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    The USL Academy Leagues: A New Frontier for American Youth Development

    As many of you may have seen, the American soccer community was blindsided as the US Soccer Development Academy announced with little warning that they would be closing up shop due to continued financial losses made worse by the pandemic. Member clubs were shocked. With no chance to make contingency plans, many clubs began scrambling to find homes for their youth teams to continue competing against their peers. MLS used the opportunity to push for a new MLS-academy centric competition that will encourage high profile matches against other league clubs and international academy programs. They released plans to incorporate former USSDA clubs that had not yet found homes and announced their partnership with the USYS to open scouting and professional pathways to over 3 million boys and girls across the country. Many non-MLS clubs, including many of our local programs, decided to join the now greatly expanded Elite Clubs National League. But the USL had already been working on a new academy league structure for over a year ahead of this news. Their structure is certainly intriguing and will likely greatly improve America’s soccer infrastructure.

    On May 6th, USL released its vision of an integrated Academy League as part of their own soccer pyramid. Set to launch alongside the USL 2021 season next spring, this new league is heralded by its founders as:

    FIRST-OF-ITS-KIND LEAGUE WILL ALIGN WITH PROFESSIONAL CALENDAR, COMBINE ELITE LOCAL U15-19 TALENT INTO SINGLE TEAM

    USL CEO ALEC PAPADAKIS:

    “USL CLUBS ACROSS THE COUNTRY ARE DOING A TREMENDOUS JOB OF DEVELOPING TOP YOUNG PROFESSIONALS, AND TODAY’S ANNOUNCEMENT WILL ONLY ACCELERATE THAT DEVELOPMENT.”

    It is worth readers understanding that previous academy calendar years matched more closely with collegiate and scholastic calendars so that the youth players can continue to go to school and sometimes play for their schools. The USL and MLS professional calendars are often opposite of that, tracking pretty closely to the professional baseball calendar from early spring into the fall. With a greater focus of academies being on preparing players for professional ranks rather than collegiate soccer, this dictated a change to the new 10-month competitive calendar.

    This will be a “pre-professional league” serving as a direct pathway to professional play for many young athletes who may not be in MLS regions or may be overlooked in large metropolitan player pools like New York, LA, Texas or Chicago.

    “At its core, the launch of our Academy League is about providing the opportunity for elite local youth soccer players to look down the street at a USL stadium and know that if they work hard enough, train hard enough, and believe in themselves, there is a pathway for them to achieve their dreams of becoming a professional soccer player and one day wearing a U.S. national team jersey,” said USL CEO, Alec Papadakis. “Additionally, we aspire to create a unique community connection by building an engaging, respectful and trusting relationships between our clubs and the local Youth Soccer Organizations that are already serving our communities admirably.”

    It is hard not to love what the USL is doing. The key to all of this is the rigorous set of minimum standards prescribed the participating clubs. Clubs must have the resources, personnel, training, and commitment to build the cultures and organizations that will set local players up for success. Their model encourages teams to be proactive and deeply involved in the growth of the game by creating networks of youth teams from which they will build elite teams with players from the U-15 to U-19 age groups.

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    “We focused on a select U-15 to U-19 team with the idea that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough,” USL President Jake Edwards told ESPN’s Taylor Twellman in the latest edition of Banter on Wednesday. “We want to connect the pro teams in our market with all the youth teams in our market and work collaboratively together to give those top players a platform to showcase themselves.”

    These players will be guided through every aspect of building a successful professional athlete as their academy play is seamlessly integrated from their elite academy side to the semi-pro USL League Two reserve or U-23 side for their USL League One or USL Championship parent club. For a more comprehensive look at this structure, take a look at the next video where they lay out the structure and the key elements of their plan. It goes quickly so a couple of viewings may be necessary.

    The pinnacle of this model is the USL Academy Cup. The league has its first cup event last fall and they hope to continue this event as one of several annual opportunities for competition to break out from its regional focus into a higher level of play.

    “For the past year-and-a half, we’ve been working extremely hard to better understand how USL can best serve the youth soccer landscape” said Liam O’Connell, USL Senior Director of Youth Development. “Those conversations painted a very clear picture for us: There has been massive demand for an elite, pre-professional training environment that is acting in collaboration with existing local youth soccer organizations. The USL Academy League will fill that void.”

    “When it comes to the development of future professionals in the United States, we’re all in this together,” continued O’Connell. “And we have no doubt that our league will allow high-level talent to flourish through meaningful competition and learning, all within a model that is cost-effective and sustainable for clubs. The future of this endeavor is incredibly bright.”

    We are currently seeing the beginning of what has the potential to unlock our country’s player pool by identifying talent that would have otherwise never been found or would have played another spot. USL prides itself in having 129 clubs across the Champions, League One, and League Two levels in the United States and Canada, and they have no intention of slowing down. They envision each of those 129 clubs as part of a network for forming elite youth teams made up of the top local prospects from their area. Some clubs are ramping up academy systems like the one we have at Atlanta United, and others are offering something akin to regional All-Star teams.

    The Greenville Triumph (League One) describes their Academy Cup side as:

    The Academy Cup team is an all-star team of athletes from around the Upstate who will participate in the USL Academy Cup tournament.

    The GTSC Academy Cup program will consist of a 10 to 12 week experience where athletes will get a glimpse into the professional soccer world. Players will receive coaching from Triumph staff, access to top quality soccer facilities, video analysis sessions, explosive performance training and the opportunity to represent the Upstate and GTSC at an elite, national event!

    Our neighbors in Statesboro, Georgia and in Chattanooga, Tennessee are taking a more ambitious approach. The South Georgia Tormenta organization (League One & League Two) will build upon their existing academy and partnerships with academies in South Georgia and South Carolina.

    “Chasing your professional dreams as an academy player at Tormenta FC is now within reach as the USL Academy League creates a seamless transition from youth to professional soccer,” said Brad Nein, Director of Soccer Operations for Tormenta FC Academy. ”Our top prospects between U15 and U19 will be moved into a pre-professional development environment and be driven to compete against other USL franchises within our region.

    “Players from South Georgia and the Low Country of South Carolina have never had the opportunity to showcase their talents at the highest pre-professional level and we are very excited to compete using this platform. As our players continue to develop, receive high-level coaching and flourish within the youth to pro pathway, Tormenta FC Academy and its affiliates will be established as the optimum youth soccer experience.”

    Chattanooga Redwolves SC Head Coach Jimmy Obleda is a big fan of the new concept and format.

    “I think it’s going to be great for preparing players and developing players to be eventually ready to make the jump to the First Team. Also, it allows in our case a First Team coach to have a group – because that group can train after us, can train at night – they have a direct link with our team and if a kid’s good enough, why wouldn’t you put a 15-year-old to play against a 17-year-old or 18-year-old?

    In addition to his League One coaching duties, Obleda oversees a multi-tiered approach at his club across League 1 and League 2 teams, and their academy as the Technical Director.

    “It’s all about preparing kids and putting them in the right environment that is going to get them ready to make that First Team jump. I think it’s a great idea, I’m very supportive of it.”

    “If you have a clear direction of where we want our players to go – some might go at 15 years old and make a First Team debut at 16, some might take a little bit longer and go to Dalton and go to college, which is a great path,” said Obleda. “Being able to guide them and create that culture where players understand they’re at a club that looks out for them, and is looking out for them from beginning to end, not only getting kids into the pros but last year we had a lot of kids go to college. We’re covering all the categories of being able to move players forward and up.”

    In addition to playing in the USL Academy League, USL Academies’ boys’ youth sides will be competing alongside Atlanta-area clubs in the ECNL with the plan for girls’ sides to join them soon. For Chattanooga Redwolves SC, these sides fall under the careful management of Derek Greene, Academy Executive Vice President and former Head Coach of Vanderbilt’s women’s program. Greene envisions a program mirroring European counterparts where accessibility and affordability for players are a priority so that all players have access to the entry-point to the professional ranks.

    “To come in at the ground floor and be able to influence this and be inclusive, and as we grow this out the opportunity to make the game accessible and affordable to kids from the Chattanooga region, down to Dalton is really exciting. It’s something we need to grow this game from the grassroots so our national teams, they have the opportunity to compete on an international stage.” — Greene

    Just looking at our neighboring USL clubs, we see two different approaches. Instead of that being something to overcome, USL encourages these two different models to support the participation of every member of their league structure regardless of if they have the resources to form their own academy or need to be leaner and rely on a network of affiliated regional academies.

    One of the best features of this USL structure is that it allows for flexibility. As the league continues to expand and as teams move within the USL pyramid, new youth teams and new local youth affiliates can be added with the eventual goal of forming regional subdivisions to reduce travel costs and increase competitiveness within local rivals.

    For players, it will be a highly competitive environment where rotating transfer windows every three months could mean a shuffle of the roster. Players will have to earn their status with three tiers of involvement from Part-Time Youth Players, Full-Time Academy Players, and Part-Time Professionals. Each of their tiers will allow the players to continue to participate with the academy in their development but by ascending each tier, the player will gain greater exposure to higher quality minutes and training opportunities.

    Jay Heaps, Birmingham Legion FC President, raved about the opportunity this gives young athletes.

    “We’ve talked a lot about how to produce the next soccer star and I think in doing so you have to be collaborative, work with the clubs that are already there and make sure you’re nurturing these soccer players as they go through,” Heaps told Twellman. “You and I, Taylor, we played other sports, you had a full scholarship to another school. Making an athlete choose before they’re ready to choose can be detrimental at times. Our idea is to nurture, create an environment where they are being developed, but now we can go in and augment that.”

    This approach, which ignores the traditional age-based advancement or washing out of players allows young athletes to progress and develop at the speed that is best for their abilities and personal growth. If a young player is ready to play up a few levels or ready to go pro, there is nothing standing in that player’s way in this integrated structure. Players can then decide whether it is best for them to go pro or to attend college, and if they choose college they still have access to their parent club’s League 2 semi-pro team to retain their amateur status and continue to gain valuable development and exposure.

    This structure already promises incredible potential recruitment, development, and growth of the game within the existing USL structure but with such an ambitious league, they seem to have no intention of slowing their expansion to new markets that they have scrupulously researched and tested to ensure their viability and sustainability as soccer hotbeds.

    As Atlanta United fans, it is exciting to see our region’s lower division clubs taking such an active role in scouting and developing the next generation of pro players. Players that may have missed the cut or gone unnoticed by Atlanta now have access to opportunities that could one day bring them back to Atlanta with Atlanta United 2 or through the college Superdraft. The Chattanooga Redwolves have at least two of these players in their system with Joseph Collins (2003) and Jeremiah Zuniga (2002) (and likely his brother Juan) previously playing for Atlanta United Academy sides. Joseph Collins has already taken a step up the development ladder by playing at Chattanooga’s League Two side in Dalton.

    In the end, this is what will raise the quality of American soccer and CONCACAF soccer ahead of the 2026 World Cup. MLS and USL requiring member clubs to take greater proactive involvement in developing players and building stronger development and scouting infrastructure in their regions will result in more players getting opportunities than ever before in our country and we may finally see American soccer ascend to an elite ring on the world stage.

    Stay tuned right here for more.

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