20 is not as much of a youth league, and finding a ‘home’ for the finals, which were always held separate from SYL because of college reporting dates. Oh, and wanting more PDL/W teams to add S20 (and pay more league fees) and S20 clubs adding PDL/W teams (franchise fees).

    • S20 did seem to be a bit of an orphan after it separated from the SYL as the u-19 age group. I’d like to think it’s not a decision solely motivated by franchise fees, maybe naively, and I’d hope that USL gave these clubs discounted rates for the franchise fees for an initiative that the home office is publicly and privately pushing for.

      The fact that PDL will take over the office operations of S20 is definitely a bureaucratic cost-cutting measure, this is still the potential for good outcomes. Depending on which way the implementation goes, the deal could provide a platform for development for young players who play SYL/S20 and don’t live anywhere near PDL teams.

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