Jason Kutney is the Pittsburgh Riverhounds Academy Advisor and Commissioner of ECNL Boys.
With degrees in Finance and Investment Management, Kutney had imagined a future in New York similar to that of his brother, a "Goldman Sachs guy." But playing USL ball led him to a career in business and soccer. During a Charleston Battery offseason, his quest for a workout venue led him to a tennis-racquetball sports facility. It rejected his membership because it required playing those sports, but offered him a job with the allowance to train on the courts during off hours.
He checked in customers, collected towels and cleaned bathrooms. He also sold the owners on the idea of transitioning from tennis to soccer, whose popularity growth Kutney was well suited to predict as he assessed the membership income from the tennis players. Turf carpeted the tennis courts to become soccer fields and the racquetball spaces were converted into fitness centers and group exercise studios. Kutney accepted a sweat-equity position to run the facility's reincarnation.
Being able to play for the USL 2 Pittsburgh Riverhounds kept the sting out of leaving USL 1 Charleston, where his teammates included Mark Watson, Teddy Chronopoulos and Steve Klein. The Riverhounds folded after Kutney's first season. He reacted by convincing the Greentree SportsPlex owners to take over the Riverhounds and create a youth academy. "I became player/CEO, which is a really weird role to be in, but it enabled me to keep playing for the club," said Kutney. "It was really cool because I got to be part of building a youth academy under a pro team in a really big sports city, but from the very depths of grassroots levels. It showed me a lot about the game and the people involved. And how hard everyone had to work to make it all come to fruition."
Kutney, who played through 2013 for the Riverhoounds, now a USL Championship club, got to know the ECNL leaders well while heading the Riverhounds youth program -- three times their bid to join the ENCL Girls was rejected -- and more so once the Riverhounds were part of it. In spring of 2019, he became Commissioner of the ECNL Boys, which was founded in 2017 and after the Development Academy's collapse last April significantly increased its footprint and stature.
SOCCER AMERICA: Has the ECNL Boys' vision changed in the wake of the Development Academy's demise?
JASON KUTNEY: I truly don't think the vision changed at all. The ECNL ideals that were always there -- like respecting the individuality of the clubs, allowing the clubs to determine what they feel is best for player development in terms of modeling, in terms of resource allocation, etc. -- all of a sudden were brought to the forefront. Maybe the belief in it nationally has heightened. That's what really stood out for me going through the process.
SA: What was the process of accepting new clubs as the DA folded like?
JASON KUTNEY: It really happened very quickly. There wasn't a lot of time to sit back and take a deep breath. The DA did a lot of great things for soccer in this country. There's no doubt about that. Of course, everyone can have their gripes about it. "Here's what should've been done." There's a lot of that in the game in general, but because its ending happened so quickly, it was especially turbulent.
We had many conversations with club directors who were very worried about what they were going to do next with their club. A lot of the clubs were in the Development Academy for years, and they experienced a different approach from the ECNL's -- right, wrong or in between. So we got a lot of questions: Will the ECNL support us doing this? Are we allowed to do that? If our players want to play high school soccer, can we support them? And if they want to do 10 months, we can support them in that way?
SA: And they were satisfied with the answers?
JASON KUTNEY: The more they understood that the ECNL was in a position to work with them based on their individual needs, the more it helped that conversation, the more club directors started to relax and say, you know, this is a great fit for us.
That has always been the case with the ECNL. But when more of these high prestige clubs in the U.S. are talking about the ECNL now being their home, it makes everyone else in the ECNL feel more proud to be in the ECNL. The tipping point was there. What we had created over the years rang true and made people feel very comfortable that it was a solid league.
SA: How much did the DA's demise accelerate the ECNL Boys growth?
JASON KUTNEY: If you rewind the tape to March, we were at 90 clubs on the boys side. Now we're at 131. There were a lot of long days, a lot of emails, a lot of phone calls, a lot of really good discussions with club directors. I think what impressed was the calmness. The ECNL is not a new entity. It wasn't our first barbecue. There was a confidence and a stability, because we're battle-tested. That allowed the ECNL to be a bit more nimble and to expand and really do so in a time when others probably weren't really able to do so.
SA: I realize that some clubs field teams in both ECNL Boys and MLS Next, but could there be a future in which the two leagues compete acrimoniously like we saw with the Girls DA and ECNL Girls?
JASON KUTNEY: There are a lot of leagues out there, right? When you start thinking about the ECNL and MLS Next, that's two of the many leagues in this country. Now those two have climbed to a certain level, and we in the ECNL believe that we have achieved a great level and there are many clubs in the MLS youth league that are certainly at the same mindset. And so those two leagues will work to advance player development in their own ways.
The ECNL has a way that has worked well for years now. There's been no argument that the ECNL Girls has long been the best on the girls side. Now the ECNL boys side has reached the elite environment that its girls side is known for. The ECNL Boys has taken an absolute jump forward in quality and I think that will continue. But the country is huge, the player pool is so large, that to me it's laughable to think that you can siphon that entire player pool into one league.
It's OK and it's healthy to have multiple leagues from which the best players hopefully have ways to matriculate up to the top. If that's getting to MLS, great, if it's going overseas, great, if it's going to college, great. The ECNL has always been a good driving force for those players and is now in a much stronger position to propel players based upon the level of the teams in the league. Not just because of the former DA clubs that have come over, but you have a lot of other clubs that have joined ECNL, like the Oklahoma Energies and Chattanooga Red Wolves of the world.
SA: There must be an appeal to playing in a league with MLS academies?
JASON KUTNEY: Our job is to focus on what we do really well. MLS academies are extremely strong and have grown over the last years. Some of them treat the youth side a little bit differently than others.
FC Dallas and Atlanta United joining the ECNL says something about the direction that they want to go with their youth programming, but they're also supportive of MLS Next. Everyone has a different setup and what makes sense for one club in one part of the country might not make sense for others in other parts. But I really don't look at the MLS youth league as a competitor of the ECNL.
Ultimately, the clubs that believe in what the ECNL is all about and what it's trying to accomplish, as long as it aligns with what the club directors are trying to accomplish, the ECNL will make a whole lot of sense. The MLS side, for those few players who can make it to the top of that pyramid, and it's a very small percentage of players, MLS academies make a lot of sense. Now for the clubs that are not MLS-affiliated that are in that league, I don't know. They found a reason to be in that league that they think makes sense for them. And that's OK. What's important here is that everyone had a freedom to make a decision on what they felt was best for their clubs and their players.
SA: It seems one of the big attractions of the ECNL is its attitude toward high school play, opposed to U.S. Soccer's heavy-handed anti-high school approach. And while I haven't gotten a clear answer on MLS Next's policy it seems more in line with the DA approach.
JASON KUTNEY: I grew up playing high school soccer. Most kids in my generation did, of course. I see the benefits to it. I understand the other side of that as well. It's not lost on me, but the ECNL has always made it available for clubs to take either path and still be supported by the league. That's the way it should be. Clubs should have the option because, what's to say a club team that has kids playing high school soccer is going to be worse than another that trains and plays together year-round? To me that's a tough assumption to make, right?
U.S. Soccer took a position and threw a net over a lot of people. I don't personally subscribe to that. The ECNL has long had clubs where teams play high school, and clubs where teams don't. The fact that it can work in both cases I think is meaningful.
SA: Do you foresee club movement between MLS Next and ECNL Boys after the first season for 2021-22, like we saw with the Girls DA and ECNL Girls between seasons?
JASON KUTNEY: This year is a weird year, right? If it was a true year where everyone got started and played through the entirety of the season without COVID impacts, it would be a lot different than what we're facing right now. Right now, clubs and club directors are really focused on, some cases, survival and making sure that their clubs operate and play games safely. In other cases, it's can they manage through player loss from families just not able to financially do it anymore, to kids going to different clubs for whatever reasons? This year might be a tough barometer for that, because the reasons clubs will make certain decisions may not be based solely on soccer. They may be based upon other factors that are influenced by COVID in some ways.
Obviously, we've grown in a significant way, and we have a lot of clubs that have come over. But only six of our conferences out of 10 are underway with games. Some others will start up in a couple of weeks and still others will wait until October. It's going to be a funky year. My hope is that we can have a successful year to enjoy as much as we can -- getting back to playing games, because that's paramount for the physical and mental health of the player. Everything else for me is kind of secondary right now.
MLS Next is brand new and is barely underway. Our league is, of course, veteran, but it's not really underway yet in this new way. I think right now everyone’s primarily focused on getting back to some level of normalcy, not on the evaluation of the ECNL vs. the evaluation of MLS Next.
SA: Where is ECNL back to playing already?
JASON KUTNEY: The conferences underway are Florida, Texas, Southeast, Midwest, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.
SA: How does the league handle the return-to-play decisions? It depends on state regulations?
JASON KUTNEY: Correct. Everyone's a little bit different. But those areas were positioned to safely start games based upon their local restrictions and guidelines. Others were either not there yet, or just wanted to proactively buy a little bit more time and some of them deliberately started the scheduling in October.
SA: What about showcase and regional or national championship events?
JASON KUTNEY: We have a full slate of events. Generally speaking, we don't start those events until November. There is more time. With kids returning to school, we'll probably learn a lot more over these next couple of weeks, but the events right now are certainly there to be played. We will reassess as we get about 45 days out from each event to assess that local area and travel-related issues if it will be safe to host the event.
We've obviously as a league taken a lot of steps, such as bringing in the chief medical advisor, Dr. Drew Watson, who can help advise on these things. We're working with all the local clubs to make sure that they're following guidelines in those areas. We will reassess things as we get closer to it, but right now we have that full slate of events and the playoffs all set. We're certainly very hopeful that we'll be able to have those events.
SA: With many high school seasons in the nation moving from fall to spring, will that create conflicts?
JASON KUTNEY: Yes. In some cases it's actually allowed club directors to work more closely with the high school coaches to make sure that they schedule intelligently so that if there is a season where players are doing both club and high school, for instance, that it's managed so that the player-loading is light and the players can do so in a healthy way. In other cases, what the ECNL has always done is holding true: we're trying our best to make sure that we work with the clubs and work within the realities of what they face. We can't go into a club and say too bad, this is the ECNL, your players need to play ECNL. The clubs have to turn to their families and say, here's what we're facing: Here's your high school season. Here's our ECNL season. What are we going to do? And they help drive that decision and discussion with the ECNL.
SA: Is the ECNL poised to run its competition in a way to limit travel?
JASON KUTNEY: Travel in general has gotten out of control in this country with youth sports. There is a narrative that if your players aren't traveling a lot, they're not elite. That's a dangerous narrative, right? Because it can be easily proven to not be true. It's very much case by case, but where you can eliminate or lessen travel, you should try to do so. There's no doubt that there are some clubs in this country that are in areas where the demographics and the population can’t provide multiple strong clubs that can give each other quality competition at all times.
But that doesn't mean you have to travel 500-plus miles for a competitive game. And so what we've done on the ECNL side strategically this year is really taking a strong look at that. For example, what was the Southeast Conference this past season was Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama. And we've split that into two different conferences. The Northeast, which was all the way from Massachusetts down to Maryland, we've split that into the North and the South division. The same thing in Texas and the Midwest, where there's now a North and a South division, because we understand that we have to control the travel costs. And the more that we build the competitive nature within each one of these subdivisions, the stronger the league will ultimately be.
And now with the growth of the league and the number of strong clubs and events in our league, we have the ability to operate really high level leagues and subdivisions within a geographic area that is reasonable to travel within, as opposed to trekking all around the country just for a quality game. It's always a worry in this country for any league -- what is that tipping point where you cost someone out in the market, or the players are tired of traveling to play games? We were nearing that point even before COVID.
SA: Do you foresee games between ECNL Boys teams and MLS Next teams?
JASON KUTNEY: I do think there will be clubs that have friendlies set up with those other clubs, which may make sense. That's certainly a club-to-club thing. Anytime there can be local games that help players develop and improve, it's probably a healthy thing. Whether they can fit it into their schedules -- right now, of course, any game you can fit into your schedule is valuable -- is hard to say. In some cases, they will welcome those opportunities and seek them out proactively and others maybe not. I've heard from a number of MLS academy directors who are likely going to facilitate friendlies with ECNL clubs because they know that they'll get good games even though the ECNL clubs are not in their MLS Next league.
SA: The commitment that the ECNL teams have to the league is to play the ECNL schedule, right? Beyond that, are there restrictions on outside competition for ECNL clubs?
JASON KUTNEY: No. We don't tell clubs what they cannot do. This has been a mantra of the ECNL for many years: clubs need to have the ability to develop their players. Leagues don't develop players, clubs develop players.