For Major League Soccer, the future is here. After years of speculation and some stops and starts MLS finally created their own youth development league. With the advent of MLS Next the leadership that American youth soccer has wanted to push it in any direction seems to have arrived.
That phrase ‘any direction’ is important in understanding the complex web of issues that encompass American youth soccer and MLS is getting into. Whereas throughout the rest of the footballing there is a single structure with clear goals and expectations American youth soccer has very much been the wild west. While US Soccer is the clear governing body there input on state and local guidelines has been, at best, implied rather than required. That in turn has led to multiple different entities (club teams, state associations, club leagues, and the NCAA) ruling their respective pockets with absolute authority.
While American soccer has certainly had some success in developing players under this model the bickering and posturing among the various entities has certainly stymied development. Anyone who is familiar with the television show Game of Thrones will be more than familiar with this style of governance.
The first attempt at streamlining youth soccer, the United States Soccer Development Academy (DA), moved the marker towards some semblance of organization. Founded in 2007, the DA provided one structure for the top youth club teams in the United States ranging from age 12 to 19. At its height the league featured close to 200 teams which included MLS’ Academy teams and a Girls Development Academy. Although the rules of the league forced clubs and players to make tough decisions (Players, for example, were not allowed to play in the DA and also for their local high school team) the results were positive. Players such as Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich), and Giovanni Reyna (Borussia Dortmund) all came from Development Academy teams and not just MLS sides.
However, the DA was far from perfect. The high school requirement became a major issue for the DA as it made the foray into girls soccer, which was added ten years after the boys DA was created. There was also issues with imbalance with teams being added who were mostly used as cannon fodder for larger clubs. Games at times would end up with scores that more closely resembled American football scores than the European variety. That coupled with the usual concerns over cost of travel and fees amongst families helped lead U.S. Soccer down the road to dissolving the DA midway through the 2019-2020 season. COVID-19 shutting down play in March and U.S. Soccer’s ongoing financial issues provided the perfect reason to end things.
The end of the DA really wasn’t the beginning of MLS thinking about creating their own league but it certainly gave them a good reason to move ahead. Prior to the DA’s dissolving, league representatives began meeting with some of the top non-MLS clubs with the aim of creating a league that took elements of what made the DA work but making it tighter and better organized. What came from these discussions was the MLS Elite Youth Development Platform, later re-named MLSNext. The league, which would begin in the fall of 2020, would feature boys youth teams from 130 of the top clubs in the United States and the youth academies from the three Canadian MLS teams (Montreal Impact, Toronto FC, and the Vancouver Whitecaps). League structure would focus on local rivalries with the aim of cutting down on travel and expensive road trips and would start at U-13. The league also entered into a partnership with the Elite Development Platform (EDP), which is the second biggest boys youth club soccer league in the United States, to help smooth over player registration issues and double carding.
By creating a more regionalized system and creating friends, not enemies within the American youth soccer system MLS seems to be learning from the mistakes of the DA. But there are still issues to be resolved. While MLS sides are now able to collect solidarity payments from any of their players that move to Europe, non-MLS club sides are still barred from doing so. There is also the question of the Canadian sides playing in an American club league and not within the confines of the Canadian Soccer Association. The league also has only three clubs in the Midwest part of the United States, a striking lack of numbers from a massive part of the country.
What the end structure of MLS Next will look like is still very much to be determined. But by taking the lessons learned from the DA the league seems to be moving the right direction which is to the benefit of all in American youth soccer.