Crossfire's Bernie James details his disappointment in how U.S. Soccer runs the Boys DA

Twelve years ago, the U.S. Soccer Federation dramatically changed its approach to boys youth soccer. It previously limited its role to managing the youth national team program and depended mainly on the U.S. Youth Soccer-run Olympic Development Program (ODP) for talent identification.

The change came swiftly. U.S. Soccer managed to lure enough of the nation’s top youth clubs by July of 2007 for inaugural Development Academy season that would kick off August of that year. Some major clubs -- including traditional Texas powerhouses -- balked on becoming part of the new national league. They would join later.

The first 11 clubs that signed on in June of 2007 were amateur clubs. In the second wave, the field grew to 31, including three MLS clubs -- New York Red Bulls, D.C. United and Chicago Fire. When the season kicked off with 62 clubs, seven of MLS’s 13 clubs fielded DA teams -- the Columbus Crew, Chivas USA, L.A. Galaxy and Colorado Rapids having come aboard.

The key to launching a national youth league was convincing amateur clubs to buy in. One of those was Crossfire Premier of the Seattle area. Its director, Bernie James, had gotten a call from John Hackworth, the U.S. boys U-17 national team coach charged with recruiting clubs for the new venture. James answered Hackworth’s invitation with, “Absolutely.” Even though DA participation would be severely inconvenient geographically for his Northwest club.

This was before Portland, Vancouver and Seattle had MLS clubs and joined the DA. Washington Premier (no longer a part of the DA) was the only other club Crossfire could play without getting on an airplane.

Two weeks ago, U.S. Soccer restructured the DA’s oldest age group league, U-18/19s, and Crossfire was demoted to the lower Blue Division. None of the MLS clubs were placed into the lower tier. Amid all the controversy surrounding the new format, Crossfire drew the most attention. Crossfire in the last two seasons finished first in a division that included MLS clubs Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps and San Jose Earthquakes -- and two other teams that were placed in the Red Division: De Anza Force and Sacramento Republic. Crossfire also reached the quarterfinals in the last three seasons in the competition among nearly 80 clubs.

SOCCER AMERICA: Has anyone from U.S. Soccer explained to you why Crossfire Premier was placed in the lower, Blue Division?

BERNIE JAMES: No one from the Federation called or talked to us before it happened. Then I called Jared Micklos [Development Academy Director] myself, and he did answer the phone. And the bottom line was: They understand that we don't understand why. That kind of thing. It is what it is. We have our reasons and they won't always make sense to you.

That's what you expect, right? They're not going to tell you their reasons if they don't make sense to anyone.

Jared was nice on the phone to me. I think he understands our situation. … I don't know whose hands are tied. You just never know who you're dealing with or if they're allowed to tell you the truth. Jared was nice. He's always been a good guy. He seems to be honest and care about the right things. But he didn't have any solid answers.

But they [U.S. Soccer] didn't call me. I had to call Jared.

SA: The day after you spoke to Micklos – and within a week after the split divisions were announced, it became known that Micklos is leaving U.S. Soccer. Who do you think at U.S. Soccer makes the decisions on how the DA is run?

BERNIE JAMES: I can just tell you, in my opinion, shit runs downhill. Anything that happens at Crossfire is my fault and my decision. I either hired the people who made a bad decision, or I told them to make that decision. Either way, it comes down to me. So, whoever is the highest-ranking person had to have OKed this or hired the people who did it.

SA: If U.S. Soccer included, while introducing the split division format, a guarantee that after each season a minimum number of Blue (lower) division clubs would be promoted to the Red (higher) division, would that have changed your reaction about Crossfire Premier getting demoted?

BERNIE JAMES: Absolutely. If they gave us a pathway, that if you keep doing well, you get rewarded -- no problem at all. If they gave us clear-cut criteria, I wouldn’t have minded.

No one from the Federation had the foresight to say, from now on we will have promotion and relegation. If MLS clubs will not be relegated even if they're terrible – that’s anti-competition.

SA: What if U.S. Soccer said MLS clubs were relegation-proof but non-MLS clubs could be promoted?

BERNIE JAMES: If they told me MLS is running it: “We're doing whatever they want, you're out.” Then I'd go, OK. I’d disagree with it, but don't hide behind “meaningful competition” -- because if that was the case, we’d be in the top tier.

Now I'm being a bit of a smart ass, but with 19 wins, 5 losses, 7 ties against MLS teams in the last two years [at U-18/19], maybe we should move up a division. They moved us down a division when we should be moving up to a division that doesn't exist.

SA: U.S. Soccer’s vague description of criteria for evaluating clubs for tiering – besides offering no clear pathway to promotion – has been the main complaint I’ve heard from club directors. How could U.S. Soccer have been more specific?

BERNIE JAMES: If they said you had to have a certain winning percentage in last three years, that's no problem. If they told me you have to make it free to be in the top division, no problem. But when there's nothing clear-cut about it, it leaves you wondering.

SA: The speculation from other club directors I spoke to included that U.S. Soccer was punishing Crossfire because your club has been seeking solidarity payments, per FIFA regulations, for DeAndre Yedlin.

BERNIE JAMES: I really don't know what to say about that. But [the demotion] can't be based on on-field performance. It can't be based on funding, because we make it free. It can't be on coaching, because we keep winning.

It can’t be based on geography, because we had four teams in the Northwest -- and you play two games on a weekend and you need travel partners, so four is the ideal number. Now they have three, and we have one in another league.

It leaves you with only a few other options. It's personal or it's payback for something you've done.

To be clear, our pursuit of solidarity payments was based on FIFA regulations, and U.S. Soccer and we are FIFA members. At Crossfire we've always done what we think is right. We put all the profits from everything we do, from tournaments to advertising, back into the kids. We don't gouge people. And we're trying to do it the right way, which U.S. Soccer keeps preaching about. Get rid of pay to play and all that. And we're actually doing that, even though we're not owned by billionaires.

SA: Other speculation from directors I spoke to about the tiering alleged favoritism toward MLS clubs. That Crossfire’s demotion would help the Seattle Sounders attract top players from the Seattle area and the Concorde Fire's demotion would benefit Atlanta United.

BERNIE JAMES: As for Concorde Fire, how can you be in the final of the U-17s with all the MLS clubs involved, lose on penalty kicks, and be denied of playing at U-19s at the highest level? That’s not "tiering." They deserve to be in 19s.

SA: The discontent conveyed to me from non-MLS club directors about the U-18/19 split division format wasn’t just about their teams getting demoted. They complained that they felt they had no influence on decision-making nor a manner to convey feedback that they believed would be respected. I was also told it hadn’t always been that way.

BERNIE JAMES: I think it was way better in the past. I think we felt like part of community and part of the league. They were actually quite nice to us. When John Hackworth was involved, and Tony Lepore was more involved, we used to go to meetings and feel like part of it. They'd tell us, "You're part of the national teams. You're our scouts. Let us know if you see players. Go to the Technical Advisors, you can call them up."

SA: One of the recent changes in the DA was eliminating the 12 regional Technical Advisors -- who scouted players but also served as U.S. Soccer’s liaisons to the clubs -- and instead having three Talent ID Managers who each cover a third of the nation. Did that change affect the clubs’ relationship to U.S. Soccer’s leadership?

BERNIE JAMES: We used to have Hugo Perez in our area [as a Technical Advisor]. He'd come up and visit two or three times a year, and we had a direction. Whether or not I agreed with everything he did or what U.S. Soccer did back then, it was great communication. We had scouts at every game, and we felt like it was really a top league, and now, even last year, for U-19s, I thought we had scouts at a third of the games.

SA: A common view of U.S. Soccer’s impetus for the division split is to appease MLS clubs who threatened to leave the DA – without considering the concerns of the amateur clubs. I’m assuming you agree?

BERNIE JAMES: It looks like we've all become slaves to MLS, and we get threatened if we don't send our players to MLS. And the scouts in the DA, they're supposed to be working for the DA and all our clubs, they tell the kids to go to MLS teams to have a better chance to make the national team.

I'm not anti-MLS at all. I'm for opportunities for the kids, whether it's college, MLS, Europe -- it doesn't matter to me. I'm trying to help kids reach their goals. But it seems now that clearly MLS has the power, so why wouldn't MLS run the league? Even if I didn’t agree with that, at least U.S. Soccer could be honest about it.

Crossfire has put in millions of dollars into the boys and girls DA and that's the kind of reward we get? To not even get a solid answer, but a bunch of jargon that means nothing. “We can't really tell you why, but you're not in.” Who thinks treating your membership like that at any level is a good idea?

17 comments about "Crossfire's Bernie James details his disappointment in how U.S. Soccer runs the Boys DA".
  1. Dan Woog, August 16, 2019 at 4:41 p.m.

    Ugh. And crickets from US Soccer?

  2. Wallace Wade, August 16, 2019 at 5:19 p.m.

    Corruption, rigged, anti-competition, call it what you will. I guarantee that Jared was unable to explain because he was given his marching orders from Garber and Gulati. What a complete joke! I would say that The Federation is run like a “Banana Republic” but that would be insulting to “Banana Republic’s”.

  3. R2 Dad, August 16, 2019 at 5:48 p.m.

    THIS is what I'm talkin about--journalism that enlightens. Feedback from people in the trenches, reporting news even if it's not complimentary towards the people who make decisions in this country.  Great article, Mike! 

  4. Bob Ashpole, August 16, 2019 at 6:47 p.m.

    Too bad we can't have youth leagues without adults running them.

  5. R2 Dad replied, August 16, 2019 at 7:53 p.m.

    Agree! Read that as "ruining"...

  6. Bill Dooley replied, August 17, 2019 at 6:46 p.m.

    We do have youth leagues without adults running them.  This is a disgrace.

    In the January SA articles about MLS bailing out, that option made perfect sense from an MLS standpoint.  This is finger-in-the dike stuff from DA/US Soccer.  It may postpone the eventual rupture, but will not stop it.

  7. Bob Ashpole replied, August 17, 2019 at 10:07 p.m.

    I see your point, Bill.

  8. Randy Vogt, August 16, 2019 at 8:30 p.m.

    Great interview, Mike!! I thought that I had crossed paths with Crossfire so I looked it up and officiated them twice, in 2002 and '04 in premier tournaments. Crossfire older boys teams that advanced to the next round, former Seattle Sounders and Tacoma Stars coach Alan Hinton was coaching one of the Crossfire teams. Half the premier clubs in that tournament no longer exist but Crossfire has not only survived but thrived. Especially in light of that, being moved to a lower division stinks. 

  9. Kevin Leahy, August 16, 2019 at 9:50 p.m.

    This is what makes me sick! This is the only reason soccer people ever get involved in administration . They know that people are making decisions that aren't soccer decisions. The people who do this have no scruples!! This federation is a disgrace!!!

  10. Eric Jensen, August 17, 2019 at 1:18 a.m.

    almost goes without saying, almost. excellent interview. well done. and kudos to Bernie James for going on the record.

  11. Bill Dooley replied, August 17, 2019 at 6:47 p.m.

    + 1

  12. Alan Blackledge, August 17, 2019 at 8:30 a.m.

    Excellent read. Bernie seems to be a straight shooter and class act. Thanks for the insights.

  13. Paul Pallante, August 17, 2019 at 1:45 p.m.

    great article from the field...explains a ton!

  14. Kent James, August 18, 2019 at 4:53 p.m.

    Bernie sounds like a class act, and Crossfire was clearly sabotaged.  The explanation that makes the most sense is the one Mike offered about the Sounders and Atlanta wanting to get all the best players from their cities (and not have to share them with competing clubs).  Not sure that James would be happy if they were more honest about it, but it is certainly underhanded not to be honest about it.  It is difficult to determine how selective a team you want (how many teams in the top division, and how many players can each team choose from?); the more selective, the higher quality of play, but also the fewer players who are impacted (and the more difficult the logistics get).  Tough issue.  But I think the way to deal with that is to discuss it with people like Bernie James, and work through the issues.

  15. Amateur Buddha, August 19, 2019 at 10:41 a.m.

    MLS clubs owned by oligarchs. Follow the money, it's an old story. This change had nothing to do with competition, much less with doing what's best for player development. 

    How about, have the MLS clubs field U18/19 or USL teams only, and the rest of the clubs take care of youth development? The MLS clubs must lose a pile of money on having mulitple teams all in the dim prospects of "developing" a player that has meaningful starts or is attractive enough to gain a transfer to Europe. Relieve them of that burden since they clearly don't want it or merit the responsbility (for the most part, I would except Dallas etc). 

    Crossfire got royally screwed, and so will many other clubs. 

  16. Ron Frechette, August 19, 2019 at 12:17 p.m.

    I am waiting for the "other shoe" to drop. I think it will be around Solidarity payments - and how the MLS clubs will position themselves to rake in the majority of the money for "training" the American youth soccer player being bought by European based clubs. As many have said it will be follow the money - so when will US Soccer and MLS finally agree to allow FIFA solidarity payments to occur within the US?

  17. schultz rockne, August 26, 2019 at 7:10 p.m.

    Cheers, Bernie--a Cleveland Force legend as well!

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