USL's Liam O'Connell: 'We are 18 months into a five-year plan for USL Academy'

The USL announced on Wednesday that it will kick off its new USL Academy League in the spring of 2021.

All 129 USL Championship, League One and League Two teams are eligible to enter a team in the new league. Unlike other youth leagues that have multiple age groups, the USL Academy League will feature a single group for teams with players that will range in age from 15 to 19.

The USL Academy League teams will be offshoots of youth programs USL clubs operate or affiliate with locally. In a league Q&A, Liam O’Connell, the USL's senior director of youth development, addressed some key issues.

O'Connell said plans for the league were not impacted by the demise of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy.

"We obviously understand there’s a major shift going on in the youth landscape," he said, "but we are 18 months into a five-year plan for USL Academy that started with launching the platform, building resources and consulting our clubs, launching the Academy Cup, and now moving forward with our league model."

Seven USL pro clubs had teams entered in the Development Academy in 2019-20. Eight clubs have teams entered in the ECNL in 2020-21, including North Carolina FC and the Charlotte Independence, which both had programs in the DA. Other USL clubs could enter teams in the new youth league MLS is expected to announce shortly.

O'Connell, who hails from Massachusetts and spent six years working in the Sporting KC youth program before joining the USL in 2019, acknowledged that it is unknown what youth soccer will look like in 2021.

"We don’t want to be blissfully ignorant of those facts," he said of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the economy. "I think the life of a youth soccer player will be drastically different coming out of this. We’re not sure at what point it will be safe for an elite player to be traveling on planes to competitions and getting to games so those are the realities that we have to face. The other one is obviously the financial impact where every level of the game is being affected, whether it’s professional clubs or individual families of youth players, we all as a soccer nation probably have less resources than we did before."

O'Connell added that the USL Academy League will be able to draw upon the footprint across the three USL leagues and create regional leagues that will be harder for other organizations to accomplish.

"That helps reduce costs in a way that will be really important coming out of this crisis," he said.

The plans for the USL Academy League come as more USL pro teams have invested in academy programs and started to sign players at younger ages.

Youth Movement: Five USL academy programs of note

Charlotte Independence. U-18/19s had 10-1-1 record in its 2019-20 DA U-18/19 division.
Phoenix Rising. Sandor Pelle and Josh Martinez won 2019 ECNL Boys conference POY awards.
Saint Louis FC. Reached semifinals of 2019 DA U-18/19 division.
San Antonio FC. MF Jose Gallegos, 18, signed pro contract this winter.
Sac Republic FC. Quincy Butler, Roberto Hategan and Travian Sousa signed with German clubs.
2 comments about "USL's Liam O'Connell: 'We are 18 months into a five-year plan for USL Academy'".
  1. humble 1, May 7, 2020 at 1:33 p.m.

    Interesting.  I know what they are thinking, but would love to hear more indepth the thought process of USLs youth development master plan.  What does the final product / framework look like?  What are the steps along the way?  Yeah, there's gonna be changes in the boys youth landscape, but really not earth shaking a year from now, so given how things are today, how do they see the USL Academy program fitting in to the landscape.  Why will a boy choose this program over another?  A lot of parents (and kids) are afraid to play up and hide in their age brackets, how is USL going to handle the disparity of maturity with coaches and referees.  A lot of interesting discussion could be had here.  See what you can do!  Thanks a mil! 

  2. R2 Dad, May 10, 2020 at 12:57 a.m.

    Let's be honest here. Unless USL has rigorous standards for qualifying officials (similar to what the DA had where not just any badge off the street could referee a match), this will end up as U19 slaughterball. And where do you go after USL? There is no mechanism for teams or players playing well and moving "on". There is nowhere to develop to, and no training with a D1 team.

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