Youth Player Development in Lower Division Clubs

In an earlier post I highlighted the introduction of an academy roster program for USL-Pro clubs as a major step in USL’s player development model. The academy roster rule was introduced in February and designed to promote opportunities for young players from associated or regional academies to train and play with the senior team.

Despite seemingly different public positions on the importance of “development,” both professional leagues under MLS have begun signing local teenagers.

North American Soccer League Commissioner Bill Peterson has said, “We have no desire to be anyone’s minor league. We definitely have no interest in developing players for other leagues.” This could mean that NASL executives want players to stay the course in their league, but that seems highly unlikely in a world with NCAA and MLS drafts.

The United Soccer Leagues, on the other hand, regularly flaunts its developmental credentials. Every January after the MLS SuperDraft and during MLS pre-season, USL issues press releases refering to draft picks and recently signed MLS rookies as “former [insert PDL team] player.”

I find it interesting that regardless of the media directives passed down from respective league offices, teams from both leagues have set about to promote players from youth squads to train and play with the professional senior team.


Richmond Kickers and Pittsburgh Riverhounds both took advantage of the academy roster designation by signing local talent to special contracts. The two USL-Pro clubs used an academy contract to each bring a player into selection for the senior team and a different training-only deal for other promising players. These young local players were Evan Fowler, Vaughn Fowler, and Christian Alcorn (Richmond), and Steven Munn and Tyler McCarthy (Pittsburgh).

NASL club Carolina RailHawks seems to be developing a similar path for players independent of a league directive. On October 31, the RailHawks announced that they had signed U-17/18 national team player Conor Donovan. The press release said that the team added the 17 year old defender to the team’s roster for the regular season finale.

Fellow U-17/18 Capital Area RailHawks Academy players Evan Krause and Andre Fortune also earned deals to train with the team and were also eligible for but not close to selection.

The RailHawks press release had an interesting tidbit near the end: “Academy players are eligible to train and play with professional soccer players prior to their enrollment in college and keep their NCAA eligibility.  Fortune, Krause and Donovan were added as amateur players on the RailHawks roster prior to the roster freeze date on October 22nd.”

This underscored the fact that all minor leagues (USL-Pro, NASL, even MLS Reserve League) have reacted proactively to the recent changes in NCAA regulations about amateur eligibility.


Orlando City of USL-Pro and San Antonio Scorpions of NASL each had a player selected from its youth academy for the Fall 2013 semester of the U-17 national residency program; midfielder Devin Vega (San Antonio Scorpions; San Antonio, Tex.) and forward David Loera (Orlando City Lions; Orlando, Fla.).

Richmond Kickers, Orlando City, South Carolina United Battery Academy, Capital Area RailHawks Academy, and San Antonio Scorpions Youth Academy all operate U-14, U-16, and U-18 teams. Not even all MLS clubs can boast that for the current 2013-14 DA season.

To further cement its development credentials, Orlando City has set a precedent of signing players from its Development Academy to its U23 PDL team, Michael O’Sullivan and Tristen Rehrig, and from the PDL squad to its USL-Pro senior team, Adema Mbengue.

Perhaps in the coming years, with high-level training experience in the Development Academy system from age 13 onward, we will see clubs in both minor leagues truly integrate homegrown talent into the senior squad as regular contributors in much the way MLS has done, as U.S. soccer has thus far failed to incorporate FIFA’s Transfer Matching System.


3 thoughts on “Youth Player Development in Lower Division Clubs

  1. Expect more of this in the future. Despite the traditional American preoccupation with college sports, the NCAA is going to have to do 2 things:
    First, create equal fall and spring seasons. 30-35 matches spread out over a 7/8 month period.
    Second, they need to tap into soccer’s potential and invest the resources required to make it a “revenue” sport. (College baseball was irrelevant for decades.)

    The reality is that players in the college ranks receive very little to no actual athletic scholarship money anyway. Going and playing 30+ games in the lower divisions makes a lot more sense. Even with the low salaries. One can always take online classes and pursue their degree while also pursuing a professional soccer career.

    Our top 17/18 year old players should and probably can play in the PDL and even USLPro and NASL. Why wait until 22 or 23?
    From a business standpoint, I’d much rather go and watch up and coming players than a lot of mediocre players just hanging on. (Not saying that’s the case across the board.)

    It’s my understanding that these “academy call ups” have to meet certain criteria. Be under 21 and they cannot have started their collegiate playing careers yet. Crazy. So, they theoretically can’t play once they start college? I don’t understand that.

    Will the MLS Reserve league now go away. With MLS teams either loaning players to affiliate clubs in USL or having their own PDL/NPSL teams?

    • Hey, thanks for commenting.

      I like the structure you’ve laid out, but why would NCAA change its system? How does it make sense and benefit NCAA to revolutionize its soccer programs?

      As fans, I think we’d love to see guys commit fully to the dream and turn professional the moment they are physically ready. Unfortunately professional soccer is a pretty awful career path.

      There is simply not enough money in soccer in this country to really make it worth anybody’s time. MLS and its member clubs are losing money. Most NASL and USL-Pro clubs are losing money. Some are folding, some are stumbling to get off the ground.

      New England Revolution academy star Mawolo “Gabe” Gissie just shrugged off college and turned his nose up at the MLS club’s slow approach to bringing him along, deciding instead to sign his first professional contract with Sac Republic of USL-Pro. If that league can show itself to be something more than Sunday league players in professional kits, perhaps more young players will follow Gissie’s path.

      • I take it that USL Pro is of a low standard? You have a better perspective. MLS and lower league player salaries are paltry. My original point is that college soccer scholarships are as well.

        Perhaps player scouting/talent identification needs to improve?

        One of my son’s former teammates just signed a professional contract with a Mexican team. (Monterrey)

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