Commentary

The DA's new tiered format: The stigma of relegation without a clear path for promotion

It’s one thing for clubs to get demoted into a lower division. It's an even more bitter pill to swallow when they aren’t presented with a clear path for promotion into the top tier. That’s one of the reasons why U.S. Soccer’s splitting of the Boys Development Academy’s U-18/19 league into two divisions has sparked so much outrage.
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Beginning with the 2019-20 Boys DA season that kicks off on Aug. 31, the oldest age group will be comprised of the 36 teams in the higher Red Division and 44 teams in the lower Blue division. MLS clubs are only in the Red Division, where they are joined by 14 non-MLS clubs (three USL clubs and 11 non-pro clubs).

This season's U-15 and U-16/17 age group divisions will remain the same as during 2018-19 season, although U.S. Soccer has informed its DA clubs that it will "consider expanding the two-tier format to other age groups" after the 2019-20 season.

As for this season's Blue Division teams' chances of earning a move to Red Division, the only hope they have been given by U.S. Soccer is that: "At the conclusion of the 2019-20 season, the U-18/19 tiers and structure will be reevaluated, and teams may be moved for the 2020-21 season accordingly."

That the MLS clubs were all placed into the top tier -- including 2020 expansion club Inter Miami, which just launched its academy -- is another reason for discontent from the demoted clubs’ directors, who believe the tiered system was introduced to placate MLS clubs that threatened to leave the DA. Also common is the assertion by directors that a number of non-MLS clubs – not necessarily their own -- are more qualified than some of the MLS clubs for the Red division.

Which brings us to another complaint: U.S. Soccer provided only a vague description of the criteria it used to split the teams: "Each U-18/19 team was scheduled into a tier based on performance history, player production, market and the ability to provide meaningful games."

I spoke with a dozen DA club directors representing clubs that were placed into both the Red and Blue Divisions. Some asked not to be quoted by name because they did not have authority from their board to do so. Others cited fear that their clubs would be punished by U.S. Soccer if they were critical of the governing body. This has been something I have encountered on several occasions in recent years when reporting on other DA-related issues. (I do not know whether it’s true that U.S. Soccer would retaliate against critics within its own membership, but that there’s a perception that it would is in and of itself concerning.)

Here are some of the reasons the club directors gave for being upset. They include feedback from directors who believe their teams were unfairly demoted, and from directors who don’t dispute their clubs’ ranking but are frustrated with how the transition was implemented and are concerned about possible future implications.

• The late announcement of the new format. Example: A club that does not charge its players for DA travel set its budget earlier in the year based on last season’s conference alignment. The tiered format created new geographic divisions, requiring farther travel to different states, at a cost that exceeds its planned budget – while taking off its schedule games against local rivals.

Example: The late announcement came after players and parents signed up for a season that now looks different from what they had been promised – such as games against MLS teams and expectations on where they would travel. “It makes me look bad in front of our parents,” said one director.

Last season, the Boys DA had already introduced a tiered schedule, while not altering the divisions. The weighted schedules were designed so higher rated teams played more games against teams rated similarly while skipping games against lower rated teams. (MLS teams in particular had complained about traveling to games against teams that didn't provide strong enough competition.)

When told at a meeting in mid-June, which coincided with the year-end Showcase, that changes were coming in the U-18/19 league, many directors thought that simply meant schedule changes similar to last season – not a split into two divisions. Such specifics, they say, weren’t revealed at the meeting.

Eliminating local rivalry games. Directors of teams in the Red Division were disappointed with this as well. One said his club’s preference is to play against local rivals and traditional regional opponents, because they’ve created healthy relationships with those clubs and want to continue to be good partners in development. Another lamented losing local rivalries that have been around for years. A Blue Division director pointed out his team is no longer playing a nearby longtime rival while added to his team's schedule is a game hundreds of miles away, without another nearby DA club, which means a long trip for one game.

Also, last season’s results show that many of the local rivalry matchups that have been scratched don’t coincide with U.S. Soccer’s aim of eliminating games that aren’t meaningful competition. Especially glaring is in the Northwest, where Crossfire Premier’s demotion ends its games against the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps following two straight seasons of winning a division that also included MLS club San Jose Earthquakes and two other teams that were placed in the Red Division: De Anza Force and Sacramento Republic.

2018-19 Crossfire Premier Results
U-18/19 Northwest Division vs. MLS teams
T4-4, W2-1, W1-0 vs. Seattle Sounders
L2-4, W2-0 vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
W3-2, W4-1, W2-1 vs. Portland Timbers
L1-2, T1-1 vs. San Jose Earthquakes.

(Crossfire’s U-18/19 results in 2018-19 against MLS opponents outside the Northwest Division were: 3-2 over the Los Angeles Galaxy, 4-3 and 2-1 over Real Salt Lake, 4-1 over Atlanta United, and a 4-1 loss to NYCFC.)

The DA had already used unbalanced schedules last season. It could have continued to use unbalanced schedules and kept the existing single-tier structure. Or it could have kept the local rivalry games in place in the tiered division system – scheduling Blue vs. Red derbies.

• Vague description of criteria for evaluating clubs for tiering. Every director from a Blue club complained about this. ("No one knows how they decided," said one.) They said they were given no precise description of how teams were rated above or below each other. U.S. Soccer has spent millions of dollars on club evaluations by the Belgian company Double PASS, said one director, but ratings of other clubs besides his own weren’t made available so he could see how the clubs chosen for Red or Blue were rated and specifically whether Red clubs were rated higher by Double PASS than his club.

Not knowing exactly how U.S. Soccer weighs clubs’ results against player development frustrates the directors of clubs that have supported their players’ move to MLS clubs knowing their teams’ results would suffer.

None of the directors of Blue Division I spoke with said they were given specific reasons for their club’s demotion. One director, on the other side of the country from Crossfire, said that the nebulous criteria has ignited all sorts of speculation. Such as that Crossfire is being punished for seeking solidarity payments for DeAndre Yedlin. (Other clubs that have pursued or endorsed the pursuit of solidarity payments, which U.S. Soccer has historically resisted the implementation of, include the Dallas Texans, Nomads, Weston FC and Real So Cal, which are in Blue Division, and Sockers FC, which is in the Red Division.)

The solidarity payment issue may not have had anything to do with the tiering process, but the fact that club directors believe it might have been is an example of how little faith they have in their governing body.

Last Thursday I had asked Development Academy Director Jared Micklos to address the Crossfire situation and he said that he felt it wasn't appropriate to comment on a specific club. (Since then, we learned that Micklos is leaving U.S. Soccer, for which he also served as Youth National Teams Director.) He had told me that factors used in determining Red teams from Blue teams included using data over the past few years across all age groups.

That explanation has not satisfied Blue Division directors who believe they can point out inconsistencies in how different clubs were judged by their performances in the most recent season vs. over the past few years. There is no shortage of Blue Division clubs pointing out their record over the past several years, despite perhaps a poorer record last season, was more impressive than clubs who were placed in the Red Division. (I didn't speak to anyone from Georgia's Concorde Fire, but another director pointed out that Concorde lost the U-16/17 final on PKs, to Solar FC, yet Concorde was placed in the Blue Division.)

• No guarantee that there’s a path to promotion. When 44 teams get demoted to a lower division, there’s going to be a massive amount of discontent. But U.S. Soccer could have alleviated that to some extent if it offered them a precise path into the top tier – instead of what’s barely a sliver of hope by offering “teams may be moved for the 2020-21 season accordingly.”

Why not simply announce a minimum number of teams that would be promoted next season? Such as four teams -- each team that finishes highest in each of four Blue Division regions. This could be done even if the DA doesn’t end up judging four teams worthy of relegation, because the two divisions are already unbalanced at 36 to 44. The DA could have announced something such as: At least four teams, but no more than eight, will move up.

Even if the DA decided MLS teams would be relegation-proof, it still has enough wiggle room to allow the up and down movement of non-MLS teams.

• A perception of inferiority. One director of told me of getting called by a player who was upset that his club was demoted and he wouldn’t be playing against MLS teams. But the player was a 16-year-old whose team wouldn’t be affected, because -- at least for this season -- the tiering is being used only at U-18/19.

The director said that having tiered divisions in the oldest age group implies that a club is also inferior to the other clubs at the lower age groups and believes that’s not necessarily the case. Especially because it's common that non-MLS clubs field players in the younger age groups who move to MLS clubs for the latter part of their youth career.

• Favoritism toward MLS clubs. One understands why U.S. Soccer would go to great lengths to keep MLS clubs from leaving the academy, and non-MLS clubs not only value the chance to play against MLS clubs, many of them cooperate with MLS clubs and don't begrudge players who have pro aspirations from moving on. It also helps their reputation if they can point to players who have moved on to pro clubs.

But now there's a feeling that amid U.S. Soccer's quest to appease MLS clubs it's neglected to appreciate the commitment of the amateur clubs, many of which existed long before MLS came around. The amateur clubs get no compensation for helping produce players who make their way to MLS teams or the U.S. national teams. Amateur clubs, who do not have the financial backing of MLS owners, have gone to great efforts to make the DA work. They deserve more respect from U.S. Soccer -- and from MLS clubs, which I imagine would have to spend even money on their youth programs if they went off on their own. And would all the MLS youth clubs have enough competition, especially at the lower age groups, without the amateur clubs?

One Red Division director, with a long history in the DA, said he believed there are clubs that ended up in the Blue Division that are better run than some MLS clubs.

U.S. Soccer should have thought much more about how they could serve and reward the amateur clubs while balancing the needs of the MLS clubs.

• No voice for the amateur clubs. One Blue Division director use the word "dictatorship" while describing the DA leadership. ("Ivory tower" is another common expression I've heard U.S. Soccer House described as before this controversy.) He said that in past years there was more communication, and face-to-face meetings as a conference at the showcase events. And discussions about growing the game and improving the league. Now he feels the amateur clubs have no voice and no input.

One imagines that if the DA leadership had presented its clubs with the details on how it was planning the split divisions and asked for feedback, the clubs would have relayed their desires. Such as a path to promotion and maintaining local rivalry games.

And perhaps U.S. Soccer and MLS clubs would have been able to make some compromises. And the nation's governing body wouldn't be facing so much animosity by a large part of its constituency.

The quest: No one will argue against the quest for "meaningful competition." The concept of having the nation's most elite players on the top teams grouped together makes solid player development sense. But it won't work in practice if there is no clear criteria -- as in promotion and relegation -- or if geographic realities aren't better addressed. Or if the federation's motives are viewed with suspicion.

The future: The letter sent by the DA to its clubs on July 31 announcing the new schedule, the new U-18/19 divisions, and the plans for the future said that, after the 2019-20 season, "U.S. Soccer will consider expanding the two-tier format to other age groups." One Red Division director said that's optimal because it would push clubs to uphold higher standards. A couple MLS academy directors I spoke to before this U-18/19 divisions were announced said they expected tiered divisions at U-16/17 to be a likely and satisfactory prospect for their clubs. Another Red Division director of an amateur club said he needed to analyze how this coming season plays out, look at the overall competition, travel and costs, to determine whether the tiered divisions should be applied to U-16/17.

But the splitting divisions at the younger age groups is of great concern to the Blue Division clubs -- especially if MLS clubs are guaranteed upper division spots. That scenario would create more player retention challenges and force them to question the value the of staying in the DA. Playing against MLS teams is a big attraction for players on non-MLS clubs. They also point out that it benefits MLS clubs, who use those games to scout players.

One amateur club director said he understands why U.S. Soccer wants to keep the MLS teams in the DA, because without them, the DA loses its appeal for the amateur clubs. His solution is to keep the U-16/17 divisions intact, and have MLS teams play U-16/17 players in the U-18/19 league (which is already common). The pro clubs' strongest U-18/19 players should be already in a pro environment, e.g. on USL teams, anyway (which is also already happening).

U.S. Soccer faces challenges incomparable to the youth systems of soccer powers it aims to emulate because the USA is so much larger and its amateur youth clubs face much higher costs. However it goes forward with its DA format, U.S. Soccer is unlikely to satisfy all the clubs. But it's got plenty of experience now to reflect on if it wants to create a smoother transition to upcoming changes. Even the amateur club directors who weren’t against the tiered division per se say they felt U.S. Soccer implemented the transition without consideration for challenges their clubs face.

U.S. Soccer at least should strive to govern in a way that prevents the level of strife that has become too common in the American soccer community.

15 comments about "The DA's new tiered format: The stigma of relegation without a clear path for promotion".
  1. Dan Woog, August 7, 2019 at 7:47 p.m.

    Tremendous reporting, Mike. Thanks for digging so deep, and getting such varied responses from across the country. Here in the East, I know several clubs that have had very good results against MLS academy teams. It got them nothing. And of course, the new travel schedule -- dumped on everyone at the last moment -- is burdensome on both tiers.

  2. Danny Sullivan replied, August 10, 2019 at 10:09 p.m.

    Hear hear re the reporting, Mike. Valuable insights throughout. 

  3. James Madison, August 7, 2019 at 8:09 p.m.

    Tiering is one thing; scheduling is another.  if US Soccer had been smart, it would, among other matters, have left space in the schedule for teams to play traditional rivals even though the rivals are in different tiers.

  4. beautiful game, August 7, 2019 at 8:24 p.m.

    Favoritism is an 'oil snake' potion utilized by problematic decision-makers to stay in a position of power. 

  5. R2 Dad, August 7, 2019 at 8:32 p.m.

    It's like USSF thinks their customers are MLS owners. Carlos, do your job! You've turned into Garber's lap dog.

  6. JOSEPH CAMPOS, August 7, 2019 at 8:44 p.m.

    This move by US Soccer effectively kills any remaining rationale for youth clubs to partner with local MLS clubs.  Rather than cooperating with youth clubs and supporting them, they are competing with them and freezing them out.   Without question, the goal of US Soccer  is to streamline the pathway for the most talented players by encouraging them to leave their clubs and enter MLS academies where they will be guaranteed the highest tier DA competition, despite the existence of stronger youth club teams, with no risk of relegation.  This is very similar to the absence of promotion and relegation at MLS. It has just now moved to DA.   As a result, youth clubs are much better off strengthening non-DA leagues, seeking substantial and real partnerships with European clubs and directing and encouraging top youth talent to look abroad rather than sign agreements with MLS academies.

    The most significant part of this article is the observation that there is no advocate at US Soccer for youth clubs. They really are on their own.


  7. Bob Ashpole, August 7, 2019 at 10:49 p.m.

    Excellent journalism, Mike. 

  8. frank schoon, August 8, 2019 at 6:53 a.m.

    It’s all about teams, all about teams, meaning all about coaches , all about coaches, next we employ as usually the format of structural change to improve Improve player development which has gotten us nowhere in the past 50 years. Again we seem to lose our eye on INDIVIDUALITY, which is the weakest aspect of our developmental programs. Until we realize this we’ll continue  in this clown

  9. frank schoon replied, August 8, 2019 at 7:05 a.m.

    Meant to say “in this clown car

  10. Ron Frechette, August 8, 2019 at 9:12 a.m.

    I believe that the DA club structure has been in place for 11+ years and US soccer has been adding clubs regularly. If US soccer had supported solidarity payments and a promotion-relegation format to joining the DA clubs structure from the start – the strongest player development clubs would have surfaced. The criteria of Promo/Relegation would have had to been fully disclosed to the US youth club soccer world. The weight factors of player development over winning records would have made the money factory of DA clubs exposed, due to the intensity of the bright light. Too many parents are still too naïve to ask if their son/daughter is going to be player number 14 thru 18 on the roster – read cash cow for non-MLS DA clubs!

    I was told by a prominent D1 Men’s college coach back when the DA structure was being put into place that the problem was going to be with the lack of good/quality youth coaches in those DA clubs. We still see too many bait-and-switch with top coaches being listed to a prospective parent only to have another coach actually doing the coaching for the team that player was placed.

    We all understand that time forces evolution – improve or die. Has US soccer finally started to realize that they need to change – but are we really seeing that the money side of youth soccer is still driving decision at the US soccer level?

  11. Eric Jensen, August 8, 2019 at 12:11 p.m.

    1. exceptional journalism. thank you. 2. there have significant changes in USSDA since US Soccer moved from JK to GB. would be interesting to hear thought/comments from USSDA insiders as to "why the changes?"

    is there a vision/rationale behind what's happening or just regime change w/ GB and his guys coming inand the accompanying "pee'ing on the tree" that too often accompanies said change? 

    had taken the u14 YNT regional camps - and the accompanying transparency - as good signs but then, in a break from that transparency, they had a u14 national team call-up in June with no public information at all and then this u18/19 tiering.  


  12. Bob Ashpole replied, August 8, 2019 at 9:03 p.m.

    I don't think GB has anything to to with the DA. At least he doesn't on paper.

  13. Amateur Buddha, August 8, 2019 at 12:39 p.m.

    Great piece of reporting. 
    * Crossfire got so screwed. So much for solidarity payments. USSF showing its vindictiveness to cower other clubs. Brutal. Effective. So wrong. 
    * MLS have USSF by the short hairs now after being pushed into funding DA structure by USSF. 
    * Will the end stage be MLS DA as a pro-track, and everything else (non-MLS DA, ECNL, NEP, etc) being for college playing aspirants? I could see some overlap, but maybe that's the best way to track players capable of playing for the USMNT someday. Then again, if you're 18/19 and not already a pro (homegrown, USL, overseas) you're not likely to be in the USMNT pool. I mean, hopefully the US reaches a point where we have sufficient numbers that becomes a rarity. 
    * Might as well let the non-MLS DA clubs skip the fall season and let the kids play high school! 
    * USSF: ready, fire, aim! 

  14. Mark Torguson, August 8, 2019 at 2:50 p.m.

    Great article.  Cant deny that looks like a total disaster.  Looking at "West Blue" Crossfires closest game is Silicon Valley, some 800-900 miles away. with most road trips over a 1,000 miles away?  That cant make sense anyway you look at it

  15. Wallace Wade, August 8, 2019 at 3:47 p.m.

    Great article. So much wrong with what’s going on in the DA! Try explaining this situation to real Pro European Coaches. They will never understand such politics and corruption. 

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