“There's always a possibility,” said Romeijn when asked whether U.S. Soccer may be faced with playing its 2019-2020 season without MLS clubs participating in its Development Academy, which was launched in 2007 for the nation’s elite players. “We're still talking with MLS. …
“It's possible, because we're not governing MLS. But the thing we are really focused on is that alignment of the pathway. As you know, our landscape is quite fragmented. It's really important for us to have that alignment, so when we think about player development we think about, ‘OK, maybe it's good to have pro competition and then the other clubs.’”
Exactly how MLS would operate its youth competition outside of the DA is unclear, but its issues with the DA format include the widening gap of quality between MLS clubs and amateur clubs, and the DA’s restrictions on outside competition, such as international play.
Last year, U.S. Soccer responded to complaints from MLS clubs’ about traveling long distances to play against teams that don’t offer meaningful competition. It decreased the number of DA games on the schedule and created “free weekends” for clubs to choose their own competition, such as against foreign teams. The DA has also for years allowed MLS clubs to compete in the Generation adidas Cup.
“One of the things [the MLS clubs] really like to do is play against international opponents,” said Romeijn. “And, of course, that's a really good benchmark when you're talking about player development.
“Then we say, of course, we will look at the schedule and we will give you the opportunities. It's the same when you're looking at the Generation [adidas] Cup they organize.”
For some MLS clubs, the free weekends provided so far aren’t enough to satisfy their quest to take international trips or they fall during inconvenient times of the year.
Romeijn says he can envision MLS continuing in the DA with a different format in which MLS clubs are given more flexibility. But …
“There are, of course, limitations,” said Romeijn. “One cannot say, all 23 clubs, give your schedule and we will adapt. That's impossible. Because you cannot build a competition on that."
An example of adjusting the DA schedule to please MLS clubs would be to allow, within the DA structure, more games between MLS clubs.
“You can imagine Philadelphia and Red Bulls,” Romeijn said, “and they say, OK, not only two but four of these games are really valuable for them when you're looking at player development. And that's what we want to do. Focus on player development.”
Because of the investment required to travel in a country as large as the USA, it would be difficult to imagine MLS creating its own type of youth leagues similar to Mexico's Liga MX, in which U-17 and U-20 travel with the first team to play in a national youth league that mirrors first-team competition. More likely, MLS academies could design a combination of national, local and international competition for their youth teams, and perhaps combine with USL youth programs.
Alternatives to MLS pulling all of its teams out of the DA include keeping its younger teams in the DA and MLS creating its own competition for the older age groups. The DA, for its part, could propose a tiered format based on the quality of its clubs to placate the MLS clubs that believe they’re playing too many games against weaker competition.
“We are now in the process of having these conversations,” said Romeijn. “Nothing has been decided yet.”