U.S. Soccer should retreat from youth soccer

The soccer from the young teenage boys thoroughly impresses me – as does the entire scene at the Boys Development Academy games that I check out from time to time.

Rarely is the ball mindlessly booted upfield. Defenders pass to each other, and often back to the goalkeepers, as they try work it to the midfielders. If they fail and the opponents score, the coaches don’t get upset. They say something encouraging.

There’s an emphasis on playing in a way that might be risky for the final score – but is important for the long-term development.

Neither the coaches nor the parents scream at the kids. When advising their players, the coaches do so in a civil, concise manner, usually when the ball’s out of play.

I notice a better flow to these games compared to ones I’ve been reffing or coaching in other leagues. At the U-12s in DA play, subbing had been done on the fly. What an excellent idea. In all games, play isn't constantly interrupted in the manner that I find so irritating – such as one coach subbing players a minute after the other team subs. Or players getting replaced after ridiculously short stints in the game.

The fit referees traverse the field, signal and gesture just as an assessor would want them to. They obviously take pride in their work, taking their tasks seriously – as if they’re aiming to climb the officiating ladder.

Watching Boys DA U-13s and U-14s – and U-12s before that age group was eliminated this season – I see a remarkable difference compared to so much of American youth soccer I’ve watched in the past. I had been accustomed to youth teams with one or two outstanding players, some good players, and many who simply lacked technique or a sense of tactics. All the players on these DA teams might not end up stars, but the overall skill throughout the rosters is certainly at a higher level that what we watched a couple of decades ago.

U.S. Soccer launched the Boys Development Academy in 2007 as a response to, in a nutshell, U.S. youth national coaches’ concern about the wild west landscape of the American youth game. Between myriad state, regional and national competitions, showcase tournaments and ODP events, young elite American players were overloaded with games – far too few of them being “meaningful competition.”

A Development Academy with elite clubs set up by U.S. Soccer would emphasize player development over results, and make a shift from an “overburdened, game emphasis” model to a “meaningful training and competition” model. U.S. Soccer, whose previous involvement in the youth game was limited mostly to running the youth national team program, had in 1999 started a residency program for its boys U-17s in Bradenton, Florida. It imagined that top clubs around the nation would put elite teenage players in a similar day-to-day player development environment.

The DA’s creation coincided with MLS mandating its clubs field youth programs. The progress since has included a significant increase in young Latino players reaching the higher levels of American soccer. The pro clubs had proved more receptive to Latin-style players. The funding of youth academies by MLS teams and the necessity of amateur youth clubs to scholarship players in order to remain competitive dramatically increased opportunities for players who had historically been prevented from playing elite youth soccer because of the cost.

Indeed, one can point to many positives that have come out of U.S. Soccer’s ambitious DA program. It does deserve credit for helping raise the level of players, coaches, and even referees

But the landscape and soccer culture in the USA has changed significantly since 2007. And now the Boys DA and the manner in which U.S. Soccer is involved in youth soccer demands re-evaluation.

The professional game has grown dramatically. MLS fielded 13 teams in 2007. It will kick off 2020 with 26 teams. The number of Division II clubs tripled as USL Championship sets to field 35 teams in 2020.

The DA, which started with U-16 and U-18, added age groups and more doubled the number of clubs from the 62 in 2007 to 150.

And U.S. Soccer has ramped up the degree to which it dictates, regulates and restricts.

That created another side to the idyllic scene I started with. Those boys are banned from high school soccer and the younger ones can’t even play middle school soccer. Since the high school ban was implemented in 2012, for how many boys was that a worthwhile sacrifice?

And if a DA kid gets caught donning his high school jersey, he gets suspended. U.S. Soccer punishes kids for wanting to play more, for seeking different soccer experiences. Gone are the days of teenagers, if they’re in the DA, playing in adult amateur leagues, like Clint Dempsey in Texas Latin Leagues.

The restrictions may have been prompted by good intentions -- six-game weekend tournaments are obviously too much -- but it now seems like U.S. Soccer’s leaders in Chicago think only they know what’s best for every elite young player in every corner of the country. Some of their mandates make running youth clubs more expensive when that’s the last thing we need at the grassroots for American kids and their families.

U.S. Soccer requires at least a B or A licenses for a coach to serve as a head coach of a DA team. I am quite sure anyone reading this knows coaches without a USSF B license who wouldn’t ruin 12-year-old players, and many who would do a fine job. That licensing requirement adds significant costs, because the licenses are expensive to get and the coaches who have them can demand higher fees. Many clubs who were enticed by DA status – and courted by U.S. Soccer because it needed to fill out the schedules of full clubs at the younger age groups -- are struggling financially more than ever.

Other U.S. Soccer staff and facility requirements, and travel requirements strain a club’s budget. U.S. Soccer is supposed to serve all of its members, but it has created a system in which many clubs around the nation have to suck resources away from the majority of its players to fund the minority who play DA.

But it was the boss of a rich MLS club who told me it was absurd to send a team 3,000 miles to play in a three-game showcase.

The architects of the DA’s creation are no longer involved with U.S. Soccer and it has changed since the launch, when the idea was to spur better soccer experiences for elite players, limit travel and alleviate pay to play. Now the DA travel requirements for many clubs, especially since the horribly executed tiering system was introduced, can be as arduous or worse than what existed pre-DA.

The areas of player development that the DA was supposed to address do not require a national league.

Not forcing all the DA clubs across the country to play on the same schedule would address several issues. For one, create possibilities of managing a combination of elite club ball and high school play. Giving clubs the freedom to navigate the high school decision would actually benefit some players. High school soccer is not nearly as awful as the folks at U.S. Soccer have you believe. It exposes players to the pressure and exhilaration of playing in front of crowds and puts players from ages 14 to 18 -- from freshmen to seniors -- on the same field.

It’s one thing for a professional club that doesn’t charge to require its players to skip high school ball for long-shot dreams -- and another for U.S. Soccer to force that restriction on every player across the entire country who wants to play in its league. In fact, it’s sad how U.S. Soccer has dismissed instead of helped improve one major part of the youth game that’s not expensive for players and their families.

The geographically enormous USA – with extreme differences in weather and demography -- is not suited for a one-size-fits-all approach to youth soccer. And what disastrous outcomes is U.S. Soccer imagining were it to trust clubs and leagues around the nation with more autonomy?

Even if only half the leagues and clubs around the nation got it "right," the populous of players on a promising track would still exceed that of many nations that produce world-class players.

I’d also argue that we wouldn’t want all our clubs and players to be coached the same way. Our players need to cope with different types of opponents. There’s nothing close to a guarantee that the small group of experts in Chicago have the formula to develop world-class players, as the DA slogan claims it’s doing. I’d venture that there are youth club leaders out there better equipped to judge how to get the best out of young talent in their area.

The Federation providing more guidance and supervision to youth soccer in 2007 was a smart move. And it's thanks much to U.S. Soccer creating the DA that now, in 2020, it’s safe for U.S. Soccer to retreat from youth game.

It’s time to trust the clubs to create their own roadmap and to allow for more regionalization.

The game has evolved so much in the USA that what impressed about the DA games will still happen without U.S. Soccer’s management. I'm thinking of the soccer at the DA’s highest level – for example, recent LA Galaxy, FC Dallas, NYCFC, Seattle Sounders performances. Names such as Jesus Ferreira, Paxton Pomykal, Brandon Servania, Efrain Alvarez, Uly Llanez, Alex Mendez, Gio Reyna, Alfonso Ocampo Chavez, Chris Richards, Weston McKennie

Such players may have emerged thanks to U.S. Soccer providing a platform that MLS clubs could conveniently take advantage of. (U.S. Soccer and MLS should be extremely grateful for and reward in some manner the amateur clubs that provided the foundation.)

Now, players like the ones listed above no longer need U.S. Soccer to provide the pathway. It’s time for the pros, MLS and USL, to provide the resources. Time for U.S. Soccer to stop trying to balance the needs of MLS clubs and amateur clubs, only to insult the amateur clubs and leave MLS clubs unsatisfied.

And those players I watched enjoying those polished facilities, with fine reffing, competing against teams aiming to play a similar way? That can still happen without U.S. Soccer running things. Plus the boys could benefit from, at other times, playing in different environments, against different formations, different styles.

The way U.S. Soccer is running the DA now, neither the MLS clubs nor the amateur clubs are happy. The various criticisms include too much travel, too much uneven competition, too structured, too many regulations. Granted, American soccer will always have challenges U.S. Soccer can’t solve and isn’t at fault for. But MLS, USL clubs and the top amateur clubs are capable of navigating a way for their young players to get suitable competition.

By no longer running the DA, U.S. Soccer can dedicate its resources to the youth national team program and scouting. It could create training centers around the country for potential young national team players to convene on a regular basis without having to travel far or spending too much time away from their clubs, family and school.

Staying above the fray of the youth turf wars increases the chances of U.S. Soccer regaining the confidence of its membership. Reallocating resources that went to the DA to expanding the scouting network improves the chances of discovering talent from less traditional areas. The massive youth and pro game that U.S. Soccer helped create is worthy of and prepared to thrive with more autonomy. And the best will rise to the top.

22 comments about "U.S. Soccer should retreat from youth soccer".
  1. Kent James, January 17, 2020 at 2:02 p.m.

    Very thoughtful examination of the current youth scene in historical context.  Well done.  It will always be difficult to balance interests and resources, and while uniformity can have it's benefits, it's important to allow room for innovation and change.  Your suggestions seem like very good ideas.

  2. William Mcginty, January 17, 2020 at 2:44 p.m.

    Over 150 Academy clubs, each with multiple teams, means over 10,000 boy players.  98% will not make the USA teams or MLS.  So for the 98%, they will miss High School Soccer and the great memories.   The leaders of the Development Academy are working to develop the 2% at the expense of the 98%.   There has to be room for both high achievement and great experience.   

    In girls soccer there is an alternative with ECNL, not sure Boys have the same option. Hoping Academy will loosen the restrictions and unleash the potential of the exciting experience of High School sports that will bring more and more players cross the country to the beautiful game.  With greater numbers, the great players will find their way to the top, maybe through the Academy or maybe spotted at a High School game. 

  3. Chris Wasdyke replied, January 18, 2020 at 7:32 a.m.

    There is an ecnl boys as well.

  4. Andrew So, January 17, 2020 at 2:49 p.m.

    All great points, but one thing missing here.  Who would run the league then?  MLS and USL could not because that would only increase travel further and marginalize the unaffiliated youth clubs. While there are many more professional clubs than in 2007, it is nowhere near enough to provide the sole elite youth aoccer programs for a country of this size. I am sure US Club Soccer or USYS would be happy to organize but then you go back to the pre DA days.  So if not US Soccer, then who?

  5. R2 Dad replied, January 17, 2020 at 7:06 p.m.

    I think US Club and USYS have both proven they are unable to enforce painful sanctions on their clubs when their coaches misbehave, even when coaches repeatedly get in trouble. I think we should ask PRO if they would be willing to take up managing the DA. PRO, or any other organization, must not be beholden to any club--that's part of the reason why DA matches go so smoothly. Coaches are on their best behavior and bad coaches get their offenses published on the USSF DA pages. Otherwise you're correct, US Club and USYS will just deliver more of the same. I would like to paraphrase Ricky Gervais and address the heads of both leagues: " I know these clubs are your friends, but I don't care."

  6. James Madison, January 17, 2020 at 7:01 p.m.

    Even thought sexist, a thoughtful column, as has become standard for Mike.  Thoughts:

    1.  Let the MLS and USL clubs run their academies as they will.

    2.  Keep a set of U16 and U19 academies, i.e, "quasi-Bradentons" spread out around the coiuntry for others who show particular promise.

    3,  Otherwise recognize that the United States has now developed enough of a "soccer culture" to allow for lossening the reins and letting player development and participation both flourish according to local initiative.

    4.  Publicize the US Youth Soccer approach, so that parents and players can compare it with US Soccer.

  7. Alvaro Bettucchi, January 17, 2020 at 8:57 p.m.

    One important factor in all of this? The 2% and the 98% equal 100%, that are in volved with soccer.  If you add parents and friends, they become tomorrows supporters and fans.  This was an outstanding article and great insight of the current situation. Is anyone listening?

  8. Randy Vogt, January 17, 2020 at 9:24 p.m.

    Excellent article, Mike!! Regarding the references above to the refs of DA games, they are assigned and assessed by the ref administrators of the state (such as the SRA and SYRA), at least in Eastern New York where I live. The administrators are looking for fit, young and hungry refs to use DA games as a stepping stone to higher levels. The administrators are not nearly as involved in other youth games, including ECNL. I would think that other state associations do something similar too.

  9. Bob Ashpole, January 17, 2020 at 11:58 p.m.

    Well said Mike. 

    It sounds like you favor the German FA approach to youth development. So do I.

  10. Eric Jensen, January 18, 2020 at 2:03 a.m.

    What is the German FA model?

    Solid article. Don't agree with all of it, but interesting to consider.

    What if the high schools followed what is likely to be the colleges' lead and extended the soccer season to he whole year?

    Practice 4x/week, 2 hours per practice, play once a week on saturdays. Coaches would need to be comped appropriately (likely be made teachers) but it's do-able.

    would address a lot of issues in one swoop... pay to play, accessibility, sustainable, professional career path for coaches etc

  11. Bob Ashpole replied, January 18, 2020 at 8:22 a.m.

    The FA focuses on supplementing the professional club academies by providing training opportunities to the best players locally throughout the country. The FA hires professional coaches who scout, identify, and train the most talented players not in a professional club program. The training is a supplement to the player's club programs. 

    These FA coaches are focused on player development. They don't train teams or enter competitions. They don't compete with local clubs or recruit for local clubs. They don't have conflicts of interest. These coaches communicate on a peer level and share lessons learned so the program improves over time.

    The idea is that the program makes it easier for talented players who don't get picked by a professional club early to enter a professional club program later in development. It makes elite soccer more inclusive. 

    The FA looks for ways to improve youth development so the program is an evolution over years rather than set in stone. In the US, USSF does exactly the opposite of what Germandy did. USSF is becoming more exclusive instead of exclusive and reinforces pay to play instead of supplimenting it.

  12. Ric Fonseca replied, January 18, 2020 at 2:08 p.m.

    EJ:  Schools districts will only hire credentialed teachers  and for the most part, IMHO and past experience, high school coaches are usually "walk-ons" and aren't paid that which credentialed teachers are paid; what is more if a non-credentialed coach is "hired" a credentialed teacher is usually on the field and must also accompany a traveling team.  However, in most cases, at least in SoCal, private or parcohial schools aren't usually tied to the credentialing factors as most public schools, and give "walk-on" coaches more latitude.  Don't forget also, that most public school teachers are unionized, and the teacher unions negotiate the teacher salaries, as well as sports/athletic coaches.  

    So having high schools follow the NCAA model is not too conducive for the sports development, e.g. here in Los Angeles County, our sport played  the L.A. Unified School District is played in the fall, while the southern Section (non-LA unified) they begin competition just before Thanksgiving and competition is played during the winter months, through February.

    Another factor to consider are the other fall sports, i.e. football must compete with soccer, and possibly cross country, and then again, soccer is OK to participate in the post-football schedules and the football coaches aren't too willing to engage in a little territorial imperative competition for field space and game preparation, day of scheduled league games, etc.  

    So, in the long run, wishing and hoping that coaches are "promoted to being regular teachers," a good idea, except that the teachers unions will step in right away.  In defense of the unions, I know that where I taught and coached, the Unions did look out for "uncredentialed" coaches and made sure that the pay schedules also too note of the many hours required to coach an interscholastic athletic program.  And lastly, some schools and "non-athletic teachers and administrators," really do not have the slighest idea or inkling as to what it takes to coach an athletic team, and some even go so far as to assign a sports team to a unsuspecting teacher.  Sooooo, as you can see, there is much more than what meets the eye when folks say that some coaches  are appointed as regular teachers, and some teachers are totally devoid of what is involved incoaching a scholastic sports team.  PLAY ON!!!

  13. Kevin Leahy, January 18, 2020 at 9:01 a.m.

    High school soccer will never go year round. They can't even agree on what rules to play by. The stiffs that run the NCAA will probably never allow it either. I do like the idea of the federation loosening the reins. Of course that organization seems to become more entrenched with time than ever. 

  14. Ric Fonseca replied, January 18, 2020 at 2:22 p.m.

    Kevin:  The LA Unified School District soccer program - if memnory serves me correct - uses the FIFA LOG - modified to fit the high school competition - modified in the sense that non LAUSD schools - private and parochial - also modified the specific district LOG. I recall going to see a friend's parochial school competition and noted that the refs even employed the a ten second countdown at the end of each half, and permitted unlimited substitution, etc.

    And I recall commenting on the college scene, as a well known referee Dan Goldman, together with a FIFA (now retired) refeere Toros Kibritjian, and Heinz Wolmerath introduced FIFA LOG for all California Community College soccer competition, while the NCAA and I believe the NAIA continue to use a convoluted NCAA version of FIFA LOG.  Consider that once a upon a time, NCAA refs used to wear striped white and black jerseys, and the game was played in quarters....

  15. Michael Saunders, January 18, 2020 at 10:44 a.m.

    Cogent article Mike.    Absolutely concur with your recommendations;  but the recent actions by the Federation to harness and centralize control speaks to a different direction.  

  16. Tim Lenahan, January 18, 2020 at 11:31 a.m.


    Can I get an Amen!!!   My points exactly.   La Liga does not tell Real Madrid and Barcelona how to play.   Madrid teams play Madrid teams never traveling more than 1 hour for games.  Twice a year, once in preseason (no school) and once during Easter Break (no school) they may travel for a tournament in Spain or Europe.   Same in London, Manchester, etc.   How great is all-day weekly travel for player development?  8 hours in a bus or airplane not the answer to get "better games". 

    High School is an emotional investment and getting used to playing with older players is spot on.   MLS Academies with residency are the 1%  and should do a different path but the club should set its goals, not US Soccer.

    Thank you for putting on paper the countless discussions our coaching colleagues have had for years.

    Tim Lenahan

  17. Ben Myers, January 18, 2020 at 4:49 p.m.


    Very simple.  Well stated.  Well done.  Gets to the heart of the elite youth development problem.  And as others have noted, who in USSF is listening?

  18. humble 1, January 20, 2020 at 6:29 p.m.

    Good article, agree with the goal, but not with the all the points and some of the points I would make are missing.  I would not argue for HS soccer participation.  I think Ric F. above pretty much sums it up in his micro case in LA - which can be aggregated for the whole of the USA - and - can distilled and summarized two words - clustur f***.  Stay away - in most - but not all cases.  Excellence is the exception not the rule in HS soccer.  As for NCAA and men's soccer, stay tuned in April, as the motion to extend D1 mens season is out there and that would be seizmic.  Missing points.  I would argue that DA has take heart out of MNT.  Ladies, have not been afflicted with this malady yet, but it is likely in process.  I have visited youth soccer in several countries  outside the USA and they are not calm bastions of beautiful soccer; parents scream at refs players and other parents; refs at coaches; coaches at players and parents.  This is cacaphony of our beloved game at the 'baby' level.  DA founded in 1997; today more and more we see MNT players moving playing like robots.  Where are the jaring tackles delivered by Cobi Jones or Kyle Beckerman coming from now?  Where are the edgy players like Dempsey?  They're gone.  They are not getting ID'd or Developed.  Everything today is 'elite'.  Please.  Here's another falacy.  A coaching license in USA proves one's coaching ability.  We have no such track record.  The USSF licensing approach is unproven.  The laundry list of complaints from active coaches about the USSF Licensing process is eye-opening and rather then reflecting excellence, implies incompetence, at a minimum, disoranization and lack of planning and forsight.  Example, creating U12 DA created huge need for licensed coaches just when licening process was stuck in mud, and of course, later U12 is cancelled.  Great idea.  Poor execution.  Looking elsewhere, what about the fact that the DA academies cover only a tiny percent of the US youth population and that the DA supplanted ODP which had a much broader reach?  A case could be made that that effectively the DA is a subsidy for MLS academies since the pivot from ODP focused resource on the DA which helped stand up the MLS academies.  If so, was this done at the expance of the MNT?  So, yeah, I agree with the goal, but the knife cuts much deeper.     

  19. Guy Walling, January 22, 2020 at 5:08 p.m.

    Without immediate gains of a great experience, you cannot have the potential for that high achievement. High school ball gives you that sense of achievement, that sence of achievement, and that sence of confidence that you get from your peers, teachers, and community that you don't get from the DA where your teachers, peers, and community don't even know you had a match. 

  20. Bob Ashpole replied, January 22, 2020 at 6:13 p.m.

    I played 4 sports in High School. Football and Basketball had large crowds of fans at the home games, and large numbers would attend away games. The games were scheduled in the evenings so that the public could attend. The other sports were entirely different. The matches were scheduled for after school and not convenient for public attendance. There was almost zero fan support for these other sports. I expect that it is a very rare community that attends the local high school soccer matches.

    Even if the school has an excellent coach, the short season and compressed competition schedule leaves coaches virtually no time for player development. 

  21. Bob Ashpole replied, January 22, 2020 at 6:18 p.m.

    By the way I am in favor of letting players play high school if they want. But that is because I don't think much of the majority of club coaches. Except for the professional clubs, good coaches are the exception wherever you look. I don't put my faith in licenses or diplomas. Most of what you learn in life comes after the licenses and diplomas.

  22. Guy Walling, January 23, 2020 at 10:10 a.m.

    I get your point and that should change. However, I have two boys that play for Montverde Academy, otherwise known as Soccer Institute Montverde Academy (SIMA) and we have a pretty large soccer community just north west of Orlando, FL. So playing DA and giving all this up is an unnecessary internal conflict that should not be inflicted upon these kids by US Soccer.

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