Interview by Mike Woitalla
United Soccer Leagues (USL), best known for its expansive network of pro, semipro and amateur adult leagues, has also had a significant impact on the youth game, having launched the Super Y-League in 1999. USL also operates an Olympic Development Program, a U-20 league, and its Premier Development League (PDL) provides a bridge to pro soccer for young players. We spoke to USL President Tim Holt about USL's youth soccer ventures past, present and future.
SOCCER AMERICA: How would you best describe the impact that USL has had on youth soccer in the USA?
TIM HOLT: Over the past 15 years, USL has been a pioneer in connecting and integrating the youth, adult amateur and professional levels of American soccer.
As recently as the late 1990s, there were no examples of professional teams operating their own youth academies/clubs. Just as very, very few youth soccer clubs offered any programming beyond U19.
Through the advent of leagues such as the PDL, W-League, Super Y-League (SYL), and Super-20, and the participation of clubs on both sides of the former youth/pro divide, our country’s soccer landscape now more closely resembles that found around the world.
To date, USL remains the only national organization that offers a complete, vertically integrated system of national leagues. The benefit is a defined pathway at each stage of development for aspiring youth soccer players that extends all the way through pro game and the national teams.
SA: The Super Y-League was launched in 1999. Since then, U.S. Soccer created the Development Academy league (boys) in 2007 and the ECNL (girls) started in 2009. All adding to U.S. Youth Soccer, under whose umbrella most children have played soccer in the USA for nearly four decades, and U.S. Club Soccer. What unique role does the Super Y-League serve today?
TIM HOLT: What is not well known is the original objective of the SYL was simply to create an internal academy league for USL professional and adult amateur teams, as part of our efforts to facilitate the development of a club model in support of senior teams.
It was only upon realization that the logistics of implementing a national youth soccer league while adhering to the rules of 55 different U.S. Youth Soccer state associations would make running such a league prohibitive that we undertook the approach of affiliating directly with U.S. Soccer. Without doing so, it would have been impossible to operate our national youth league in a manner that allowed for expanded rosters and competition rules more similar to the college and pro game.
Our creation of this alternative pathway for elite clubs sparked what has been a period of incredible growth and change in youth soccer that continues to this day.
Over the past 15 years, the SYL has featured youth teams from MLS, USL, WPS, WUSA, NWSL, PDL, W-League, and the traditional youth club soccer powers. Prominent SYL alumni include U.S. national team standouts such as Jozy Altidore, Bill Hamid, Freddy Adu, Jonathan Spector and Juan Agudelo, along with scores of other pro players.
In 2013, the SYL continues to play a leading role as one of the most competitive, prestigious soccer leagues in North America and serves as the foundation level of the USL competitive pyramid. Our ODP continues to identify players for national team programs by evaluating them in their league environment, as well as at our SYL North American Finals. While the marketplace has changed radically since the launch of the SYL, its importance in the elite youth development realm remains significant.
SA: Does having various youth organizations produce healthy competition or create a turf war that may not serve the best interests of youth development in the USA?
TIM HOLT: Admittedly, having so many separate organizations offering regional and national elite youth leagues and competitions creates a confusing marketplace for players, parents and coaches.
The U.S. Soccer Federation has obviously taken a more active and direct approach at certain boys age groups, which has been an overall positive, but the simple fact of the matter is that in a country with more than 4 million registered youth players (and who knows how many unregistered players) its net can’t be cast wide enough to ensure proper development, training and opportunity for all.
“Widening the net” is where the other youth organizations play an extremely important role in providing meaningful programs to those players and clubs that are not part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Ultimately, some type of natural selection will occur within the regional/national league space where certain programs will change or discontinue, while others settle into their roles as part of the overall picture.
So, we don’t believe that this competition is overall unhealthy as having choices is a positive for players and clubs.
Where the actual problem lies is that all of these different national soccer organizations are providing fairly homogenous offerings -- everyone is doing the same thing but packaging it differently. The repeated and consistent message we receive from top youth soccer clubs and coaches is that they are seeking a fresh development initiative specifically geared toward younger teams and players to best prepare their young players for the challenges which await them at the next level.
To fill this void, we have recently launched the Next Generation Series, an exciting, new youth soccer initiative undertaken by USL and IMG Academy, established to provide players, coaches and clubs the opportunity to take part in an eight-month, elite-level league at the U-12 and U-14 age groups. NextGen will take a developmental approach that engages the player, coach, and parent, and enhances player growth across several important disciplines conducted by world-renowned experts in their respective disciplines of performance. ... NextGen commences in August 2013 and we are in the process of accepting club applications.
(USL President Tim Holt joined USL in 1999, originally serving as the A-League & Super Y-League Operations Director. He started overseeing the all USL senior leagues in 2002, was named vice president in 2004, and president in 2009. Holt is co-chairman of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Committee and a longtime member of the U.S. Soccer Federation Professional Council. Holt played youth ball for Pennsylvania’s FC Delco, for which he’s also served as coach and administrator.)
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, is the co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)