Fred Lipka on MLS Next: The quest to deliver high-level youth competition with a sense of community

A decade ago, if asked who he’d root for if the USA played France in the World Cup, Fred Lipka wouldn’t have skipped a beat. Now he says:

“Tough question! I'm French, but I want badly for the USA to win because it would mean we all did a great job. Next question. I need to sleep on it.”

Nine years ago, Lipka, the former academy director of Le Havre and Racing Club, was enlisted by MLS to serve as liaison with the French soccer federation (FFF) on a coaching education a partnership that sent coaching staff from all 19 MLS clubs to its famed Clairefontaine national training facility to embark on a 16-month youth development course developed by the FFF. Lipka would also visit each MLS club to review its youth academy and help guide the candidates through the sessions to obtain their "Elite Formation Coaching License."

Did he imagine back then he’d one day be working full time in the USA guiding a national youth league?

“Absolutely not,” he says. “I was focused on learning to speak English, supporting the coaches, and trying to understand soccer in the USA.”

But after a couple years of working as a consultant, Lipka was hired by MLS to serve as Technical Director of Youth Development, in 2015. His work with MLS, which will field 28 clubs in 2022, took on a new and far-reaching dimension in April of 2020. MLS had stepped into to provide a replacement for the Boys Development Academy after U.S. Soccer abruptly pulled the plug on the DA when COVID interrupted its 13th season.

The FFF partnership continues – 80 coaches have been through it, 60 have graduated, and Lipka accompanied the latest class when it convened at Inter Miami last week. And in middle of MLS Next’s second season he reflected on how much he learned by those he was helping teach when he linked with MLS in 2012. 

“I was fortunate to work with great learners, coaches and leaders,” he says. “They may not know, but they helped me a lot. … It was a real adventure with trailblazers. Luchi Gonzales, Marc Nicholls, Greg Vanney, Chris Leitch, Wilfried Nancy, Freddy Juarez, Nolan Sheldon, Jovan Kirovski were among the guys participating in the first program.”

MLS Next is comprised of 133 clubs, 590 teams and more than 12,000 players in the USA and Canada. The MLS Next Fest Showcase takes place Dec. 3-7 in at SilverLakes Sports Complex in Norco, California. 

SOCCER AMERICA: What's your favorite part of the job?

FRED LIPKA: I'm enjoying leading, guiding people and being useful. Working with committed, motivated people is also something tremendously important for me. Managing competition is not my field but we are useful for our clubs and players. Having an impact on a country and our environment is something which fulfills me for now. My expertise is more in coaching education, coaching, and leading high-level performance soccer, organization and structure.

SOCCER AMERICA: Since MLS Next launched, have you made any observations or discoveries about the American youth game that make you more optimistic about the potential of the USA as a world soccer power?

FRED LIPKA: There's no country which is perfect in terms of development. It doesn't exist. You work with what you’ve got and try to improve it. What I discovered is that Americans shouldn't have a complex of inferiority with the best nations, but should respect every single nation as well. Soccer is everywhere and some small countries work very well and have histories of competing successfully. The USA and Canada, MLS, and the whole country has gained respect of everyone based on the progress of our league and players we develop and sold in Europe, but also because of the results of the U.S. men's national team. The U.S. women already got this credit. U.S. soccer players are taken very seriously and have the respect from all best soccer nations.

SA: Your job now requires concern for non-MLS factions in the American soccer. ...

FRED LIPKA: I think I have a good understanding of grassroots, college, parents and players' needs in North America, and I'm in touch with all constituents. Improving soccer and MLS requires a global understanding and systemic approach because there's not only one issue to solve. There are many, and some of them are outside of MLS and all are interrelated and interdependent. If you work in a silo, you can improve but not solve or find the maximum efficiency. That being said, I'm mostly focused on MLS to avoid watering down our impact.

MLS Next is a strategic project to develop players and lead the country. Someone has to do it. You cannot say it's crucial and run away. You have to do it, pure and simple.

There are four pillars that are crucial to develop world-class players:

Coaching Education: The best players need the best coaches. Environment: standards, facilities, school-system adapted to soccer. Scouting, identification and recruitment: putting the best players -- the players with the most potential -- in best environment. Competition: the best against the best with quality of play.

SA: Obviously MLS Next season 1 had major restrictions because of the pandemic. Now in season 2,  are all the clubs getting the 30 games they were promised? When this season kicked off I heard from some clubs whose schedules fell short of that.

FRED LIPKA: There are regions where we've had some challenges to deliver because of the distances between clubs. Especially two regions. Frontier, which links Texas and Colorado, and Northwest, because you've got Northern California, Seattle, Portland ...

But we came up with an approach to add more games. Especially in Northern California, we added games between California clubs to supplement the schedule to achieve the amount of 30 games we targeted. Adding games could be local rivalries. This season, because of Covid and travel challenges we had to add to the original schedule. Next season it will be clearer and more established from the beginning. 

SA: When teams have breaks in their MLS Next schedule, can they take part outside competition?

FRED LIPKA: They can, but it has to be approved. For example, [last week] there was the Copa Rayados tournament in the Houston area in which MLS Next clubs competed.

They have to make us aware. We have a list of approved tournaments that can supplement what they're doing. We check the standard. We want to avoid, for example, a team to playing too many games in a weekend. We want to prevent overloading players, to avoid injury, to give priority to not only to quantity but the quality.

But all clubs can schedule friendly games. We don't look at that. That's their own choice.

SA: On the MLS Next web site with schedules, results and standings, there are references to League, Inter-League, League (Elite Player Pathway) and League (Pro Player Pathway). What’s the difference?

FRED LIPKA: At U15 and U17 competition, League [Pro Player Pathway] is when MLS clubs play each other, and Inter-League is when MLS teams compete against non-MLS clubs. At end of the regular season, the best of each group -- you can be champion in your league, MLS or non-MLS, or champion in your Inter-League, and reach the MLS Next Cup Playoffs to compete to be champion.

(Editor’s note: 32 teams per age group – U15, U16, U17, U19 – qualify for the MLS Next Cup Playoffs. At U15 and U17, eight MLS teams qualify from MLS Academy League, eight non-MLS clubs from Elite Academy League, and 16 teams (MLS and non-MLS) from Inter-League play round out the 32. At U16 and U19, from the League standings, 16 MLS and non-MLS teams qualify, and another 16 MLS and non-MLS qualify from Inter-League. Teams that don’t qualify for the playoffs take part in the season-end MLS Next Cup Showcase, an optional event for U13 and U14.)

SA: Does a team’s performances this season affect their schedules next season?

FRED LIPKA: No. We don't have a tier competition, it's regional.

SA: And can you address concerns from non-MLS clubs about not getting enough matchups against MLS clubs?

FRED LIPKA: The best will arrive to the playoffs, whether they are MLS or non-MLS clubs. The more you succeed the more potential you have to play more games against MLS teams.

SA: How confident are you that MLS Next youth clubs are satisfied with the direction of the league? 

FRED LIPKA: We are pleased about we've accomplished. It was an unexpected project that we took on with a stretched staff during a pandemic that had to deliver under a high-level of pressure. We've added staff and also launched the MLS Match Evaluator Program [former and current MLS players assessing young talent]. We were able to host a national event at the end of our first season and are looking forward to the MLS Next Fest -- highly competitive games, but delivered in a friendly atmosphere that will contribute to our quest of creating a MLS Next sense of community.

The MLS Next Fest checks a lot of boxes by creating one event in the midseason that gathers all of our clubs in one place.  The games will be scouted by the U.S. national team staff and more than a dozen MLS Next Match Evaluators. It also creates a great opportunity for college recruitment, which we want to offer to our players, families and clubs because we know that is also pathway that's important to them. There will “Fest Best Of” games for U-16s and U-19s, with a selection of players highly recommended by match evaluators, for another opportunity for players in front of national team scouts and college coaches.

We have tried our best to get feedback from our clubs and will continue to do so. The first two seasons have been difficult, but going into our third season I'm confident our clubs will not be faced with the uncertainties the challenges of the first two seasons created. Our staff is very dedicated to player development and to making our league and country proud.

10 comments about "Fred Lipka on MLS Next: The quest to deliver high-level youth competition with a sense of community".
  1. frank schoon, December 3, 2021 at 11:05 a.m.

    Yeah, Good luck with that....Hey, what happened to our Dutch crew over here.....All these guys, who come over here, do is to rewarm the french fries, put it in another colorful bag and rearrange the deck chairs and sell it to the public....At least the USSF can say they are really doing something....IT AIN'T GOING ANYWHERE!!!
    Not until we have Pickup soccer becoming part of our culture. Just keep bringing over these professors, Administrative types and keep paying that money....

  2. Ben Myers, December 3, 2021 at 2:32 p.m.

    I am all for pickup soccer, which seems to have dried up because of all the paranoia over insurance, injury and lawsuits.  Pickup soccer can be arranged, too.  Announce that everyone between the ages of such-and-such show up at a field on a given day and time.  Play!  If adults are present and either playing or not playing, no coaching. 

    Pickup soccer is why the kids I coach always want to "scrimmage".  It is as close as there is to pickup soccer and free play.  After some instruction and work in improving their skill sets, the kids get their way and scrimmage for the rest of the training session, but with a few stoppages to ask them to observe their spacing or movement on the field or to explain LOTG as applied to a situation in play. 

  3. frank schoon replied, December 3, 2021 at 3:53 p.m.

    Ben, Pickup is the activity that is done without a coach involved telling players what to do. What you describle is not pickup but a practice that involves scrimmage...which is fine but that is not pickup soccer. Pickup soccer is preferable done in mixed ages whereby players on their own, learn from other players or learn by standing on their own two feet. When you learn through experience and on your own that will have a better and much quicker result than having to learn from someone else telling you . Anything you acquire through self experience will always have a better effect.

  4. frank schoon, December 3, 2021 at 3:25 p.m.

    Ben, I don't understand the insurance thing. Pickup basketball where kids can go to any court don't worry about insurance. What about pickup baseball....I have no idea why the insurance aspect has come into play....If call some friends to kick a ball to worry need insurance?

    What I mean about pickup becoming cultural has nothing to do with a coach and practice and scrimmaging. When it becomes a culture, you don't have to call around to get a game. It is like going to a basketball court to shoot some hoops and play whoever shows up. And pick up is much easier to play for you don't need a basketball court by a little piece of space....

  5. humble 1, December 6, 2021 at 10:35 a.m.

    Youth clubs will NEVER endorse true pickup soccer.  The only pickup they will ever be involved is to pick players that that learned on the pickup field and then 'claim' to have developed.  Clubs are business that make money by running for play leagues.  If a platform arose that was free and produced skillful players do you think that would be in the interest of the clubs?  Clubs actually do everything they can to shut down parent based teams and league by creating barriers to entry to the sport.  Anyone that ever studied structural economics could have a field day identifying the many barriers they and their 'league' partners setup.  This is the dirty truth.  Youth soccer in the USA is a business.  Full stop.  The full stop.  This is the real reason clubs and their lackies in USSF have never helped HS soccer.  HS if optimized could ruin many clubs.  If we had a real academy system, at U14 player that are able to would go to academies, 'free' ones, and the rest would go to High School.  This is how it is in many countries, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina to name a few in our region.  Pick up soccer, just to give a little clarrification, is most like pickup basketball.  If I, today, want to find a game of pickup basketball, I can do this with very little effort.  Soccer, I can find also, but much bigger effort, and maybe I don't speak the language of the guys I play with.  Is what it is, but, need to be real about what is the effects intended and unintended of our youth pay-2-play, soccer-business-before-sport configuration.  Cheers!

  6. frank schoon replied, December 6, 2021 at 11:52 a.m.

    Humble, I think you're taking this club thing a little too far. It is not like they tell coaches don't talk about pickup soccer we might lose money in the long run....That's Preposterous! Coaches of a club that want their players to improve, individually, should stress to players that when you have free time to play pickup and STRESS the importance of it to the players. Can you imagine during the summer how much a kid can improve playing pickup, for example. I don't see the problem. Look at how European kids play and learn the game, through out the year, when not with their club. You think they only play soccer when they are with the club? 

    I don't quite agree with you on that angle. 100% of coaches, EVERYWHERE agree that pickup soccer is good for the development of the youth. And if that's the case their needs a push made by the coaches, for it is them that is closest to the youth's development....More soccer ,the better. 

    Coaches as a group should get together and make an effort to begin to instill a need and want for pickup soccer to be played as a overal supplement to a player's development

  7. Philip Carragher, December 6, 2021 at 4 p.m.

    I was visiting Venice Beach and the Venice Beach Soccer Club (I think that's the name) had a very populated small soccer court, futsal sized and on a hard court right by the beach, with 3v3 or 4v4 games being played "king of the court" style. If a team scored, the losers leave and the next team comes on. This was high quality co-ed and all-age soccer pickup style. Unfortunately, it was only one court and it looked like only the better players had the guts to play. Also, once the club left so did the pickup soccer.

  8. Beau Dure replied, December 7, 2021 at 9:22 a.m.

    My local club used to have a Friday night pickup session in which the club staff would set up several small fields with portable goals, put on the Band-Aids and redirect kids who were being obnoxious or felt frustrated, but it was laissez-faire other than that. U-10 travel kids might play with U-12 rec kids -- or vice versa. Girls and boys would mix. It was wonderful.

  9. frank schoon replied, December 8, 2021 at 6:51 p.m.

    This stuff has to be emphasized ,over and over in order to make it seep into soccer consciousness 

  10. Wallace Wade, December 9, 2021 at 12:51 p.m.

    In my opinion, the "Insurance" argument is bogus. It's an excuse that allows local organizations and Clubs to maintain their control of the financial aspect of the sport locally. It also allows the many Coaches, Directors and Clubs that fear and shy away from competition a convenient excuse for exactly that behavior. That the fact

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