During his recent State of the League address, MLS Commissioner Don Garber announced that the MLS would be releasing a new vertical youth development plan in the next few weeks. Vertical youth development is code for youth academies. To many US soccer fans this was huge news. European clubs have youth academies for kids as young as 8 to help develop the best kids in areas where teams are located. Some MLS teams have camps and small youth programs, but nothing even close to professional clubs overseas. Earlier this year, Andrea Canales wrote about the contrasts between the US and Europe at the youth level in an article talking about recent calls for MLS youth academies:

During the 2005 youth world championships, for both the U-20’s in Holland and the U-17’s in Peru, nearly all the rosters for the non-USA teams were made up of players on professional clubs. In contrast, for the U.S, many of the U-20 roster were from the college ranks, while the U-17 players came from Bradenton, the U.S. Soccer developmental residency in Florida.

The college game itself isn’t what hinders a player’s development – yet the lack of a developmental alternative to the college option just might.

Most MLS teams had no incentive to spend scare resources on youth development because they had no way to ensure the kids they spent money on would still be with them later on as adults. The idea of ‘vertical’ development means the players are committed to their team as long as the team wants them. Where this gets interesting is there are some unique situations and organizations in the US that will have an impact on how a program like this might work. Kinny over at DCenters was curious about the youth angle and how it would affect MLS teams (primarily DC United), but wanted more information. I offered to give it my best shot.

Nobody knows exactly what form the MLS program will take, but for starters let’s take a look at how youth development is handled by English Premiership League (EPL) clubs as many expect the MLS to model their program on the EPL structure. The BBC has an interesting set of articles on how players are identified for academies and what life is like for these promising youngsters. Now I’m not an expert on EPL Youth Development so if I make a mistake, I hope some of our friends from Europe will set me straight:

  • Players between the ages of 8 (U9) and 16 (U17) can tryout and enter into an agreement (registration) with a given EPL club within a certain distance from their home. There are other educational requirements, etc.
  • Registered players are then trained by the clubs and participate in matches against teams from other club academies.
  • Registrations are for 1 year until they turn 12 (U13) at which point they are registered for 2 years. (Section N-47)
  • At the end of a registration period your club will notify you if they wish to ‘retain’ you for the next registration period. (Section N-60)
  • Players MAY choose to tryout for another club’s academy. However, if your old club wished to retain you, a new club that registered you would have to pay your old club to compensate them for your training. (Section N-90) Thus there is a significant disincentive for a club to register a player who had previously played for another club that still wished to retain him.
  • Clubs may not approach or recruit players while they are registered with another club. (Section N-86)
  • Once a player reaches the age of 17, they may enter into a true professional contract with a club.

The effect of all this is a club that identifies and trains a young player retains the right to that player as they develop. The clubs pay for the academies and the development of players in return for rights to retain the best players as they grow up. If the player decides to go elsewhere even though his club wants to keep him, the old club must be paid compensation by the new club for the training they provided. Players are also given scholarships to continue their education at local schools.

Now let’s contrast that with the US. Currently, a skilled youth player’s main path to high level play is via a program called the Olympic Development Program (ODP). The intent of this program is to identify younger players with advanced skills for the US National Team:

The US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program was formed in 1977 to identify a pool of players in each age group from which a National Team will be selected for international competition; to provide high-level training to benefit and enhance the development of players at all levels; and, through the use of carefully selected and licensed coaches, develop a mechanism for the exchange of ideas and curriculum to improve all levels of coaching.

The ODP starts out as a series of camps and training sessions at the local level. Players are then selected for state teams both via tryouts and sometimes coach selection. These teams then continue to train at regional camps in preparation for the Regional tournaments. Teams winning the regional tournaments go on to the national championships. The key thing about ODP is that parents must pay for the tryouts, camps, and tournaments at every step of the process and it is NOT cheap. A player who tries out, attends all the ODP camps, training, and tournaments up through the regional level could pay fees in excess of $2500 including travel. Here is an example cost sheet from Oklahoma for 2006 (PDF).

The kicker about ODP is that you do NOT have to attend all the training. In the end, the state coaches want to advance in the regionals and will select the best team they can. If they identify very skilled kids during normal club play, they can put them on their team even if the kids have not participated in the local ODP program. This can breed a lot of resentment among parents who paid all the money for the ODP training only to have their child cut before regionals for a kid who didn’t train in ODP. The other problem with ODP is that it is a player identification program first and development program second. It is designed to be a system where players are exposed to coaches looking to field national teams. Yes, there is also significant training involved IF the player’s family can afford it. But the setup presents some conflict.

Beyond ODP, players that are 15 or older (U16, U17) can also be invited to attend training at US Soccer’s Academy in Bradenton, Florida. This program is where most of the US U-17 players train.

One major difference between youth academies overseas and training here in the states is sheer numbers. Both programs winnow down the pool of players as they age. But ODP is really the equivalent of a nationwide youth academy for a single team (albeit parent funded). Meanwhile there are twenty academies in English Premiership alone. ODP training is great, but as player advance through the program over the course of a year, only those that move on to regional and national levels get the most training. Thus younger players who don’t make the cut may not get the training they need to blossom to the next level.

Just based on my admittedly high level summary of how youth player development is handled both here and overseas, it is clear the US system is lacking.

This is why people are so excited about MLS deciding to setup a youth development program. Under current EPL rules, each club can have a maximum of 295 youth players in their academies, split out across the age groups (30 players for U9 through U14, 20 for U15 and U16, and 15 for U17 through U21). Multiply that by the 20 teams currently in the EPL and you realize that there is the potential for 5900 youth to receive professional training from professional clubs every year. Don’t forget this is just Premiership. Other clubs certainly have academies as well though probably on a smaller scale. While the MLS has fewer teams and the clubs less money to spend on youth development (so they’ll likely have smaller player pools), there still is the possibility for upwards of 2000-3000 youth players to get continuous advanced training from MLS clubs each year. That’s pretty impressive.

There’s only one problem with all this. The NCAA.

The bottom line is, any young player that signs an agreement with a professional team where that team retains rights to the player will lose their amateur status and will not be able to play soccer in college. The NCAA rules on amateurism are fairly clear:

A. An individual loses amateur status and, thus, shall not be eligible for intercollegiate competition in a particular sport if the individual:

  1. Uses his or her athletics skill (directly or indirectly) for pay in any form in that sport (e.g., receipt of payment from agents or for participation in exhibitions or postseason all-star contests).
  2. Accepts a promise of pay even if such pay is to be received following completion of intercollegiate athletics participation.
  3. Signs a contract or commitment of any kind to play professional athletics, regardless of its legal enforceability or any consideration received.
  4. Receives, directly or indirectly, a salary, reimbursement of expenses or any other form of financial assistance from a professional sports organization based upon athletics skill or participation, except as permitted by NCAA rules and regulations.

While these rules don’t specifically talk about the idea of retention of rights to a player, even one that isn’t paid, clause 2 and 3 pretty much cover it. An agreement binding you to a professional team is a contract to play for that team if they choose to keep you. It could be argued (though I Am Not A Lawyer) that it is a promise of pay to be received once the player is of age. Suffice to say a player who commits to a team is unlikely to retain their right to play in college.

This presents a huge dilemma for many parents. A college education is a huge deal in the US. Most parents desire for their kids to go to college, earn a degree, and be successful. Many also hope that their talented children will attain a level of play good enough to get a scholarship. This is often a fool’s errand, however as collegiate men’s soccer teams are limited to 9.9 scholarships per team. I believe it is somewhere around 12 for women. Even worse, soccer is not a revenue sport so many schools don’t fully fund their scholarship allotment. All this means that soccer scholarships are very hard to come by, especially good ones. But I digress.

The trick is most parents want their kids to go to college and to go right after high school. Yes, you can attend college as an adult, but there are roadblocks and difficulties that make it less desirable in one’s effort to be successful. So to a parent, the idea that signing their 8 year old up for some training from professional MLS coaches will lose them their NCAA eligibility is very scary. While some parents won’t worry about it, thinking their child wasn’t destined for college or they think they can’t afford it anyway, many will balk. Add to that the general understanding that playing Division I anything is ‘great’ and that most athletes going pro do so after college, many parents will want to preserve their child’s eligibility.

Now we don’t know how the MLS program is structured, but I simply can’t see how there can be ANY retention rights for teams without wiping out a kid’s eligibility. They may have struck some type of agreement with the NCAA, but I highly doubt that. The NCAA doesn’t care about professional sports in relation to their rules and regulations and feel the professional are already poaching kids out of college too early. I doubt the NCAA would even have taken the meeting with MLS.

So where does that leave us? There is some precedent related to the training of athletes by top tier coaches and staff. There are amateur baseball leagues that play during the summer, made up primarily of collegiate baseball players. The players are not paid and stay with host families. Teams provide coaching, facilities, management, etc. But they are 100% amateur so the kids retain eligibility and get to play the sport they love. Many people will say that college in the US remains the best training ground for professional athletes in most sports. The problem is the seasons are short. For (American) football that may be OK given the grueling nature of the sport, however soccer is a sport that generally requires top players to dedicate significant parts of a year to in order to reach the top levels of play. Amateur leagues like this could help supplement the short collegiate seasons.

Another example of advanced training for youth without running afoul of the NCAA is the United State Hockey League, a Tier 1 junior league. They are another amateur league where players are provided room, board, equipment, facilities to play in, top notch coaching, etc. but no salary or association with professional teams or players. Thus they ensure their players maintain eligibility for college and one of their main goals is the improvement of players in prep for both athletics and education in college.

But amateur leagues still are limited to older kids in their late teens. We’re talking about youth development programs for kids in their early to mid teens and in some cases even ‘tweens’. So what can the MLS do?

They have two choices as best I understand it. They can create a system modeled after the academies of Europe. The kids that ‘sign’ with teams will lose their NCAA eligibility, but there ARE kids out there whose parents had no intention of sending them to college to play a sport anyway, or that feel their kid can still go to college for an education if they wash out, just not as an athlete. The MLS could soften this blow by promising scholarship funds that accrue for each year a child is in the academy, but this adds a significant expense. The player pool will be significantly smaller because many parents will NOT toss out their child’s eligibility at an early age. Not if they think their kid might make a Division I program at some point and especially if they think the kid might somehow get a scholarship. The teams get a return on their investment and some kids get top notch training.

The other option is to be philanthropists for the good of the game. Player academies will be paid for by the teams and kids will be selected to participate. However there is no ‘agreement’ with the young player. If they want to bolt to Europe at 17, they can. The teams simply hope they have trained the best players and the relationship that is built over the years will cause many kids to return to their ‘home’ teams as professionals. I think this is highly unlikely. As it is, the MLS teams aren’t raking in profits. The league is getting into better financial shape, but youth development is not cheap. They’re going to want rights to their players. A possible compromise would be a system where young players, say under age 16, are in an amateur system that retains their eligibility, but once players reach their mid teens, they are going to need to commit to a team losing eligibility or move on to a US Soccer program in prep for collegiate play.

The only other possibility I can think of is the MLS instituting rules that forbid teams from signing a player who trained with another MLS team for X years or something like that. No agreement with the player exists and if they aren’t paid – they should retain their eligibility (so long as they don’t play with other professionals) But the rules make it hard for another team to poach a player. Of course that would only apply to the MLS and the NCAA could decide to codify that as something that loses a player their eligibility too. European teams would not be bound by any agreement like this and could do whatever they wanted, though I’m not sure an MLS program of any kind can prevent that short of entering into a contract and the kids have to be 18 for that.

Unless I’m reading the rules incorrectly, I just can’t see how any vertical development program can allow for collegiate play after a player signs up for an MLS youth academy. So lets go on that premise for now.

If the MLS launches a successful youth program, what will the impact be on collegiate play? Most players hone their skills in college before heading to the pros, though a few will work their way up through the National U20s, etc on their way to the national team and MLS spots. A select few bypass US Soccer and college and head straight for the MLS, but this is currently an exception, not a rule. Bonji at From College To The Pros wrote up a post on this very topic. His take was that kids would start skipping college to head straight into MLS development academies. The end result of this would be the gradual deterioration of collegiate play as the teams fought over those that weren’t retained by academies. A recent thread over at BigSoccer talked about the same thing.

As I noted above, I just don’t see that happening. Would any parents be willing to take a talented 10 year old and sign them to a pro academy which wipes out their college eligibility? No way. No parent knows at that age if kids are likely to head to college or not. Most will hope that they will. Sure, a kid that has no collegiate eligibility can still go to college, they just can’t play soccer there. But given the pedestal that Division I sports are on in America, I just have trouble with the idea that parents will throw that away for the off chance their kid gets retained by a pro team as they mature.

Bonji quickly came to the same conclusion after writing his first post.

"OK, I’m entitled to a second thought on some topics, right? I say yes.

I’ve been thinking more and reading other people’s thoughts about the upcoming creation of a vertical development system in MLS. When I wrote my last post on the topic last Friday, I was of the mind that college soccer will suffer because top talent will no longer enroll in American universities to play top level soccer. Basically you’d get guys like me who love the game and can run, but don’t have the skill to play against the best, or the second best…OK, I can’t play with the 20th best. Anyway, back on topic.

I don’t think that is true now. If anything, having a better youth development system in the States will further advance the college game. The kids entering college who participated in MLS youth teams will have better skills, have more passion and will be overall better players because they’ve grown up in a professional system. Hopefully."

The main tenant here is whatever program the MLS comes up with HAS to somehow preserve player’s collegiate eligibility, otherwise it will be a much smaller program aimed at the small group of players who have no plans to go to college. But that will be a VERY hard sell to most parents until kids are in their late teens.

There’s been a raging debate going on at BigSoccer about this very topic. Most feel that it will be very hard for a player to sign any type of agreement with a professional team where the team retains rights to the player and the player still keep eligibility. Some commenters felt that kids wouldn’t care if they lost the ability to play in college and some type of scholarship program could be setup to help pay for college if they wash out of the academies. But many others felt this was wishful thinking and that players would always want to save that eligibility in their pocket so if they were NOT signed at 17/18 years old, they could still jump in and play soccer.

I’ve thought about this a lot and I’m extremely curious to see what the MLS has planned. I can’t work out a system where they retain rights to players without wiping out their eligibility. So they either become philanthropists and offer free camps/training to select players with a clear firewall between the amateur and professional side of things, or they implement a smaller scale program designed for kids that have no intention or means to go to college and want to train for the pros from the outset. This would make the MLS youth academies a parallel program to collegiate training.

I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. You get the best of both worlds here. Division I colleges will still attract very talented players who want a college education to fall back on in case of injury, etc. I expect they’ll still be the biggest ‘training’ program for 17-21 year olds. The MLS program would make up the difference with kids not going to college. The one concern I see often is that collegiate players are not often prepared for the demands of playing professionally. Parallel systems would not change this.

The big question mark is younger kids. EPL academies start with kids as young as 8. As I noted above, VERY few parents will be willing to make a decision about a budding player’s eligibility at sch a young age. So the MLS will need to ensure kids retain their eligibility up until somewhere in their mid teens before they get exclusive rights to them. Otherwise the younger divisions of these academies will never get off the ground. This is probably a very tempting option for the MLS. Concentrate resources on other kids and leave the younger kids to train in local leagues. This would be a major mistake in my opinion. Most kids who play soccer between 8 and 12 are coached by parent volunteers who may not have the background needed to take their skills to the next level as they mature. I’m not slighting their contribution in the least, I’m one of them. But for kids who show early talent, few would argue with the premise that they would learn more from a professional coaching staff in a youth academy.

If the MLS really wants to go for the gold with this proposal, they need to partner with local collegiate programs in a way that doesn’t risk the player’s eligibility. A common complaint about collegiate soccer seasons is they are so short. Some collegiate programs have limited schedules of friendlies in the off season, but that’s it. Imagine if the MLS academies had programs where collegiate players could play in an amateur league run by the MLS teams during the offseason/summer like the CPL does for baseball. They could play against other academy teams, get seen by professional scouts, and play the game they love. THAT would be the perfect partnership if it could be done within NCAA regulations.

What would this do to ODP? Again, until the actual program is released, it’s hard to know. If MLS shoots for the moon and has a program that a majority of young players can participate in around the U10 level while maintaining NCAA eligibility, it will likely reduce the influence of ODP training in major cities where MLS teams are. Unless US Soccer refused to scout the MLS academies. (which would be silly) I would expect ODP regional teams to be made up of a combination of players produced by ODP training and MLS academies. But it won’t cause ODP to disappear since ODP is spread out across the country and available to players in most regional metro areas, a reach MLS will never have even with select satellite programs. ODP probably needs some restructuring, but that is for another article.

So how does this get back to Kinny’s original question in terms of the impact to DC United (and other teams) Without knowing what form the MLS program will take, it’s just guesswork. We all hope that whatever program they implement will be available to as many young players as possible. If the MLS figures out a way to retain young players NCAA eligibility while allowing clubs to retain older talent while the NCAA programs continue as always, the result will be better prepared players, both directly out of academies as well as out of college.

How the program will be funded is another question. Will MLS spread some of the TV money around a bit to subsidize youth programs? Considering the shaky finances of most clubs right now as they work to establish expanded fan bases and new venues, they won’t be thrilled about an unfunded mandate.

So it all comes down to the setup and implementation. It could be all talk and structured for failure, or it could be a well thought out program designed to offer top notch training to as many youth as possible while recognizing the role of collegiate athletics in America. Lets hope for the latter.

I realize much of this article is supposition and opinions based on what might happen. Once MLS announces their intentions, then I’ll be sure to update my outlook. But this has people excited for a reason. Done right, MLS academies could revolutionize the training of our nation’s elite youth players.

For the US to be feared on the world stage, we need to get serious about youth development. 17 million kids play soccer in the US every year. 17 MILLION. They play the game because it’s fun. The key is keeping it fun and exciting for our next generation of elite players. Recreational play only goes so far and not every talented player can afford the expense of travel soccer and ODP. Anything that extends elite training to more kids will ensure our national teams truly are made up of the best in the country, not just the best that could get financial aid or pay thousands of dollars a year to get noticed.

As the thread on BigSoccer shows, people have a wide range of opinions on this topic. Lets get a discussion going in the comments and via trackbacks as to what the MLS might do and how it might impact the development of our players. What do you think? Lets kick of a debate in the soccesphere. The children are our future.

UPDATE: Here are some other very good posts talking about Youth Development. If you find any others, post a comment! If you write one, be sure to trackback!