U.S. Soccer announced the permanent closure of its development academy Wednesday, citing financial difficulties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. U.S. Soccer had previously anticipated spending $12 million on the DA in 2021, but between recent lost revenue and an anticipated settlement with the USWNT over its lawsuit, the federation wanted to cut costs.
The boys’ DA was founded in 2007 to create a consistent standard for top youth clubs in the United States that could then feed into the national team programs. The girls’ DA was founded in 2017 with the same mission. Several top American players came out of the DA, but the program may have garnered more complaints than praise over its lifetime. It placed tight restrictions on players’ lives, controlled training methods, limited competition against teams in other leagues, and required heavy travel. Among the DA’s most controversial rules was its insistence that players had to participate in the program exclusively, and could not play high school soccer.
More than 100 clubs and 20,000 players will now have to make difficult decisions about their futures — where they will play, or how they will remain solvent — when American youth soccer resumes play.
It is with profound disappointment that we have made the determination to end the operation of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, effective immediately. pic.twitter.com/DB8Fr1Qkvu— U.S. Soccer (@ussoccer) April 15, 2020
U.S. Soccer’s decision does not appear to be entirely driven by the pandemic, but merely accelerated by it. Before the announcement, boys and girls teams had been leaving the DA for an independent rival league, ECNL, that has looser requirements. And immediately following the announcement, MLS announced that it is starting its own development program, suggesting that the league has known about U.S. Soccer’s plans for some time.
NWSL hasn’t announced similar measures, but top women’s coaches have been calling for the DA’s radical reform or dissolution.
In a letter to U.S. Soccer membership, new CEO Will Wilson outlined how the federation anticipates supporting the youth game when it restarts.
At U.S. Soccer, we will also be looking at other ways to positively impact youth development moving forward, including an increased emphasis on coaching education, a more comprehensive scouting effort, and working with clubs to maintain and expand the philosophy and standards established through the Development Academies.
The story of why the DA wasn’t working will take much more than one day to piece together, and it should come out over the next few months. But the CliffsNotes version is this: The DA was annoying more people than it was helping, and that’s not worth spending $12 million during good times.
In the short-term, U.S. Soccer’s decision will be difficult for players and clubs. While some clubs will find new leagues quickly and keep players in competitions and training environments that work for them, others will need more time, and some could ultimately close shop. Thousands of players now don’t know where they’ll be once they’re allowed to play soccer again, and could miss a season at a critical time in their development.
But in the long-term, the end of the DA could be a huge positive for youth soccer in America. Having big league that was run out of an ivory tower in Chicago didn’t serve players well, and now American soccer’s various stakeholders have an opportunity to create a variety of development pathways that fit the needs of different players and regions around the country.
It was time for the DA to go for a lot of reasons, but most of them stem from three big overarching problems.
America is just too damn big
If you spend one day on Youth Soccer Twitter, you’ll run into some galaxy brain geniuses asking why U.S. Soccer doesn’t emulate the youth setup of one of Europe’s most successful footballing nations. The answer is pretty simple: All of those countries are smaller than Texas.
And yet, U.S. Soccer tried to run a national league in which teenagers spent more time on buses and airplanes than they did on playing fields. Getting the best players in the country to play against each other makes sense on a surface level, but the logistics of making those matches happen require a massive waste of time and money.
Development isn’t just technical, it’s also emotional
Getting the best players into the best environments, with the best coaches and best training programs, helps them improve the tangible parts of their games. Unfortunately, the DA also turned a lot of players into soccer robots who didn’t care about the matches and weren’t as competitive as their predecessors.
USMNT legend, pro coach and DA parent Eric Wynalda explained why the DA’s ban on high school soccer created a bigger problem than the one it was trying to solve:
Even referees complained that DA games were “manufactured “ lacked “real emotion” -thousands of practice games will never prepare you for the raw emotion of playing for your school in front of your peers with an opportunity to represent more than just yourself -define development https://t.co/7kdLrIHj17— Eric Wynalda (@EricWynalda) April 15, 2020
Coach and former player Skye Eddy Bruce made a similar point about why a shift to regional leagues should be better for player development going forward.
Youth players today lack the understanding of what it means to be on a team and battle, to celebrate a win — or survive the pain of defeat together. We have actually fed and created this mentality in our children through our league structures where winning just doesn’t matter as much and we are more concerned with “showcasing” players instead of showing them the value of battling to win together.
The ability and desire to win matters.
With regionalized competition comes stronger rivalries and with stronger competition comes increased development.
DA was preparing players for the technical and tactical realities of pro soccer, but not for the high level of competition.
One size doesn’t fit all
In an ideal system, all players will have access to the same opportunities if they want them. But the realities of the American soccer — how young the professional scene is, how large the country is, and how many parents absolutely cannot be convinced that there is more to think about than just a college scholarship — mean that there have to be several different youth development pathways.
The different needs of players need to be considered. Some 14-year-olds are ready to go off to Soccer Army and commit to two-a-days for the rest of their lives, and some aren’t. Some kids are dying to play high school soccer and some don’t care. Some have difficult family situations, or other hobbies they’re extremely passionate about, or live an hour away from the nearest soccer field. All of these kids should have an opportunity to play soccer at a high level and be evaluated by youth national team coaches if they’re talented enough.
There is room for MLS, NWSL, USL, U.S. Soccer, ECNL and other American youth soccer organizations to execute their own visions for player development. The lack of one master league will not make finding the best players impossibles. U.S. Soccer and the big pro clubs can still host or compete against smaller clubs and find top talent. And an improved state Olympic Development Program that meets once a month could help, too.
I don’t have the solution to what ails American youth soccer, and neither does anyone else. U.S. Soccer need to admit the same thing to themselves. That the only way a system which produces great professional players and works for all people involved in the game can be achieved. What is best for New York City is not best for western Texas. What is best for a kid who’s been obsessed with becoming a great soccer player since they were in kindergarten is not what’s best for a multi-sport athlete who discovers the game at 14.
MLS can, and should, set its own standards for what an MLS academy should look like. So should NWSL, ECNL and everyone else. U.S. Soccer’s role in youth development shouldn’t be to set rigid standards, but to facilitate collaboration while establishing a wide scouting network, so that top talents who aren’t playing in hermetic environments can be noticed and given different opportunities.
The idea behind the DA was logical: create a better training standard for top players and get America’s best players to compete against each other. But there wasn’t enough consideration given to the problems it might create. American youth soccer has an opportunity to learn from the DA’s mistakes and improve dramatically in its absence.