We discuss and analyze the newly announced USL Academy.
The USL announced on Thursday its intent to start an Academy tournament in 2020 in preparation for a new academy league, which, according to the USL CEO Alec Papadakis, will include academies from all three of the current USL tiers: Championship, League 1, and League 2. Phillip Grooms of The USL Show and Jason Weintraub of League 1 Fun react to all the possible variables associated with this move below.
USL Academy Competition in 2020
Phill Grooms: What’s not to like? This is a competition catered to teams associated with any one of the USL tiers, meaning they will be all over the board in talent level. A starting point like this is a perfect indicator for seeing where each team stands. It could be a harsh wake-up call for some teams and a walk in the park for others, but either way, it’s smart business to have a few “trial runs” before you commit to a full league in order to work out the kinks. The other thing I like about a USL tournament is that most teams can commit to it this far in advance no matter what league they currently play in. Perhaps most exciting is the possibility of some USL League 2 team’s academy showing up a team playing in the USSDA. Everybody loves a good giant killer–like a mini US Open Cup in a way, showing just how talented the USSDA really is, or even how underestimated regionalized academies can be.
Jason Weintraub: Scenes when Tormenta FC’s academy takes down Riverhound’s huge academy! (I’m serious, they went undefeated last season for a reason). I’m excited about this for so many different reasons. This is a chance for teams to measure just how good their academy is and a chance for kids in League Two teams to get scouted by League One and even USL Championship sides who are close in proximity and can help with the next step in their pro career. Like, imagine a kid from the San Francisco Glens League Two Academy gets scouted by Sacramento Republic FC after playing them in qualifiers, makes the hour move and ends up signing a pro academy contract for them, and then either gets a chance to play in MLS when Sacramento gets the bid or get poached by a Euro club! All because of this tournament and the system USL is building for an easier path to pro. I know that last sentence sounded like I just read it from a television script, but it’s true! This is a huge opportunity to find talent and grow local talent.
USL Academy League
PG: For years now, Jake Edwards has been thinking about how to incorporate youth teams into the league. I found a quote from August 2017 where he talks about how to incorporate the “over 600 teams across North America” from the Super Y League into the USL professional leagues right away (good comment due to an interview from our, and really everyone’s, soccer friend Dike Anyiwo). After a couple years’ tune-up of an academy competition, perhaps we’ll have an academy structure attached to, not USSF, but a league with a history of good business and growing soccer cred. The league that last year sent a kid to PSV, Freiburg, and probably, unofficially, Wolfsburg. So, all of these kids came from MLS structures, you say? Yes. Why not then, if you’re going to be a league used by Europe as a measuring stick for youth players, START YOUR OWN PRIVATE PYRAMID WITH EXACTLY THAT AIM?
One could make arguments that the USL has pushed MLS into becoming a selling league sooner than it otherwise would have. Arguments could be made that USL teams are currently looking for ways around a lack of solidarity payments by signing 15-year-olds, like Leo Torres, to five-year professional contracts. There are statements made by Jake Edwards that a cross-league tournament is being used as a testing ground for pro/rel. There are currently zero rumors of a tier one USL league taking on MLS in the future, but I’d sure as heck like to be the one to start them. The point is, despite a federation and current tier 1 league’s incessant dragging of feet on progressive soccer thought, the USL is forging forward–attempting to align itself with the rest of the world’s leagues in structure, function, and acclaim. The creation of an academy league declares its intent to raise up quality soccer players from a young age, and implement them into a successful and sustainable pro-environment as quickly as possible. Then, make it as easy as possible to sell them on–maybe even for a profit–and so the soccer circle of life goes on and on…forever and ever. Amen.
JW: Is this because SKC took Wan Kuzain from your Saint Louis academy 😉? I’m all about USL pushing away from MLS and handling their own business. How many times have MLS clubs picked away talented players from USL clubs and then USL clubs get nothing for it? I think you’re right, and what San Antonio did is what a ton of USL teams are going to start doing. I was reading about North Texas SC while preparing for the opening weekend soon, and I saw that Ricardo Pepi has signed a four year deal with them. I love it! Get those pro contact transfer fees and secure the bag! You’re the one putting resources, time, and effort into training these kids. Why should MLS or anyone else be able to capitalize off of that? And now with more teams coming into the USL system, I think this is a power move from Jake and the league to show they’re not waiting for MLS. I think that’s what USL has been good at doing anyway in regards to their plans. Even the whole Championship, League One, League Two system is a great plan that leaves you with a lot of options. Maybe it gets to pro/rel, maybe it doesn’t, but it’s all about giving yourself the flexibility to have these options. I think this competition is an exact representation of that. Maybe they find out just how much talent they have and push even further away from MLS affiliations. Maybe they get scouted by European clubs more used to this kind of system and can make that money that MLS takes away from them. Put that pressure on Garber to create a player/training compensation deal! Birmingham can get their Chris Richards money that they deserve!
MLS League and USSDA Worries
PG: Several weeks ago I was listening to a British podcast, Shoot the Defence, because they were interviewing Michael Nsien, the coach of the Tulsa Roughnecks. Great interview and you should give it a shot: View in iTunes. I was especially interested to hear how some fans of English football would approach tier 2 soccer in the United States. One line of questioning really grabbed my attention. They stated that “In the UK, grassroots football is suffering […] so unless your child is playing for a top-level club like an Arsenal, like a Tottenham, they’re not going to get the development they require.” So, I haven’t been to England to witness the cultural and financial reasons this could be happening there, but it did get me wondering what would happen if MLS matched or outdid the USL by starting their own league. These have been rumors so far. I’ll go further and say that I’ve heard this is extremely unlikely in general, but I think it’s fair to worry about some repercussions of that kind of move. My main worry is simply that they would monopolize all the best players and start a cycle of the rich getting richer. Combine that with a closed system that may not allow outsiders to join and we have something akin to what the chaps from Shoot the Defence are talking about, but worse.
Finally, I selfishly wonder what happens to teams like my hometown club in St. Louis, that currently plays in the USL, has USSDA level academies, and semi-regularly feeds players to the national team. Do they quit the Development Academy? Then do they step down in competition and lose their national effectiveness? If that’s how it has to go, it’s not a smart move.
That said, most of my worries are “what-ifs”. The ONLY thing we know is happening at this moment is that there will be a USL Academy tournament. Jeremy Alumbaugh, the GM and VP of Saint Louis FC tells me that in his opinion, having another tournament in which to test your team is nothing but good. He believes in a diversity of competition being vital to raising the level of a team. That’s why STLFC’s academy already plays in competitions outside the DA like the Dallas Cup, Easter Friendlies, and Copa Rayados. Not only that, he points to all the different pathways that help a player succeed: “Bottom line is there are quality players that professional clubs know about very well, and quality players that clubs don’t know about…having different platforms of competition (MLS/GA Cup, USL Academy Cup, ECNL, DA, State Cup, USYS National League) gives players a chance to compete and be identified on their own pathway.”
JW: And this is where USL could make a huge difference, not just in their league, but in North American soccer and stop this horrible @$$ pay to play system. I think right now Sacramento and San Antonio FC are the only two USL academies that don’t do pay to play. And, I’ve also heard that as soon as Sacramento gets to MLS, they’ll go pay to play. If MLS did make an approach to come and take all the talent, then start looking for the talent that’s there that didn’t get a chance. If I see some of these new League Two academy teams charging for tryouts that cost more than a 2 for $20 meal at Chili’s, it’s going to be so infuriating. I know UPSL has a similar structure or are starting a similar one to what USL is trying to do. In an effort to go after the talent MLS is overlooking since they can’t pay thousands of dollars for travel and moving and whatnot, maybe USL and UPSL can try to…nevermind, I can hear people yelling already. The point is, I talked with Coach John Miglarese of Tormenta FC, and he was telling me about their new academies they are opening up from age 2 to pro. They’ve already got a League One and League Two team and they’re opening up these new academies in South Georgia where there’s talent but no path. I’m talking SOUTH Georgia, like roasted peanuts side of the road, south. This is where USL can separate themselves. MLS is depending on becoming a selling league, stop being the middle man who’s not getting anything for it, and compete with them. The talent is there even if people don’t think it is! Houston has so much soccer talent that ends up in Dallas because the Dynamo Academy has had all their issues. Houston and Dallas played hot potato with Chris Richards who Bayern scooped up for a cool $1.3 million or somewhere around that, imagine if USL had the academies around to not let that happen. I mean, USL pretty much already showed what happens by starting North Texas SC and immediately taking Eric Quill from Texans SC Houston, a team he was beating FC Dallas’ academy team with. MLS will probably try to monopolize eventually and take over if they see tons of success in this hypothetical USL system. But, I also don’t think MLS is going to be getting that EPL TV deal money with 220K viewers on ESPN each week, so it may be a bit harder for them to monopolize but still a threat for sure. As far as the Development Academy goes…I don’t even want to touch that one. My brain and my fingers already hurt and I haven’t even typed anything about it.