US Soccer

Fever Dreams: Let’s shut down the DA

Welcome to Fever Dreams, the occasional – and perhaps insensitively-titled – series where I kill time during lockdown fixing things in the world of soccer. Today… I propose something that’s already been done. A true visionary, this guy.

The DA had a purpose. It had success stories. The ratio of success stories to purpose to opportunity cost to unrealized potential… probably doesn’t work out in its favor.

I had been planning a Fever Dreams post on this topic before news began to leak that the US Soccer Development Academy was indeed going to be shut downNow I have even more thoughts on it. Or maybe the same number of thoughts, just written in past tense. Who knows?

The benefits

The purpose of the Development Academy was a noble one: to set standards of coaching, competition, and development to produce the most skilled generation (well, the plan was “generations,” but that won’t be happening now) of soccer players to come out of our country. By setting up and running leagues, USSF was able to do some of that.

Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie – three of the biggest American names in the global soccer world – played in the Development Academy (for PA Classics, NY Red Bulls, and FC Dallas, respectively). Plenty of top-notch MLS prospects and players came up through DA programs coast-to-coast.

There’s no question that the goal of producing more-skilled, more-pro-ready players than ever before was probably met.

The downsides

Now that we’ve established the DA wasn’t all-bad, we can examine some of the ways in which it was indeed bad.

It set up the Federation as a competitor to its constituent members. USSF’s DA leagues were direct competitors for the Elite Clubs National League teams on both the girls’ and boys’ sides. There are probably other – more regional – examples than the most obvious, but that’s the biggest and most obvious one.

When the federation touts “X% of national team call-ups played for Development Academy teams,” that’s not an indication that the DA is the best developmental pathway. It looked like – and probably was – the federation putting its finger on the scale to sell its youth product. Not to pick on Adam Whittaker Snavely (who is great and you should subscribe to his newsletter) but “now fewer players will be scouted” is… not a take I agree with when the Federation’s move means it no longer has a business stake in ignoring non-DA players.

It’s a more efficient use of resources to sanction league, not run them. This ties in to the previous bullet point, as well, but the idea of the federation running leagues had other downsides, as well. It’s wasteful of resources, as it requires staff dedicated to focusing on running leagues, rather than core functionalities of the federation.

The fact that it can very easily be seen as a misappropriation of resources… well, that makes it an easy target in a budget crisis (see: what happened). The monetary resources being used to aid constituent clubs rather than staff up Soccer House would be more efficient.

It led to increasing costs and limited opportunities for the players. An emphasis on a national league with national travel, and a requirement that clubs have at least one coach who has paid 10,000 US Dollars to be Academy Director-certified… well, those aren’t cheap. That makes life more difficult for the players who can’t afford to pay a bunch for club soccer.

This issue was exacerbated by the first point above: USSF, in setting itself up in competition with constituent members and then putting its finger on the scales when it comes to Youth and Senior National Team selections (whether a real or perceived issue) meant that a competitive marketplace among clubs to provide lower-cost options also came with the appearance or reality of a lower-value experience without being scouted by USSF, etc.

Even though many clubs have need-based scholarships available (and the vast majority of MLS-run academies are free to the participants), there’s at the very least a chilling effect when it comes to the likelihood that a player from less advantaged economic circumstances thinks they should even think about the DA.

It has produced too many “soft” players. This is a criticism I don’t necessarily agree with, but it’s certainly one out in the world (including but not limited to being strongly implied in Alexi Lalas’s famed Soft Tattooed Millionaires rant after the USMNT failed to qualify for the 2018 Men’s World Cup). Players coming out of DA programs are as skilled as ever, thanks to an emphasis on development over competition. Of course, the teams compete against each other as well, but even at the older ages, the emphasis on going out and getting better (it must be noted: this is really important!) rather than winning games was often cited as the culprit.

This was less the case for MLS-affiliated clubs, which could cycle players through USL affiliates or other teams competing with high stakes. To go back to Tyler Adams, it’s safe to say he’s one of the more physical and fearless players developed in the United States in the past few years. He looks more like an exception than the rule in the DA era.

A better way

Of course, these posts are supposed to be solutions-focused, so here we are.

As noted, I think shutting down the DA was the right move. However, shutting it down suddenly and seemingly without much guidance as to how members should proceed going forward was damaging itself. By all accounts, this was a matter of financial necessity, but the lack of ramp-down time is going to be painful, even with MLS stepping in to fill the gap a year or two earlier than planned.

Fortunately, it seems like most other members are finding homes in places like the ECNL, so that’s helpful. And indeed, the Federation should be doing three things for these leagues:

  • Setting Standards. These don’t necessarily need to be the same standards that existed for the DA.
  • Sanctioning. If a league – national or otherwise – meets standards for coaching, competition, etc., they can be sanctioned.
  • Funding/Supporting. The money the federation was setting on fire by running leagues can go back to the constituents of US Soccer. So too can some of the manpower or coaching resources.

I think it’s important – perhaps vitally so – that a successor to the Development Academy has one major change in standards. Let the kids play high school soccer. It may sound insignificant, but allowing an additional avenue of play that allows them to compete for some pride in the jersey on their back (rather than an often vague “get better” goal that comes with DA play) helps bridge part of the gap that produces talented-but-uncompetitive players. If individual teams or groups thereof – MLS Academy teams and their affiliates, for example, that can bring a more competitive situation in addition to their developmental one – want to have a different rule, they can. Mandating that academy soccer be the only soccer that is played is not an answer. Imagine if players were only allowed to play AAU basketball, for example: as much as high school has become secondary to it in the college (or, uh G-League) recruiting world, the concept of mandating no high school play would be insane.

That tangent aside: With the resources freed up by no longer running its own league, USSF can emphasize supporting its constituent bodies and casting a wider scouting net. The DA filled an important gap that leads the way forward – and there will be growing pains in its sudden absence – but the future of soccer is brighter without the Federation being in the business.

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