More Details Emerge For MLS Youth Development

Ridge Mahoney over at SoccerAmerica has the first firm details about the much anticipated MLS Youth Development Program which we’ve discussed previously. The good news is, the MLS will mandate that clubs run youth development programs. The bad news is they still haven’t said how they plan to avoid eligibility problems and also will allow clubs to make their academies pay to play.

The league has set out a plan by which six developmental teams, ranging in age from U-14 to U-25, will be run by each MLS team at its own cost. Also left to the teams is deciding on whether or not the players pay to play.

That’s a good start.

Each team is limited to 18 players per team, so the possibility exists for over 100 young players to be training with each MLS team. Clearly the eligibility problem is a sticking point and one they still haven’t said how they plan to handle:

While some of the parameters and guidelines have been set (see box), many details — such as how to satisfy college and high school eligibility restrictions on affiliations with professional clubs — must be finalized. The players will not sign professional contracts and instead will be registered as would any amateur player competing for a club team. Thus, MLS teams would still have to sign a player to a standard or developmental contract to retain his rights.

Potential conflicts and confusions abound, aside from running afoul of the colleges and high schools. Powerful youth clubs, which in some cases require parents to pay thousands of dollars per year in fees and expenses, may not welcome intrusions on what they see as their turf. Already there is such a glutted hodgepodge of clubs, competitions, tournaments, clinics, academies and camps %96 including those run by MLS teams %96 and delineating the boundaries and differences will be daunting. And how the MLS programs will mesh with those already in place, such as the Olympic Development Program (ODP), and not breach NCAA regulations, won’t be known for some time.

”It’s not going to be a simple landscape in the United States,” said [MLS deputy commissioner Ivan] Gazidis. ”It’s not going to be today, it’s not going to be tomorrow. Our individual teams will find their own solutions in their local markets. I think if we think there’s going to be a simple player development system in the United States, we’re deluding ourselves. It’s always going to be a complex tapestry.”

That last bit says it all. Youth development in the US will always be complex and varied. Too many parties have too much invested in ‘their way’ to keep things simple and that may not be a bad thing. Competition keeps people on their toes and will often result in failing programs being replaced by better ones. In theory anyway.

The rules for the MLS youth development program that we know so far are:

  • Homegrown players are eligible to be added to a team’s regular MLS roster without being subject to the league’s drafts or other distribution procedures.
  • Players must have lived in the area (with their parents, if appropriate) for one year prior to their placement on a list as a homegrown player.
  • Each team can list up to 18 homegrown players on each of its developmental teams.
  • A player is eligible for an MLS roster two years after his name is submitted to MLS on a team’s homegrown list.
  • Players in U.S. youth national team pools cannot be included on a team’s homegrown list unless they joined the MLS team prior to being summoned for a national camp.

Bonji over at From College to the Pros has some excellent analysis up already and while he sees that the new program isn’t perfect, it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

I think this is a huge step forward for MLS. Up to this point the youth clubs run by Red Bull New York, DC United and Chivas USA could not be assured their young players would join the senior club. This gave the clubs little incentive to spend money on youth clubs. Some did because they saw the value in building a soccer community but others did not because they were more worried about paying other bills. Now, each club will see their player development as a competitive advantage. The clubs that can develop more youngsters will have a cheap player pool to pull from where the talent is a known quantity as opposed to a shot at the SuperDraft dart board.

MLS made the right decision by making this a mandatory part of running a club. In 2007 clubs will have two youth teams and sometime down the road they’ll have six, training kids ranging in age from 14 to 25. As I said earlier, when each club has all six youth teams we’re looking at 108 players training in a professional environment. If the league makes their goal of 16 clubs by 2010, that is 1,728 youth kids getting professional training. That will help the American soccer gene pool grow.

Bonji’s main concern is that teams can make this pay to play. Not knowing how the league intends to avoid eligibility problems, I agree that pay to play is definitely the biggest concern so far. This is one of the main faults people find with the ODP program is the cost. We all know that MLS teams are struggling to stay profitable while building new venues, attracting new fans, etc. so asking them to fund development programs on their own isn’t realistic right now. However, as Bonji points out, the MLS is attracting significant influxes of cash for viewing rights and some of that money would be well spent on youth development. Another idea might be to provide money for youth development to just the clubs that need it most, while letting more financially sound teams pickup some or all of the cost themselves. To be fair, the more well off teams could also get MLS money if they expanded their programs to two teams per age level for example.

There is still a lot we don’t know about this program, including how eligibility issues will be handled, academic requirements for kids under 18, etc. But this gives us an idea of how things will be shaping up. It isn’t perfect by any stretch, but it is better than what we have now. Anything the provides expanded youth development opportunities on a national scale is a good thing. We’ll know much more when the MLS makes their official announcement.

So what do you think? Is this a step in the right direction? What other pitfalls are there based on what we know so far? Thoughts on how the MLS will handle eligibility? How should this program be expanded if the initial six team requirement succeeds?

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  1. Great post, thanks for bringing all that together.

    The eligibility issue is the most interesing thing to me. The NCAA is like the nasty elephant in the room here. Hopefully, this will lead toward more young players staying away from the out-of-step college game. Or even better, maybe the college game will finally adopt international rules and thus develop better players itself.

    I also think this will improve the talent in MLS more than we can guess. Think of how many undrafted or barely drafted players have turned out to be very good MLS players… Who else are the scouts missing? This will help the league identify talent very early.

  2. I am so glad I stubbled across this site. I am glad that the MLS is trying to develop their own academies!!! What if all of the pro teams did this at the lower levels as well? This would greatly increase the number of kids receiving professional coaching. This level of development is what US soccer needs more than anything. That, and more inner city programs.
    Secondly, has MLS ever thought of doing relegation like the EPL and other leagues do?