Commentary

Development academies: the saga continues

After my last article, some of the readers correctly stated that I did not include the U-12, U-13 and U-14 categories in the analysis. I knew I did not and I did it on a purpose. I wanted to see the distribution of the full pledged (U-12 through U-18) and U-15/16 and U-17/18 academies in the country.

U.S. Soccer recently included the U-12 category in the Development Academy (DA) system as well as breaking the U13-14 category into U-13 and U-14. It also started the girls DA. All these moves were in the correct direction.

Especially breaking the U-13/14 into two categories created the chance for both age groups to compete. In the past, the U-13/14 category would be dominated by U-14 players and only the very talented U-13 players were able to compete. For boys, there might be a substantial physical difference between a 12 year old and a 13 year old since they are transitioning from childhood into puberty.  Hopefully, in the years to come, the U-15/16 category will also be broken down into U-15 and U-16.

I will talk about the boys DAs in the USA only.

There are a total of 146 DAs across 25 states and District of Colombia. These 146 DAs do not necessarily represent 146 unique clubs, since some clubs have affiliated DAs in the same state as well as in different states. For example, Chicago Fire has four DAs, three in Illinois and one in Indiana.

If you look at all the DAs, you will see four categories with a few exceptions in each category:

Category
DAs
MLS DAs
States
Divisions
Exceptions
U-12 thru U-17/18
59 13 9 7 Revolution (no U-12)
U-15/16 & U-17/18 only
7 5 6 7
U-12, U-13, U-14 only
26 0 7 10 NYCFC (no U-13 or U-12)
U-12 only
49 0 12 17
TOTAL
146 18 26


The U-12 through U-17/18 DA -- which I call full pledged DA category -- has 59 teams (excluding the Canadian teams) covering 19 (including Washington DC) states. Of those 59 teams, 13 are MLS teams’ DAs. They play in seven regional divisions. This category is what should be considered as a “real“ DA.  It spans the development ages from the age of U-12 up to U-17-18. You can find out that around the globe most clubs have this range of development.

The second DA category is a strange category; it only has two age groups U-15/16 and U-17/18. There are seven DAs in this category of which five of them are MLS teams’ DAs, which don't field teams in the younger age groups because of the travel distances involved.

Two things are obvious: There are no prerequisites by U.S. Soccer for Division 1 Men’s teams (MLS) to have full fledged DAs. It is obvious that the owners of MLS recommend a DA for their clubs, but this is not a prerequisite to be a MLS franchise. The most recent expansion team, Minnesota United, does not have a DA yet. Also since some of the MLS clubs have only this second category DAs, most probably the recommendation of MLS is to have at least U-15/16 and U-17/18 categories. It is not clear which youth clubs those five MLS teams will use as feeder clubs for their DA.

The third category is U-12 through U-14. There are 26 DA teams in this category. What is strange is to call a Youth Development program from U-12 up to U-14 a DA. Would you call a school “high school” that has only freshman and sophomore classes? I doubt you would. I believe it would be more appropriate to call this category and the next one (only U-12) Pre-Development Academy (PDA).

I can see why some clubs choose this category although they don't have U-15 through U-18 teams. One reason is that once they are in this category their U-15/U18 players can play high school soccer. Another reason for U-15/16 and U-17/18 categories they might have to travel longer distances and their costs will increase due to travel and requirements of a full-fledged DAs, and the reserve -- those full-fledged DAs need regional opponents to keep down travel and provide competition at the younger ages. There are 10 regional divisions in this category versus the other first two of seven regional divisions.

Clearly, being a DA is a marketing tool to attract players into pay-to-play based youth clubs. It enhances your branding. I believe it is unfair to have the same status as with the full pledged DAs while spending less money. So the establishment of the new status of PDA will eradicate to some extent this unfair competition.

The last category of only U-12 teams is a stranger category. There are 49 clubs (50 teams) in 12 states who are in this category. Having the prestigious title or status of a DA by forming just an U-12 team and meeting the Federation's minimal requirements gives an unfair advantage to the clubs in this category over the non-DA clubs.

One hopes that these clubs will have U-13 teams next year and U-14 teams the year after. In order to minimize their travel obligations, U.S. Soccer put these 49 clubs in 17 regional divisions in 12 states. Yes, they are in only 12 states!

Even in states where there are U-12 DA teams, they are not dispersed across the state. The example I gave in my last article was that there are no DAs to the south of Austin in Texas. Texas is one of the 12 states. The applications of teams from South Texas for a DA status were declined by U.S. Soccer since that region is not in the Federation's current expansion plans.

It is very clear that U.S. Soccer has to expand the DAs across the country. If you look at the next table (below), you will see a loose correlation between the population of states and the number of DAs in those states. There a number of interesting observations: California which is the most populated state heads the table with 32 DAs. The next closest one is Florida (ranked 4th in population) is with 13 DAs.

States
Number of DAs
Population Ranking
CA 32 1
FL 13 4
GA 9 10
IL 8 8
NC 8 5
NY 8 3
TX 8 2
WA 8 13
CO 7 22
OR 7 27
MA 5 14
NJ 5 11
VA 5 12
PA 4 6
IN 3 16
CT 2 28
MD 2 19
MI 2 9
MN 2 21
MO 2 18
OH 2 7
AZ 1 15
DC 1 49
NH 1 42
RI 1 43


One expects from the second and third most populated states (Texas and New York) with a very ethnically diverse demography to have more DAs. Washington, Colorado and Oregon do extremely well, when you compare them with their populations. Ohio is ranked seventh in the USA, but it has only two DAs even though there is a MLS (Columbus Crew) club in the state. For years, St. Louis had been considered as a “hotbed of soccer." But Missouri has only two DAs, one of which is MLS team Sporting Kansas City's DA.

U.S. Soccer should analyze these discrepancies and find solutions for a more fair distribution of DAs across the country.  One of the objectives of U.S. Soccer forming the DAs was to bypass the “pay-to-play” system. Giving the status or title of a DA to “pay-to-play”-based clubs when they do not have a full pledged DA is contrary to U.S. Soccer’s intentions. This actually boosts the “pay-to-play” model. The Division 2 idea I suggested in my last article along with the concept of PDA might help U.S. Soccer move towards its objective closer.

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet@ahmetguvener.com) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of the Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, Texas.

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33 comments about "Development academies: the saga continues".
  1. Robert Reeves, June 1, 2017 at 11:46 p.m.

    It might give a better understanding of the distribution of DAs if the statistic was for the number of DAs per 1000 registered players.

  2. Ahmet Guvener, June 1, 2017 at 11:52 p.m.

    As of right now I couldn't access to any data regarding registered players per State Associations. May be if you have that kind of data I can do such an analysis.

  3. R2 Dad, June 2, 2017 at 6:33 a.m.

    In CA we have all these independent DAs floating around, unattached to MLS, USL, PDL or NASL teams. I think USSF will allow this continue, since their long-term plan is for MLS teams to roll up these clubs once a pecking order has been established among DAs. Unfortunately, the low barriers to entry allows new clubs to keep popping up. I'm afraid we're in for at least another 25 years of this Wild West approach to organizing youth soccer in this country.

  4. Ron L replied, June 2, 2017 at 11:51 a.m.

    R2 Dad has a point of the DA here in CA. As long as Gulati reigns over US Soccer there will no real organization. We need a change at the top. I think Steven Gans could be that leader we need. Also, if the MLS really cares about having homegrown players then any future expansion teams must have a full DA program. We need to stop this "we can fix it in the future" attitude. The future is now. Several of the USL Pro teams already do but I am not sure the exact number. I don't believe any of the NASL teams have them.

  5. Larry Chen, June 2, 2017 at 7:14 a.m.

    I'm curious if anyone here has done any research on top European countries eg Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium youth DAs & compared them to USA's top state and regional power DA areas.

    One key data point would use driving distance in their analysis eg 1 hour driving time to training and/or 2 hour driving time to games.
    Don't worry. Im in no rush.

  6. Fire Paul Gardner Now, June 2, 2017 at 9:45 a.m.

    "You can find out that around the globe most clubs have this range of development" (U12-U18). Unless you are Kumar then you think the rest of the world just plays in the street until they are 16 at the earliest.

  7. Erwin Stielow, June 2, 2017 at 9:50 a.m.

    Very good article Ahmet. Any data or breakdown on the Girls DA?

  8. roy squillario, June 2, 2017 at 10:04 a.m.

    Academies have made soccer a rich kids sport; created jobs for professional coaches while doing little to raise the level of play in the US. We cannot raise the level of play in the US if we are going to exclude 60 of the kids who might want to play.

  9. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, June 2, 2017 at 1:56 p.m.

    MLS DAs are free but we have a way to go in terms of making DA affordable overall.

  10. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, June 3, 2017 at 10:58 a.m.

    Yes, MLS DAs are free but many others aren't. We need to work on getting as many DAs free or as low cost as possible.

  11. Scott Johnson replied, June 5, 2017 at 11:50 a.m.

    MLS clubs have an incentive to be free (or at least heavily subsidized)--the potential for a big payout (or a talented player on a cheap homegrown contract) at the end. Most local youth clubs, OTOH, stand to gain no windfall if one of their players turns into a star--and MLS is well on record of not wanting to share compensation with youth clubs. (Plus, the players association objects--and why should a pay-to-play club get training compensation if the training is bought entirely by the parents?)

  12. Scott Johnson replied, June 5, 2017 at 3:13 p.m.

    One thing that happens in pay-to-play soccer is aggressive recruitment. A lot of clubs love to pilfer players from other clubs; and at present only wins and glory are at stake, not money. If a kid club-hops, who gets the training comp? The last club he plays for? Is it doled out pro-rated for each club after U12? I suppose that if a player is really coveted, his dues might be waived (this occasionally happens already) to entice him over.

  13. GA Soccer Forum, June 2, 2017 at 10:10 a.m.

    Great summary.

    I in the past was a big advocate of DA expansion to the younger age groups. I have since changed my tone and think DA should stick with just the 2 older age groups - the u16s and u18s.

    Its created a huge ripple effect in the soccer community and u12 is no different than normal u12 youth academy player. Its actually cost more and you get less.. much less games, which is the point....

    Let u13s, u14s and u15s play in state cups, regionals and compete a nationals. Kids need to experience competitions where you win and advance. Then let a few DA clubs pick the top players they identify for DA.

    The other issue is the competing interests of what DA is for. US soccer uses it as their platform to identify and scout US youth national team players. However, MLS clubs are using it to identify and develop potential first team players. 2 completely different goals, whats good for LA Galaxy for example isn't necessarily whats good for US soccer. I have no problems with this, just stating the facts.

    I think youth soccer in this country was better when we just had clubs and ODP and regional teams. Its a freaking mess out there. And I see it getting worse and worse every year. Loyalty doesn't exist and I greatly praise the clubs that requires players to be with a club a certain amount a time before they are eligible for DA etc. Maybe those clubs don't exist anymore, but at some point we all talk about development and that word is even in the name of the league Development, then the focus should be on developing your player pool vs replacing them with new players on annual basis (from outside your player pool).

  14. Brian McLindsay replied, June 2, 2017 at 1:46 p.m.

    GA - I like a lot of what you have said but disagree with your final comment. One of the issues with the DA program is you are having local club coaches filtering out players primarily based on a current skill set, particularly at the younger ages. That is a natural thing to happen, but what is unnatural and points to an obvious problem is the low turnover of players in the DA program, once the coaches put players into the DA, they are rarely removed, especially in pay-to-play DA programs. What should be happening if the DA is finding the best talent, is a regular player turnover for the majority of players in every DA age bracket. The reasoning is simple, proven the world over coaches cannot identify top talent at young ages with any consistency. It seems somewhere between the age effect caused by an early or late birth date within a given year and the ability to mask actual talent through early basic skills development, coaches cannot accurately identify talent at young ages. It follows that as both physical maturity sets in and basic skill sets equalize, a significant percentage of the late developers should displace the early developers. Add to that fact, that you will only have two or three players on any given team that will move up to the National Team level, you should be seeing a natural churning of players in the DA at every age level. Although a bit contrived, the simple solution is to retain the top 3 or 4 players on the team each year and rotate out the remaining players so you view the next 14 or so later developing players. On the face of it, such a process would limit the skewing that is happening because of the early selection errors and it would more than double the number of top talent evaluations that the DA program currently does. It would also help at the club/parent management level as many more parents would be able to say their DD/BB have played at the DA level.

  15. don Lamb replied, June 4, 2017 at 7:56 a.m.

    But Kumar - This flies in the face of your statement about how "the most successful DA players only being there for fewer than three years." You pointed that out as an issue. Now we need more of it?

  16. Quarterback TD, June 2, 2017 at 11:09 a.m.

    Kumar makes very valid points that should be consider. Anyway this article was made as an entry and not high level approach it's not good analytics approach first off it seems like we are just throwing data all over the place without proper associations hence the open questions from the bloggers. First off as every US state is almost as big or bigger than Belgium (using Belgium as a base) throwing Academies in a spreadsheet is not good visually. It's best you use a map representation of Academies to show location against regular clubs, soccer hotbeds and youth populations. A map will also show why Academies in a particular state is not only to support that state.. case in point many Academies in NJ/NY/PA support players from other states and regions with no Academies like Delaware etc. Secondly one must deferentiate between non-location centric base Academies like the residency Academies like Philly Union, IMG etc where players from any state can go. For the spreadsheet it shows population ranking which is also not good because from a growth perspective one needs to look at population density of which California is like 15th and not 1st. Reason for population density with age is you don't want to put a lot of Academies in locations with aging but growing population like Florida. Finally one must look at income gap seeing that this is a capitalistic endeavor for non-MLS it's important that they have means to grow and develop players and that takes money hence the reason why in some southern regions Academy is not really an option.. anyway I can go on with other stuff but it's Friday

  17. Ahmet Guvener replied, June 2, 2017 at 11:41 a.m.

    You are correct, this article was meant to foster thoughts and questions about DAs in the minds of the readers.
    There are 2 points I am trying to make:
    a) DA's geographically must be expanded.I know that the USA is as big as Europe. US Soccer just looks at already developed clubs / regions and sanctions DAs there. It is US Soccer's mission to expand soccer all over the USA. So it must find methods of reaching out to the areas that needs "development".
    b)The title / status of DA is a valuable one. So US Soccer must reclassify the current DA system.
    Thanks

  18. Rusty Welch, June 2, 2017 at 12:15 p.m.

    Ahmet Guvener -
    Teshakir! Appreciate the article and efforts to improve soccer in the U.S., keep up the good work. I had no idea of the state of DA's in the country, and the only way to improve the situation is to highlight it.

  19. K Michael, June 2, 2017 at 12:59 p.m.

    Ahmet, I love your efforts to explain the DA's growth and organization as it enters its own "adolescent" years. Starting this Fall 17', the DA will have the following age groups: 11/12,13,14,15,16/17,18/19. The big change is the carving out the 15s in their own age group, providing more opportunities for 15 year-olds who likewise suffered RAE while being paired with the 16s. The older paired age groups now make more sense from a maturity and physical development perspective. Beginning this Fall, the DA will now be grouped in the same manner as the top academies around the world. Also, no cups or two-games-a-day tourneys to play in and a nice 3/4:1 practice-to-game ratio. And the new High Performance Director Bunce's policies (like bio-banding)haven't even taken effect; and he is known for cultivating a patient approach to development while waiting for the boys to reach maturity at 19 years old+.

  20. Ahmet Guvener replied, June 2, 2017 at 1:08 p.m.

    But none of these efforts - which are correct efforts - make DAs reach some of the geographical areas of the country and associated ethnically diverse populations.That it does not reach kids that are not in the system.

  21. Scott Johnson replied, June 5, 2017 at 12:08 p.m.

    While the part about $$$ isn't always true (the top boys club here in Oregon is one of the least expensive), it appears that there has been a consolidation of top talent in the seven local DA clubs, and many competitive clubs that have in the fast fielded premier teams may no longer be able to do so. The other problem with how the DA is set up in Timbers' territory is that the club DAs only go up to U14--then there is a rather large cut as players' only academy option is the Timbers academy. The goal of the academy should be to get more and more kids better and better training, not to simply bicker over the few kids who are identified (and who have parents with the money and time for premier classic soccer).

  22. K Michael, June 2, 2017 at 1:01 p.m.

    Also, the academies with just the younger age groups will be given the opportunity to "grow" into the older age groups as time passes, assuming the minimum standards of facility, coaching, etc are met.

  23. Daniel Clifton, June 2, 2017 at 2:04 p.m.

    Aren't DA's Pay to Play? I thought the US was trying to get away from that model, which as someone pointed out excludes 60 percent of the children? That is why I think MLS clubs have to take the lead in this. They can take Pay to Play out of the equation.

  24. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, June 2, 2017 at 3:03 p.m.

    MLS DAs are free. At this point there are only 22 clubs in MLS though so that's not enough. Pay to play is definitely a major problem.

  25. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, June 3, 2017 at 11 a.m.

    Which MLS DAs are not free? I think they all are but maybe I'm wrong.

  26. MA Soccer, June 3, 2017 at 7:15 a.m.

    The overriding issue that affects the long term health of the game and our ability to compete at highest level on mens side and stay at highest level on women side is pay to play. The DAs make it worse. Not a simple problem to solve but the current DA business model is a problem. We do not have enough professional teams in US. The non-professional team DA's (which is majority now and will become a much higher percentage in future) business model is to charge youth players, not develop players. It is by definition pay to play. US Soccer needs to rapidly help grow the professional leagues/teams and pull DAs along for each pro team. Or change the business model for DAs. It won't happened and in 5 years will be too big to fix as 95+% of the DAs will be for profit youth clubs, with marginal incremental positive affect on the USMNT & USWNT.

  27. don Lamb replied, June 3, 2017 at 5:15 p.m.

    MLS DAs are free. How would non MLS DAs be able to offer free programs at this point? They do have scholarships available, but nowhere near the level that is needed. We need USL and USL 2 to become linked with the current DAs that do not have a professional club at the top. One of the many benefits would be an opportunity for the first team to subsidize the costs of playing for it's youth players. This alignment would also present a more realistic and sensical time for training compensation to be implemented.

  28. K Michael replied, June 4, 2017 at 10:13 a.m.

    pay-to-play does not mean no-development. They are not mutually exclusive. A "free" club may fail to enhance development while a pay-to-play provides an incredible opportunity. A well-funded public high school with great facilities and zero tuition may still have crappy teachers. I do agree that the more professional team affiliated academies the better, but the pie will need to expand a bit more before pay-to-play can be properly marginalized. good news is that progress is being made, its right in front of our eyes if we care to look.

  29. Brian McLindsay replied, June 4, 2017 at 2:32 p.m.

    Don - The statement that MLS DA's are free may no be exactly correct going forward? In Houston the Dynamo's are actively expanding its youth group by merging with a number of P2P clubs in what appears to have multi faceted goals. They will create a giant club that guides local player development on a much larger scale than in the past while involving and educating local potential patrons on soccer in general and the Dynamo's specifically. It seems like a great idea, however the club will concurrently inherit a very large P2P parent base which means all MLS DA's are free but not in the same sense I believe you mean. I understand the older age DA programs are free, but that is being naturally supported by a much larger P2P player population brought to the club through the mergers. I don't believe that is a negative, it just is not as clean as your comment suggests. In fact I see the club mergers as being a great benefit to the very fractured soccer community in South Texas and should go a long ways to creating a much more positive environment while significantly expanding Dynamo's opportunities for developing homegrown players.

  30. Scott Johnson replied, June 5, 2017 at 12:15 p.m.

    Since someone mentioned high school: Many here write HS soccer off as a lost causes, and in many places it is terrible: too many games per week, old-school training regimens more appropriate for distance runners than for soccer players, failure to play by the LotG (there is no buzzer in soccer!!!), coaches that focus mostly on winning and don't teach the game well. We all have heard chapter and verse. But HS ball works great for American football and basketball. It is tax-subsidized, and affordable by most players. And there is still a strong cultural bias in the US (no doubt formed by how the NFL and NBA operate) that pro teams have no business whatsoever being in youth sports; what is seen abroad as business as usual often gets denounced as corruption stateside. Rather than cursing HS soccer--how about trying to fix it?

  31. S Vas, June 3, 2017 at 9:46 p.m.

    So what would you say if some one wanted to fully fund a couple of DA teams in hispanic underprivileged area of the country. Would you think the USSF would jump at that, maybe encourage it , even subsidize it. The club was denied based on geography which could be argued as an excuse. Do you think the DA's are protecting pay to play clubs. Just fyi , the owner that was going to fund , was reliable and passed all other 'tests"

  32. GA Soccer Forum, June 4, 2017 at 11:09 a.m.

    Interesting reply from @Brian McLindsay

    does any DA club do this? turn kids over with similar goals.

  33. MA Soccer, June 5, 2017 at 10:56 a.m.

    I agree more professional teams are key to a DAs development to break the p2p. I don't see this occurring quick enough or at scale required. P2p clubs obviously develop players (the have been in US for 30+ years). The US p2p clubs in general have done a great job. The ones that are now DAs were developing players before, rebranding and adding a training session will have very little incremental impact on development. But adds more cost and travel.
    However if this is your national structure you exclude 60-70% (maybe higher) of your potential players. Some of the next world class players are in that demographic. We need our national governing body to lead, not make it worse. We have a glass ceiling if p2p is our development model and we will stay average on MNT and slowly decline (or not improve as quickly as other countries) on the WNT. I also believe we will continue a slow decline on the community based programs which are in many cases negatively impacted by the DAs exclusive requirements.

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