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
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.