USL: The development model to rival MLS dominance

MLS has scrambled to fill the void left by U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy. The USL, instead, found an unseen development void and they intend to fill it.

The United Soccer League is the world’s only second-tier soccer organization that has no clue it’s not top-tier. The explosively growing professional soccer league always sees operations differently than others. And so, as MLS and other organizations seek to replace the now-defunct U.S. Soccer Development Academy, the USL will open the uniquely structured USL Academy League in spring 2021.

Youth soccer in the United States keeps players segmented by age group and, with some exceptions, automatically progresses players with their same-age peers.

This means the USL and other organizations have to start scouting players the same way. They test and log their skills to find where they fit on the specific teams. Then USL scouts and coaches have to get a lot more involved than all the other organizations.

While the other leagues will be noting players’ progress in skills in relation to how old they are, USL Academy League officials will be painstakingly matching the players’ progress against the skills of higher-level teams.

The league will establish a select U-15 to U-19 team but will assume if scouts and coaches say the player is good enough, they are old enough. They do not keep players in the same age group for the sake of it.

“We focused on a select U-15 to U-19 team with the idea that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough,” USL President Jake Edwards told ESPN’s Taylor Twellman. “We want to connect the pro teams in our market with all the youth teams in our market and work collaboratively together to give those top players a platform to showcase themselves.”

Birmingham Legion FC President Jay Heaps was among the first to praise the new-model Academy League.

“We’ve talked a lot about how to produce the next soccer star and I think in doing so you have to be collaborative, work with the clubs that are already there and make sure you’re nurturing these soccer players as they go through,” Heaps told Twellman. “You and I, Taylor, we played other sports, you had a full scholarship to another school. Making an athlete choose before they’re ready to choose can be detrimental at times. Our idea is to nurture, create an environment where they are being developed, but now we can go in and augment that.”

As a former player and coach, Heaps believes this league will allow teams to cast a wider net in allowing players to progress at their correct pace, unrestricted by their specific ages. This model nurtures players more completely as they develop connections with pro teams and colleges.

The inaugural USL Academy League will begin play March 2021. It will be a regionalized schedule matched with the U.S. professional calendar and will conclude with the academy playoffs will occur in November.

If only counting the USL teams, the academy will be watched and scouted by a multitude of pro squads. This league now boasts 129 teams across three senior divisions, Championship, League One, and League Two.

The USL exhaustively researches markets during expansion considerations to ensure they sustain all its teams, in terms of both competitiveness and economics. Still, further expansion is expected at both the Championship and League One level. This will be supplied by the wider youth infrastructure.

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MLS and other soccer organizations said in replacing the abandoned U.S. Soccer Academy they would be open to changes for improvement. But expect the most revolutionary changes to occur in the league that is the most willing to embrace change, the United Soccer League.