Lifting the cost burden off players remains the big challenge for elite youth clubs.
A crowd of nearly 1,000, paying a small admission fee, watched Washington State club Crossfire Premier in its first home doubleheader of U.S. Soccer Development Academy play.
"We've never had a home crowd like that before," says Crossfire director of operations Curt Bateman. "Usually, our biggest games would be at a tournament somewhere else. Maybe when there's a state championship at stake, we'd get an extra 100 spectators, in addition to those not directly involved with the team.
"The chance to see us play against big clubs from around the nation makes it possible to turn these games into big events."
Crossfire Premier is one of the 64 clubs fielding U-16 and U-18 boys teams in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy that kicked off last September.
Charlie Slagle, the CEO of North Carolina club CASL, also likes hosting games against major clubs.
"In the past, you weren't playing major games at home," Slagle says. "The Academy gives us 15 homes games. We're not there yet, as far as advertising, 'Come on out and watch the Academy play the Crew.' But that's something for the future.
"Will it become paid-spectator events? Probably not. But will it be something where you get 500 to 800 people in the stands watching the Academy teams? Yeah, probably. And that's real nice for the club."
Gerry McKeown, Director of Coaching at New Jersey club PDA, hopes to host Academy games at night.
"We want it to be a showcase for the club, for the younger players to see what these good games look like," he says.
Coaches are also pleased with other aspects of the Academy. There's a set schedule instead of chasing the tournament circuit. More training time. Players don't leave the club for ODP trials and trips; national team scouts come to the clubs' games. The quality of play has also gotten good reviews.
"It seems that every team is making a forthright effort to try and play, compared to games when teams might be sitting back," says Bryan Thorp, Director of Coaching at North Carolina's North Meck SC. "I think every team is trying to play some brand of an attacking game. That's good for development overall. In the tournament format, you're sometimes going to see more of what people call negative soccer, playing not to lose."
Thorp believes that, in tournament play, the focus is more on the results over a weekend rather than the performance over a season.
Sockers FC Chicago coach David Richardson agrees: "We like having a regular schedule and getting away from these knockout games, state cup games - they're good games but as far as defining what you're trying to do as a group or how you're developing players, they're not the best thing. We can have trainings that can be consistent without having to hop into a regional league weekend here or a cup weekend there."
But one of the main issues in the youth game remains: the high cost. U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati believes the clubs are moving toward a no-pay-to-play model.
"It's one of the biggest issues we have," Gulati said. "The kids at Man U's academy or Santos' academy don't pay, so you never worry about the obvious issue about someone who's not able to pay."
Leading the cost-free movement among Academy clubs are those fielded by MLS. It's a more difficult task for amateur youth clubs.
"Somebody has to pay," says Gulati. "I know what that means when it's D.C. United. Somebody's paying. It just happens to be [owners] Victor McFarlane and Will Chang. And when Chicago does it, it happens to be Andrew Hauptman.
"The question is, what do you do when it's not an MLS team. Where are they getting the money? If what they're doing is taxing entry-level players, at a younger age, much more heavily, then that's a concern."
Slightly raising fees on lower levels within a club may be considered acceptable when parents know their children have a chance to enter the cost-free Academy teams.
For his part, Slagle says raising fees on non-Academy players to fund the Academy teams is out of the question. One of the first issues he addressed when he arrived at CASL was about fee allocation.
"The Rec parents thought they were paying for the Classic, our top level," he says. "Our Classic thought they were paying for Rec. The middle level, Challenge, thought they were paying for both. I came up with a formula that ensured the parents that their fees were going to the level that their children were involved in."
Slagle does believe that playing in the Academy can help create greater opportunities for the sponsorship partnerships he's pursuing.
"We just played the Columbus Crew, we play D.C. United, we played Chelsea in the Disney tournament and won - it got us on the front page of the News & Observer - those kinds of things can resonate," Slagle says.
The ultimate aim is to make Academy play free-of-charge for players.
"We're trying," says Slagle. "That's our goal. You can get a better team that way. Your prongs can go out farther as far as who would be interested in coming to you. Secondly, you can sign kids to amateur contracts, which could eventually help defray the costs, it just doesn't do it up front.
"If you have someone on an amateur contract who is signed by MLS or a foreign club, the transfer fee [training compensation] goes back to the youth club. That can't happen if the kid is paying for his youth soccer."
Another way to defray costs for Academy players is using them to coach younger players in clinics and camps.
"You do a clinic for U-9s and U-10s, and staff the whole thing with your academy team," Slagle says. "All the revenues go straight to the Academy, so there are ways the team can help itself. And what you're going to end up with is 150 under-9s touched by these kids and they're going to want to come out and watch them play."
Thorp believes youth clubs face an uphill battle making their Academy teams cost-free. But in his club's case, players pay less for Academy teams than they did when the club's elite players participated in the usual circuit.
"If you look at our top team last season, a '91 boys team," Thorp says, "if they played in every league program as well as ODP, they'd be paying anywhere from $4,000 to $5,000. Our Academy program here, we've been able to keep it close to $3,000, so it's cheaper. The parents are happier that it's cheaper."
But for some Academy clubs in locations without many nearby competitors, such as Washington State's Crossfire Premier, travel costs are significant. Crossfire coaching director Bernie James says his club has kept fees low for players, but only thanks to aggressive fund-raising efforts. Like most clubs, Crossfire offers scholarships to low-income players. Gulati says that U.S. Soccer aims to provide funding as well.
"A big part of this, and the mechanics are still being worked out, is a scholarship program," he says. "I don't think it will take a lot of money to have a huge impact at these club levels. The only inhibitor right now is how best to implement it equitably."
New Jersey club PDA is charging a fee of only $500 for its Academy players. That doesn't include travel, but Academy league play in the densely populated Northeast means the team's longest trip is a four-hour drive.
McKeown says his coaches took a pay cut to keep player fees down and Nike provided uniforms.
"Our goal is to make it free," he says. "We're working toward it. We're trying to get it across the board at the club. We want to make it free to eliminate some of the things associated with cost-driven parents' involvement and everything else."
To that end, PDA is looking for corporate support. He believes playing in the Academy may make that quest easier.
"It helps when you present something that looks as professional as what the Academy is trying to do," he says. "When you look at the league, the makeup, and they see teams from Seattle and everything else, it looks a lot more valid."
(This article originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)