Youth Beat: MLS Shakes Up Youth Game

North Texas provides an example of how the youth landscape is changing now that MLS has entered the fray.

A Dallas Morning News article in March revealed how crazily competitive youth soccer is in North Texas, where 195,000 children play the game.

A Web site that offers up-to-the-minute scores and field conditions hosts forums in which parents spread rumors, sound off on coaches and players, and pick fights with each other. Some 12,000 users have posted to its forum bulletin boards and the site averages 2.5 million page views a month.

"The clubs are so powerful that people usually have to succumb to their whims," Matthew Shipley, who founded in 2004, told the Morning News. "People need an outlet when they don't like a coach or think they are not getting what they signed up for or not getting their money's worth. …

"It's just nasty out there. That's why Turf Monster exists in North Texas."

One forum asked which were the most-hated teams. It attracted 4,500 views in less than two weeks before Shipley pulled it.

"It just got too filthy," said Shipley on the vitriol aimed at a team of 9- and 10-year-olds. "I have language filters, but there are too many ways around it."

It's such an environment that Major League Soccer's FC Dallas entered when it launched an ambitious youth program two years before MLS, in 2007, mandated that all its clubs field youth teams.

"The idea is the clubs begin to develop players who have the professionalism instilled in them from a younger age and that helps them develop the technical and tactical development of the game," said Alfonso Mondelo, MLS's technical director of player programs.

It is, of course, the model used around the world, to different degrees of success. When a club promotes a player to its pro team, it saves the money it would have to spend buying a player. And if it sells one of its own products, it earns a transfer fee that helps pay for the youth program.

There's also the notion that pro clubs can do a better job at producing high-quality players because they would be focusing on long-term development rather than scorelines at the young ages. And pro clubs can give opportunities to players who can't afford the high cost of American youth soccer.

But the entry into the youth game by MLS clubs was not universally applauded. Fearful that their talent would be lured away by MLS clubs, some youth club leaders went as far as to threaten boycotts of MLS games.

One Dallas-area director of coaching, who says his club used to purchase FC Dallas tickets and distribute them to its players, says he now pushes the delete button when he receives queries from the MLS team. His beef is FC Dallas isn't just fielding a few elite teams, but it's growing so big that it will destroy smaller clubs.

Chris Hayden, FC Dallas youth director of coaching, doesn't see it that way.

"I don't see FC Dallas working as super club with a monopoly on the Dallas market," he says. "I think there are a lot of very qualified people who work in all of these different clubs and they'll continue to flourish. We're just trying to create a link from our youth system, which is big and growing, to the pro team.

"We're not the biggest club in Dallas. Our goal is not to be the biggest club or to monopolize the area. We want to provide quality coaching for players who want to be a part of FC Dallas."

While its elite teams use the FC Dallas facilities in Frisco, its younger teams are spread around the metroplex.
"A lot these kids are playing in their neighborhoods," Hayden says. "They're not traveling great distances. They're playing with their friends with a coach they like. They enjoyed their first experience with a FC Dallas team, and they want to be part of the club."

By 2007, FC Dallas laid claim to being the "first fully integrated vertical player development system in MLS." It now has 600 players of both genders at the U-7 to U-10 level, and 1,200 players from U-11 and U-19. In 2008, it began fielding teams in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, the 74-club U-15/16 and U-17/18 league now in its second season.

FC Dallas is one of 10 MLS clubs that compete in U.S. Soccer Academy. (The Kansas City Wizards are slated to join 2009-10.) Not all are as ambitious as FC Dallas. The L.A. Galaxy, for example, fields only Academy teams, plus a U-20 squad that competes in the USL Super-20 League.

The 40 players who play on FC Dallas' U.S. Soccer Academy teams, the FC Dallas Juniors, do so free of charge – an expense that Hayden estimates at $8,000 to $10,000 per player, per year.

Hayden stresses that his U.S. Soccer Academy players' expenses are funded by club ownership, not from the fees of the clubs' other players.

In fact, one of the most welcome aspects of MLS clubs' entry into youth soccer is they're creating opportunities for players to play elite ball without charge.

"It makes a huge difference," Hayden says. "It opens up your player pool. You don't have kids who can't play because of finances. If it wasn't funded, we would not have the same group of players, because there would be some who couldn't afford it."

This would seem to be a cause to celebrate, but youth clubs competing with the MLS clubs see themselves at a disadvantage.

"We have found a way through our affiliations and sponsors – tournaments and camps we do — and a lot of sacrifices from our coaches, to make our [U.S. Soccer] Academy teams free of charge," says Hassan Nazari, the director of the powerhouse Dallas Texans. "But we are fortunate and I feel sympathy to other clubs that have to compete with this type of thing. I am not criticizing the MLS clubs. But what they can offer to the players makes it difficult to compete."

As far as complaints about MLS teams taking players away from other clubs? That tradition long predates MLS's youth programs. As one longtime youth coach put it a few years back, "There's more poaching than coaching in youth soccer."

Hayden says that 40 percent of the club's Academy players came from within the FC Dallas youth program. Others made the team in the same kind of tryout other clubs hold. And, FC Dallas Juniors discovered players through Sueno MLS — the nationally televised player search from which Jael Barrera and Noel Luna landed on the U-17/18 squad. Gabriel and Ramiro Funes were selected but are currently in Argentina training at River Plate.

In addition to impressive performances in Academy play — FC Dallas Juniors are dominating the U-15/16 Texas Division that includes area giants Andromeda, Solar and the Texans – FC Dallas Juniors Alex Molano and Jose Perez are now in the U.S. U-17 national team Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla.

Hayden looks forward to the day when youth players from his club break into the first team.

"It's very important for FC Dallas to have a Dallas influence," he says. "To have kids who grew up here play for the city's pro team is very good for the team, and that goes for all MLS cities."

To help other clubs cope with Academy costs, U.S. Soccer, with the U.S. Soccer Foundation and Nike, has launched a scholarship program.

For sure, MLS clubs that cover their youth players' costs have an advantage over the youth clubs that struggle to meet travel and coaching expenses. But MLS should be hailed for the opportunities it's creating for young players.

"FC Dallas is lucky to do that," says Kevin Smith, Coaching Director of Solar SC. "Maybe there'll be one day when we get there, you know? The good thing about Dallas is it's a soccer hotbed, and there's a lot of quality kids, and they can't all go to FC Dallas."

(This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)    

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