The governing body of soccer in the United States, U.S. Soccer, announced on April 15, 2020, that it will discontinue the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, and subsequently announced limitations for the Youth National Team, staff layoffs, and pay cuts.
This is a hard hit to so many families in North Texas who have boys and girls competing in the Development Academy (DA), relying on it to be one of the sources of exposure and training to get players to the next level of college and professional playing time.
There’s a lot of chatter about the reasoning behind U.S. Soccer killing the program. Is it really based on financial issues from the quarantine? Maybe it’s related to the legal issues the U.S. Soccer Federation has with Women’s National Team? Maybe the DA leagues just didn’t work?
Whatever the underlying reasons or rumors, it’s happening and these players are asking themselves where to go now.
The DA Way
The DA, in essence, was created to bring elite-level competition for boys and girls ages U-13 to U-19 with a 4:1 training-to-game ratio. To keep progressing as a DA player, you have to compete to get fewer spots as you move up in age. Better talent, better competition, better development. One of the goals was to get players exposure to those scouting for colleges and for the U.S. Youth National Team.
DA was successful at putting players on the field at high levels. According to their website, 36 of the 77 players in the MLS Superdraft were former DA players.
Citing financial reasons, the organization says that the unanticipated pandemic has “resulted in a financial situation that does not allow for the continuation of the Development Academy program into the future” and that “these unprecedented times required acting now.”
So, who will fill the gap? What clubs and coaches will swoop in and take on these players and families and provide the same or better elite-level training and experience? There are a few options out there in leagues like the MLS, the ECNL, and DPL.
Major League Soccer
It didn’t take long, just one day after the U.S. Soccer Federation’s announcement, for Major League Soccer to release a statement that they will have a new platform for elite youth play. It will offer league season play, regional, national, and international tournaments, and expanded coaching education.
This might be a critical piece the United States desperately needs to identify the players to represent us on the International stage, especially since that stage is in our backyard in the near future. MLS Executive Vice President of Competition and Player Relations, Todd Durbin, says,
As we look ahead to the 2026 FIFA World Cup here in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, now more than ever it is incumbent on us to establish a competition that sets a new standard for elite youth play and allows athletes to achieve their full potential.
The MLS has a pool of 2,500 players and 250 coaches in its academy program ready to step into this new platform of competition. But the MLS won’t limit the program to their academy teams. They’re opening the door to non-MLS academy teams that were previously part of U.S. Soccer’s DA.
Consistent, competitive matches that challenge players and staff is the key to getting the most out of and developing U.S. soccer talent within the MLS. In a recent interview with Fred Lipka, MLS Technical Director of Youth Development he made it clear this new platform is not meant to exclude. In fact, he says it’s going to be inclusive with a focus on what’s best for the kids to continue what the DA was striving to do – to elevate player development.
While this new platform is a solid option for boys as soon as play resumes, the MLS is evaluating the potential to provide future competition opportunities for girls. Until then, it looks like the FC Dallas DA the girls will disperse and find other teams.
FC Dallas is heavy in the mix.
Frisco’s own FC Dallas Academy is one of many DA clubs that will be enveloped into a new league structure. FCD has had a great run in DA among both the boys and girls, with playoffs every season and undefeated seasons for some age groups, DA National Championship wins, and a rank as the #2 academy in the country in 2012.
Premier players have come from FCD, like Devin Vega, Weston McKennie, and Reggie Cannon (who happens to be featured front and center on the MLS articles linked above, is a Frisco fan favorite, and a guest on Lifestyle Frisco’s Hustle & Pro sports podcast).
FC Dallas President and Owner, Dan Hunt, told Lifestyle Frisco that while he is disappointed in the decision to dissolve DA, he respects it and is proud of what FCD was able to accomplish. He’s also confident that in MLS’s involvement, youth development is not going away:
Youth Development is our lifeblood. It’s who we are and who we’ve become known as. We at FC Dallas are not going to stop building on our own youth talent that we develop.
FC Dallas has a leg up for several reasons. First, North Texas Soccer Club is a priceless piece of development for the organization. As a founding member of USL League One and the winner of the inaugural season, it’s proving to be a successful way to bring players up from Academy to the first team.
Second, the international exposure already built into the FC Dallas system is another critical piece that puts the club in a prime position to continue leading the way. One interesting seed planted is the MLS getting more involved with Liga MX. Proximity, level of play, and international experience are all compelling reasons to go across the border to help step up the competition.
Dan Hunt has voiced that this could be the right time for the intersection of the MLS and Liga MX.
Third, our leadership believes in it. We have an unbelievable facility, youth coaching staff, professional staff with NTSC and FCD, and an ownership group who believes in developing homegrown talent. Dan explains,
Our youth club is touched by all departments in one way or another. I think we are one of the best suited for whatever the world looks like for youth. Every day I spend time thinking about and working on our youth club and our academy.
It’s important to note the future of the girls’ program within the MLS is not yet known. Dan Hunt is a believer and supporter of the girls’ game, and recently hosted a U.S. Women’s National Team game at Toyota Stadium. He has acknowledged that it’s important to develop talent on the women’s side, but it’s yet to be known exactly how FC Dallas will work towards that.
Elite Clubs National League
The Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) programs are poised and ready to continue providing an optimum developmental environment for the top youth soccer. ECNL Girls was started in 2009 and has a nice track record of training female soccer talent. Not only do they claim to have produced the highest rate of collegiate players than other youth leagues, at 90%, ECNL alumni make up almost 25% of the 2019 World Cup roster.
On the boy’s side, ECNL Boys is newer, just about three seasons old, but has grown fast and is seeing Youth National Team activity.
It’s safe to say the level of play is up there, but the space for absorbing DA players is not. The league is older than U.S Soccer’s DA, and one would say this is all serving well for the ECNL since they were here first and seem to be withstanding the struggles better than the DA was able to do.
Almost simultaneously to the U.S. Soccer announcement, there was a flurry of activity to add teams into the ECNL family. They say they might add more teams in future seasons, but as of now, it looks like expansion is complete for the time being.
Development Player League
Girls can thank the Development Player League (DPL) for opening up opportunities for them. Traditionally, the DPL has acted as a bridge for girls to get to DA, but on April 18, 2020, it announced they’ll be expanding to offer a new tier for girls called the Girls Academy League (GAL).
It was the overwhelming response from parents looking for a league for their DA players that spurred DPL to commit to this expansion. Like the MLS, it’s yet to be announced what the league structure will look like exactly. But, the commitment is there and the foundation is there. As is, the desire and interest from players wanting to play, improve and grow in a competitive environment.
Ian Stover, a Frisco parent of two competitive girl soccer players and a boy soccer player, has a pulse on the pathways for local players. He owns a youth soccer business in North Texas, Soccer Shots, and is a youth goalie coach. He told us what he’s seeing on the girls’ side, specifically:
The 20-21 map released by the ECNL, which excluded FCD, in addition to hearing from ECNL Directors at Solar and D’Feeters, in my opinion, confirms what many of the kids and parents at FCD have feared. I expect the FCD (Girls) staff to soon announce membership in GAL. And, I’m guessing that will be followed up by requests for player commitments.
As leagues fill up and others expand, this means FC Dallas DA girls players and leadership won’t stay intact. Stover expands,
I believe that much of the Girls DA talent in Houston, Austin, and DFW will go to rival ECNL clubs. And sadly, a lot of the FCD girls I know have already been speaking with other ECNL clubs and coaches about next year. Despite their renowned arrogance, I actually feel bad for the FCD (Girls) staff.
United States Youth Soccer Association
The United States Youth Soccer Association (USYSA) says they won’t let youth soccer suffer either. Pulling together resources that include their existing programming, the Olympic Development Program (ODP), and new National League and Club-based conferences, USYS is offering an open call to all clubs looking for a home because of the DA news.
In their April 15th letter, USYS states, “For those USSF DA Clubs who are now disenfranchised, we’re excited to invite you to join the conversation. Please contact us to learn more about how you can play a role in developing a new unified and comprehensive structure that develops world-class players through an elite competitive pathway.”
The dust will settle…
There will be some good that comes out of losing a league. The local teams that were fragmented across various leagues might be able to consolidate and play each other to reduce travel and travel costs. It might be a solution to the hefty travel pricetags and expenses.
This also might allow more youth players to play for their high schools. DA players weren’t able to play for both club and school teams, but leagues like ECNL and DPL make it work. Substitution rules are also in the spotlight, which could allow for more players to get more minutes, again, bringing home the focus of players getting high-level competition experience.
FC Dallas seems to be committed to the challenge, for the boy’s program, and hopefully including the girls again one day. Dan Hunt expands,
We’ll be participating in what MLS comes up with as a member club, but whatever they decide what that format looks like, we’ll be supplementing what we do. We don’t just do the bare minimum. This is something we take very seriously. You’ll see us build a robust platform around what we do and increase our scouting.
Frisco parents, we are in one of the best markets in the country with clubs who want to keep developing our country’s next superstar soccer players, including FC Dallas, Solar, Texans, and BVB IA.
While this downtime from soccer will be a setback, I have no doubt North Texas athletes who have the desire and the potential to play in college and professionally will have outlets to continue high-level training.