His role became significantly farther reaching in April when U.S. Soccer pulled the plug on its Development Academy. While some clubs moved their elite teams to the ECNL Boys, MLS stepped in to run a league for the clubs preferring a format closer to what the DA provided.
“The last three months have been the most intensive months of my career,” says Lipka, who has been guiding the launch of the MLS-run youth league that on Tuesday announced it now has 78 amateur and five USL clubs on board, in addition to 30 MLS academies – for a total of 113 with more than 11,000 players. “It has basically been Zoom calls from 8 to 8 o'clock.”
MLS jumping in to run a league for so many amateur clubs is not without irony. The expectations before U.S. Soccer’s withdrawal had been that MLS clubs wanted go their own way. Also, non-MLS clubs had become frustrated with U.S. Soccer for catering to the MLS.
But amid the chaos of U.S. Soccer’s abrupt withdrawal -- while clubs were coping with the serious implications of COVID -- those that hadn’t moved their elite teams to the ECNL began to see MLS as a savior. Lipka’s time spent connecting via Zoom was much appreciated by the youth club bosses. They felt that their views on how to proceed into this new era were respected and considered.
Tuesday’s MLS announcement confirmed a governance system designed to provide representation to non-MLS clubs. The chairs in the leadership groups for the three conferences – Western, Central, Eastern – are split 50-50 between MLS academies and non-MLS clubs, which are referred to as “elite academies.”
The five working groups – Competition, Environment, Individual Growth, Talent ID and Commercial – are likewise staffed 50-50. That proportion may favor MLS, whose academies comprise less than a third of the clubs, but it delivers a far greater sense of influence to non-MLS clubs than they felt they had in the DA.
Soccer America spoke to Lipka about what to expect from this new era in which MLS replaces U.S. Soccer in running a significant sector of the youth game.
The league will have six age groups -- U-13, U-14, U-15, U-16, U-17 and U-19. What the schedule, regionally or nationally, will look like is yet to be determined. The pandemic has prevented precise planning for a fall season.
FRED LIPKA: No organization in the country can accurately tell you when it will be safe to play again. And our players’ safety is the priority. We have different options for different states and the different policies.
But things are moving on the right track. We’ve spent a lot of time behind the scenes to figure out logistics, processes and strategies to put this platform together and now we’re in the exciting phase of the program where we are going to have communication and share more insight with players, coaches, parents and the media.
Since talks between MLS and former DA clubs began more than three months ago, amateur club directors have expressed confidence in the MLS venture because of its promise to create leadership committees with amateur club representation.
FRED LIPKA: What I can tell you is 99% or 95% of the people I talked to in elite academies are very committed, very enthusiastic, and very open to build this new program. It was amazing to see how well it was received when MLS stepped in: “Please, MLS let's do it together.” I expected a positive response, but not quite at this level.
It doesn’t mean everybody’s going to be happy all the time, but we have to have an elementary respect as we go into this youth space, to listen to people, to get closer to the grassroots, and not to run the league from an Ivory Tower.
Can a happy marriage between amateur clubs and MLS academies exist when MLS clubs recruit the amateur clubs’ most promising players? Will it be acrimony or a working relationship?
FRED LIPKA: I hope it will be a working relationships – and that already exists in most of the markets. And I think when it doesn’t exist, we have to create a symbiotic environment for both to get something out of it. To show that working with MLS is a plus, not a minus, and we’re dedicated to working on that.
What kind of benefits would an amateur club receive when a player leaves for an MLS club? There has been no shortage of resentment toward the pros when a player spends years with amateur club but ultimately only the pro club benefits financially should that player became a valuable star.
FRED LIPKA: What you're talking about -- and it's a big debate -- is FIFA training compensation [and solidarity payments]. MLS is not usually responsible for that because it applies to moves from federation to federation.
How to create domestic compensation to give more reason for an amateur club to send a player to MLS? Could it be money? I believe it’s premature to make the determination. But our mindset is one of collaboration with the elite academies and we are not afraid to talk about anything.
The ECNL Boys has been growing rapidly since its launch in 2017 and since the DA’s demise has set itself up to rival the MLS league. Some well-established former DA clubs, for example Southern California’s Pateadores, have entered its elite teams in ECNL Boys. Is possible we’ll see a repeat of what happened on the girls side, where top clubs in the same area didn’t compete with each because they play with a different badge?
FRED LIPKA: I would say there's nothing to prevent them to play each other in friendlies. Officially they play in the ECNL but who would prevent Pateadores to play LAFC in friendlies? Nobody.
One of the DA’s most controversial policies was its ban on high school play.
FRED LIPKA: For now, they won't play high school, which is a two or three-month season. For example, September, October, November in New York or New Jersey. If you talk about three months multiplied by four seasons, it's one year. One year of the most important development period of a player's life.
I love the concept of high school, but I don't think high school is the best way to develop future pro players, to develop properly. It doesn't mean it’s bad for kids to play high school if they decide to have that kind of experience.
But I can tell you that all the conversations I had during the expansion process -- more than a hundred clubs applied -- the kids and the clubs, most of them, don't want to play high school anymore. They want to play 10 months [with their clubs]. This is the feedback I got. The boys are more attracted to the 10-month season than high school.
Maybe in the future some clubs will have more flexibility. Maybe more flexibility for the non-pro clubs.
A common sentiment during the DA was that directors appreciated standards but also felt over-regulated. One example was the restrictions on outside play. If a DA player didn’t see much or any action, why should he not be allowed to play on one of the club’s non-DA teams that weekend?
FRED LIPKA: They could depending on whether they were part-time players or full-time players. But you're right that some of them couldn't. We have not made a decision about it, we are going to think about, and it’s a topic we’ll discuss.
The pandemic will likely force clubs to focus on regional play in the near future. But even in normal times, in a country this large and geographically diverse, might it not be beneficial to allow for different approaches in different regions?
FRED LIPKA: Does a schedule have to be the same in California as it is in Minnesota? That's why we have conference chairs and working groups that will have the capacity to address such issues.
MLS looks set to have a major influence on youth soccer in the USA …
FRED LIPKA: We don't talk enough about the commitment of the MLS owners, which I think is very important. I tell you that with my European experience, I'm not sure European clubs do this with a dedication like the MLS clubs. They're dedicated to building soccer in the U.S.
It's our will to participate more in the youth space, and not only in the elite sector. But we have to convince to the youth ecosystem that we are the right people to lead on player development and influence the country’s youth soccer. That’s my personal opinion.