As of Tuesday, April 14, U.S. Soccer had yet to cancel the remainder of the 2019-20 Development Academy season. The pandemic may have created too much uncertainty to expect U.S. Soccer to promptly detail its long-term plans, but the vacuum of communication from U.S. Soccer led club directors to speculate that the Federation could be pulling the plug on both the Girls and Boys Development Academy programs.
Club directors on the boys side -- not including MLS clubs -- started extensive discussions among themselves aimed at coming up with alternatives to a USSF-operated DA. For some, the Boys ECNL presented the best option. Unclear for all is how U.S. Soccer envisions its future involvement in youth soccer, which increased significantly on the boys side with the DA's launch in 2007, and with the Girls DA launch in 2017.
The coronavirus interruption had already guaranteed that youth soccer would change in the USA and that the Development Academy could not continue in its current form.
U.S. Soccer budgeted $9.4 million for the DA but it will take an economic blow forcing it to reassess that expenditure and all others. Families, if it's even an option for them within the new economic realities, will reconsider spending thousands of dollars on their children's soccer. Even within the more optimistic predictions of when we can be mobile again, will parents sign up their children for teams that require frequent air travel?
Youth soccer will be different, but it could also be better. With this crisis comes the opportunity to reboot American youth soccer, and a chance for U.S. Soccer to regain the trust of its disillusioned membership. The path would include:
1. U.S. Soccer retreats from DA
As I wrote in January, U.S. Soccer started the Boys DA in 2007 with good intentions but the time had come for the USSF to retreat to focusing on its youth national team program and expanding its scouting network -- rather than micromanaging how the nation's elite clubs run their soccer. As the years went on after the 2007 launch, U.S. Soccer ramped up its regulations and restrictions. The one-size-fits-all approach is ill-suited for a nation as geographically and demographically diverse as the USA. And there's been enough improvement in American soccer that the Federation should trust the clubs, leagues and coaches. By leaving the DA, U.S. Soccer would remove itself from the youth turf war and take a first step toward repairing its relationship with the other parts of its membership that represent the vast majority of America's youth players.
2. Support and aid in the transition
For some clubs, the dissolving of the DA may come as a relief, for others it could be a tough blow. U.S. Soccer needs to get all of the youth soccer governing bodies and MLS and USL representation into the same room (or Zoom) to start working together on navigating the new era in youth soccer. Instead of telling clubs and membership how it's going to be, ask them how they think it should be. Even if there's not a consensus, by no longer running the DA, U.S. Soccer can start facilitating instead of dictating.
3. Look for solutions from within
I would never be against looking abroad for ideas, whether it's soccer or anything else. But we've gone too far in trying to imitate countries with which we have so little in common -- while ignoring our own strengths. We have in the USA accomplished, intelligent and dedicated soccer people who have not been asked by U.S. Soccer for their advice or insight. I also have a long list of DOCs of DA clubs with an impressive history of success who haven't been asked for input in U.S. Soccer decision-making. There may be imperfections in the history of American soccer's rise, but to ignore those who made it happen is to waste important resources.
4. Connect with college soccer
American soccer's major leap forward in the 1990s came thanks much to coaches from the college ranks. Now, it'd be difficult to find a college coach who believes U.S. Soccer has any respect for the college game. Whether or not college soccer can produce men's national team players is not the point. College soccer continues to have a major influence on the youth game. Its ranks include some of the USA's most experienced coaches with a history of guiding various generations of young American players. That the pandemic will have a profound impact on the college game is all the more reason for U.S. Soccer to include college coaches in the process of navigating the future course. It would be mutually beneficial for U.S. Soccer to reconnect with college soccer.
5. Apologize to high school soccer and embrace it
One of the stupidest, most disrespectful and nonsensical moves U.S. Soccer ever made was demonizing high school soccer as a player development detriment. The Federation can make no plausible defense of its attitude toward high school soccer because it cannot point to any significant progress that the American game has made thanks to in 2012 banning Boys DA players from high school ball -- instead of leaving that decision to the players and clubs. The likes of Christian Pulisic choose not to play high school soccer because a different pathway is obvious to them. Thousands of other players didn't play high school soccer because U.S. Soccer forced their hand and they were denied of a great experience. And isn't it a development truism that playing with and against older players is beneficial? So why deny a DA freshman that chance?
Common for lower-income kids who can't afford club soccer, such as in the Latino community, is to play high school soccer and adult Latin league ball, neither of which U.S. Soccer regularly scouts. A post COVID-19 era would allow mainstream soccer's best to play high school, which could help the marginalized players get the attention of college and even national team scouts. While everybody lamented pay-to-play youth soccer, the Federation disparaged the biggest cost-free youth soccer we have instead of helping it improve. Now U.S. Soccer has a chance to change its attitude when it's more important that ever.
6. Embrace United Soccer Coaches
The United Soccer Coaches (previously known as the NSCAA) -- the world's largest coaching organization -- continues to be the most unifying soccer organization in the USA. Anyone attending its convention can attest to that. How has it been treated by U.S. Soccer? It stopped recognizing United Soccer Coaches' diplomas, yet when U.S. Soccer couldn't staff its own coaching courses it asked for the United Soccer Coaches' help. The increased travel that U.S. Soccer's higher-level license courses require is even more problematic now. U.S. Soccer should collaborate with the coaching education of United Soccer Coaches, US Youth Soccer, U.S. Club Soccer and AYSO. Last time I checked, they're all decent, similar and none have a magic formula that set it above another.
7. Regionalize youth soccer
Thanks to the DA rules, we have in the USA clubs that travel hundreds of miles to play teams that aren't as competitive as a neighboring team that plays with a different badge. In fact, the original plan for the DA wasn't to create a national league, but to help clubs around the country improve their training environment. We need to go back to that.
U.S. Soccer should aid clubs without dictating to them, and encourage localized soccer. If you have an incredibly talented U-12 team that can't find competitive U-12 games, play in a U-14 league. If your U-18s are so good they win every game, enter them in an adult league if a good one is available. To its credit, U.S. Soccer never went as far as U.S. Youth Soccer or the ECNL on youth national championships for the younger age groups -- but it does create significant travel expenses with showcases that require cross-country flights. And the DA has long-distance travel for regular-season games combined with a sub limit that sends kids on costly trips for limited minutes of action.
The cost-saving by regionalizing play is more important than ever as clubs and parents face the economic fall-out from the pandemic. However it unfolds, decreasing national championships and national showcases for so many age groups at all levels of youth soccer, not just the DA, will be a silver lining to the crisis.
8. Let the pros take the lead
U.S. Soccer's attempt to appease MLS clubs unhappy with the DA only led to discontent from all quarters. In the new era, MLS and USL clubs can take the lead by creating one competition, at U-16 or U-17. That's the age at which they need to make a decision on signing young players. Their older youth players (pros or still on academy contracts) should be playing with reserve teams. MLS needs to finally abolish territorial rights and MLS clubs can scour the nation for the players they feel confident in investing in. The Boys DA had already reached a point at which the amateur DA clubs were ready to forge a path without U.S. Soccer trying to balance their needs with MLS's. For all the other age groups, MLS clubs can work with local clubs -- regardless of what organization the players are registered with. Farther down the road, U.S. Soccer can consider hosting regional championships that invite the best clubs no matter who they're affiliated with. More importantly, U.S. Soccer should redirect resources to expanding talent ID centers around the nation and scouting players regardless of affiliation.