Is a switch to an MLS Academy better for my player’s development?

It’s that time of the year where families have to make decisions where they want their players to play for the 20-21 season. Unfortunately, with the recent announcement of the US soccer federation controlled Development Academy (DA) league suspending operations, there is uncertainty about where talented young players will play next season (and beyond). Some former DA amateur (non-MLS) clubs have already formed a new league called Girls Academy (GA), other former DA amateur (non-MLS) clubs migrated to the Elite Club National League (ECNL), the rest of the amateur clubs will try out the new MLS Academy league and as expected, all MLS academies will stay in the new league. That said, for the sake of this post, let’s call the next version of the MLS controlled league “DA 2.0” which is boys’/men’s centric.

ECNL Boys league

If your teenager is talented enough to play at the new DA 2.0 level (this is subjective based on who is assessing him/her) but hasn’t joined yet, this post may be for you. Let’s start by stating that as a league, the talent level in the former DA was likely higher than any other national league (at least on the boys’ side). Unfortunately, we cannot (and will not) make that same assumption with DA 2.0 since:

  1. It’s a new league, with a new organization presiding over it.
  2. MLS (the new organization presiding over it) has a ton of experience managing an adult league; however, no experience managing youth development leagues including non-MLS teams. There will be a steep learning curve.
  3. A significant number of important competitive amateur clubs parted ways with DA 2.0 and joined ECNL as soon as DA 2.0 was announced.
  4. DA 2.0 just opened the application process to recruit additional “elite level” clubs. The deadline to apply is July 17th, just over a month before the beginning of the first games.
  5. Most important of all, the pandemic has left very little time for trial and error with DA 2.0. The clock is ticking and very little information has been made public about it.
  6. Last but not least, DA already had its share of improvement areas which automatically become reasons to doubt DA 2.0 robustness in its inaugural season.

Also, it’s worth noting that historically, we have seen some unique individual talent who never set foot in the former DA league (Keaton Parks in Dallas, José Gallegos in San Antonio, etc.). Thus DA 2.0 will continue to not be an “all-best talent” league; however, the great news is that young talented players will continue to find alternate channels to rise to the top and become successful footballers.

In the end, we believe that the most important aspect of youth football development is finding a good/caring coach who fosters individual and team “growth mindset” environments where trust is the foundation of it all and one who creates a “winning” culture. If both of those are present, there’s no reason to seek greener pastures. In our opinion, seeking a more competitive (results based) league/club should be the last resort unless your player is bossing his/her current league. Whatever the reason may be, to each their own…and ’tis the season to look for greener grass.

Thus, as a decision to seek a move to the DA 2.0 (MLS or amateur club) becomes inevitable, there are several factors to take into account. Those typically involve player’s age, the player’s/family’s primary residence, gender, player/family aspirations, ancestry, etc. We will try to break down some of those factors in this post; however, there’s just too much to describe in one post.

Age:

If the player is under 14 years of age, there’s little benefit to jump on the DA 2.0 wagon. From the limited information available, DA 2.0 will have 5 age groups: U13, U14, U15, U17, and U19. The U13, U14, and U19 age groups are optional age groups for all participant clubs.

Thus, it’s possible that these are groups are non-existent in some DA 2.0 clubs (ex. Chicago Fire arbitrarily eliminated the U18/U19 team in the former DA league leaving players stranded looking for another club). Also, it’s entirely feasible that the lack of “mandatory” U13, U14 and U19 teams will force DA 2.0 club participants to inevitably play against local teams anyway to save on traveling costs as DA 2.0 level competition may be too far away. If that is the case, why make a jump to DA 2.0 to play against your former local club (ex. FC Dallas playing Texans 3-4 times a year). If there are local club alternatives at the U13, U14 age groups, we see minimal value to switch leagues/clubs. Instead, stay at your local club and use each opportunity when playing against any MLS clubs to play your best games. The notoriety gained by doing so will yield valuable exposure and MLS teams likely will come down knocking at important age windows. Both Johan and Jogo were recruited by FC Dallas doing exactly this.

If your player is about to be age eligible to any of the older age groups: U15, U17. It’s definitely worth exploring joining the DA 2.0. U15 is the age group when youth national teams are initially formed and international competition officially starts. It’s possible that membership to the DA 2.0 league continues to be the preferred path to youth national teams and thus the “recommendations/connections” by DA 2.0 (specifically MLS clubs) staff could prove invaluable.

On the other side of the spectrum, joining a different club (especially an MLS one) at the U18/U19 level presents ZERO benefits to a player/family. The new club team will usually be comprised of players who have been playing together for several years and the new player will likely feel out of place and spend most of the season playing catch up. Furthermore, if the U19 team is comprised of mostly High School (HS) seniors, they will tend to be more focused on their next life phase/agenda: 1. College football, 2. Professional football path, or 3. Neither. Club football development is typically placed in the back burner by staff as well. Player development stalls in this age group especially in the United States as not all U18/U19 players are ready to play in MLS; and this group of players is normally neglected by MLS sides. Likewise, the gap between U18/U19 players and MLS players is significant and playing opportunities -outside of college- are scarce (ex. U23 teams are not normal). As a result, unless it’s the only choice, switching teams at the U19 level could be VERY detrimental to football development and should be avoided at all costs.

To worsen the situation, at some MLS sides, their satellite campuses along with their solid reputation helps them recruit players throughout the year. Be ready for your player to be challenged when a satellite campus player arrives mid-season of the U19 year. Also, foreign-born players are more likely to arrive at the U19 age group due to FIFA regulations barring U18 and younger player international moves. Caveat: This player movement at the U19 level may be more prevalent at the FC Dallas setup given their reputation and multiple (over 10) satellite campuses

Geographic location:

Once player’s age has been thoroughly factored into the selection of a club, next comes “location”. There are many DA 2.0 clubs geographically scattered throughout the United States. If the player’s residence is near the training facilities of a DA 2.0 club, the odds of the player joining the desired club are magnified. The potential disadvantage of living within a radius from a DA 2.0 MLS club is a concept called MLS territories. Per MLS rules, a player/family who lives within 100 miles from the MLS stadium now “belongs” to that MLS club. Even if the player never plays for such MLS club, the club automatically owns his/her rights. For example, in our local market, if a Solar player, for whatever reason, wants to forego the opportunity to play for the FC Dallas academy and instead wants to play for the Columbus Crew academy, FC Dallas has to “approve” the move (there could a financial cost associated with this approval between MLS clubs depending on age) or the player’s family has to physically move to Columbus, OH for non-football related reasons.

Unfortunately (but maybe a good thing), not everyone lives in close proximity to a DA 2.0 club (see map below). However, in such cases, driving costs start to add up and bigger sacrifices need to be made by the player/family. On the other hand, a huge advantage of NOT living close to a DA 2.0 MLS club is that the player is not constrained by any MLS club rules and can join ANY (MLS or amateur) DA 2.0 club at will.

Geographic distribution of the new MLS League (aka DA 2.0)

Player’s/Family’s aspirations:

Know who you (player/family) are and have a vision based on your core values. Even while pursuing the player’s dream to a pro football career, some (probably most) parents prefer not to separate from their player at a young age. Letting him/her go live with a foster family may not be a viable option either. In some cases, a family move, albeit radical, could be a better alternative. Each family situation is unique and complex; there’s never any guarantees of success. Be realistic about your player’s talents and aspirations. There will always be a level of uncertainty with any life decision but being informed helps mitigate some of it.

Uncertainty:

With COVID-19 numbers fluctuating on a daily basis, there’s some speculation as to whether the DA 2.0 season will start in the fall or in 2021. At this point, it’s all uncertain. As of a few days ago, the MLS side Minnesota United FC announced the temporary suspension of their academy program citing impacts from the COVID-19 situation. The players in that market are being told to pursue different football paths, none of which include the MUFC academy, going forward.

Currently, what is certain is that any league in its inaugural season goes through some growing pains. Such will be the case for DA 2.0. If that adds uncertainty to your player’s/family’s situation, it may be best to sit on the sideline and let it mature for a year or two if you can afford it. Believe us, you won’t regret it and it’s possible, your player may continue to love the game in its purest form without the added stress about the uncertainty.

If you do decide to proceed with a move to an MLS club specifically, below you will find some advantages and disadvantages of joining an MLS club vs a non-MLS (amateur) club.

Advantages of joining an MLS academy:

Cost:

Most MLS clubs are low to no-cost for their “academy” teams; therefore MLS clubs pose a significant financial advantage over most amateur pay-to-play clubs which normally do not have a revenue stream through a professional team. However, there are some amateur clubs whose academy is low to no-cost such as Cross-Fire and Rise but they are part of the minority. Conversely, in the former DA, there were MLS academies that were pay-to-play (DC United and Minnesota United FC).

In the Dallas Forth Worth (DFW) area, the MLS side has both: FC Dallas youth teams (Juniors, Select, Premier) which are pay-to-play and low cost FC Dallas academy teams as part of their development model (see figure below). The many (over 200) FC Dallas pay-to-play teams serve a unique purpose: to subsidize the FC Dallas academy teams. This may or may not be the model at other MLS sides.

Some local parents are drawn to the FC Dallas name for their U13 and U14 players and unfortunately find themselves paying thousands of dollars a year for no additional developmental benefit (beyond first team discounted tickets and a permanent training ground). In the figure above, the bottom three categories are pay-to-play ($3k – $3.5k+ per year) teams normally higher than their local amateur club fees. The FC Dallas Academy category has minimal costs but it’s worth noting that it’s not easy to either: 1. Make the FC Dallas Academy teams or 2. Be promoted from any of the bottom three categories to the FC Dallas Academy teams. Honestly, if your player has spent more than two consecutive seasons in any of the bottom three categories, there’s almost zero chance he/she will ever be moved up permanently to the FC Dallas Academy team.

To be fair, the FC Dallas Academy category (or similar for other MLS clubs) is almost fully funded nowadays; however, it is very prohibitive in terms of flexibility to play other sports (school or not), and requires a significant amount of traveling with NO real added benefit at the early ages. In fact, the increased travel, burned out a lot of young footballers who eventually selected other mainstream sports by high school age. Thus, it is fair to say that the densest concentration of talent is not always playing for MLS clubs (for many potential reasons).

Talent:

There’s a possible misconception that the MLS clubs monopolize most of the local talent. While that may be very true in some geographic areas, it is not so much in areas like North Texas, North/South California, etc. DFW is so big and rich in football talent that one MLS team is unable to accommodate the abundance of talent in the area. Therefore, there are a multitude of very competitive DA, ECNL, classic/lake highlands league football clubs that have historically established themselves as great alternatives for development environments that are excellent (if not better) than FC Dallas. If one considers all age groups in any football academy, we agree that the MLS club should have a higher concentration of talent but a family should focus on the specific age group their player wants to join. Below, we analyze and compare a couple of age groups from local teams vs. FC Dallas:

Looking at recent statistics, in the just truncated 2019-2020 DA season, both the Solar U16/U17 boys and girls teams achieved superior results than the FC Dallas U16/U17 counterpart teams. One could argue that specific sample is an outlier, or that it supports our theory of a fairly talent distribution among clubs in our area, or whatever other pretext. We tend to discredit the outlier theory because in the previous season (2018-2019), both boys and girls Solar teams were crowned national champions in the same age group eliminating the corresponding FC Dallas U16/U17 teams in the process. This is not unique to North Texas only; California and Colorado are other markets where amateur academies are stronger than their MLS counterparts.

Training frequency:

MLS academy clubs train more frequently than amateur clubs. While FC Dallas has the resources to dedicate to daily training; other amateur clubs do not. Repetitions are essential for the more advanced players; however, the risk of burnout is always present. Normally on the boys side, MLS clubs will communicate with the player/family by the age of 15/16 as to whether they have any professional plans for the player or not. If they do have plans, the player should stick around and benefit from the more frequent practices and other perks (practice with the USL/first team, etc.) the MLS side has to offer. Otherwise, the player needs to evaluate if the “juice is worth the squeeze”. Will sticking around the MLS side with more frequent practices help him/her with other future options like college, playing abroad, etc. Would he/she rather forego sacrifices associated with playing for an MLS team and instead join an amateur club that allows him/her more flexibility to do other extra curricular activities (ex. play other sports in HS, discover other talents, etc.) and still be in a competitive team?.

Opportunities:

Development opportunities (ex. Generation Adidas -GA- Cup, Youth National Team -YNT- recommendations) at an MLS club are going to be typically better during the 17 and younger years than for amateur clubs. At the U19 level, players tend to mostly just go through the motions as they have either already secured college placement, reached some level of professionalism with the club, or are in the process of planning trials abroad as a path to professionalism. Indifference at the U19 age group is rampant especially from MLS sides. Locally, the inception of the NTX SC affiliate, has seen a focus shift from the U19 age group to the USL-1 side. There will only be a handful of U19 players who will benefit from opportunities such as higher level training but unfortunately, the majority of players not selected for additional development opportunities are left behind with little motivation to be in the program. The FC Dallas U18/U19 saw an exodus of key academy players this past season…

Thus, it’s at 17 years of age and younger where MLS clubs normally offer more exposure to national and international tournaments; those however, will come at a high cost whether the player plays for an MLS club or not. International tournaments are normally funded by parents exclusively in both setups. However, amateur clubs very seldom offer these opportunities as families are already shelling out a lot of money to pay for the academy team. Furthermore, MLS sides also offer exposure to YNT opportunities. However, with the federation announcing that most YNT age groups are frozen for the remaining of 2020, that may factor into a “rushed” decision to join (or not) an MLS team for the 20-21 season.

Disadvantages of an MLS academy:

Gender:

Historically, MLS academies have been gender biased towards boys/men. Some (ex. LA Galaxy) have gone as far as recently cancelling their girls/women academy program. Thus, if your talented player is a female and cost is not much of an issue, MLS sides may not be the best choice for a move. First, unlike the boys’/men’s side, MLS clubs do not offer a clearer pathway to professional fooball for girls/women. Also, most MLS clubs have very little experience overseeing girls’/women’s programs and see limited financial gain from supporting that program; that’s why most MLS sides de-prioritize their girls’/women’s program.

Also, your local market may offer better club alternatives than the MLS club. In the DFW market, Solar (and sometimes Texans, D’feeters, etc.) offers hands-down a more established growth environment and more competitive teams for girls/women than FC Dallas. See this past seasons’ results at the U17, U16, U15 levels. Also, see this recently published chart (you can go back many months or observe the same trend in multiple publications ex. Topdrawersoccer):

There’s also far more female players being called up from Solar, Real Colorado, Tophat and other amateur clubs to youth national teams than there are from FC Dallas and other MLS sides.

<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80"><em>Not fully funded:</em>Not fully funded:

one common misconception about the FC Dallas academy teams is that they are fully funded and that is not the case. Depending on the age group, the FC Dallas academy teams have at least one mandatory international trip (Mexico) each year (to play friendlies) which costs over $1,500. Furthermore, each family is required to raise funds for these mandatory international trips. To be fair, these expenses do not remotely compare with the annual costs associated with joining any of the other pay-to-play local amateur academy clubs which at least cost over $3k just for coaching fees and uniforms (no international tournaments). However, if money is not as much of an issue to your family, try to stay in the pay-to-play amateur club (ex. Solar) for as long as possible if your player has any real chance of becoming a professional. Why is that? Read below…

Training compensation:

If your player has the talent to play professionally (this is very subjective), try to absorb the academy costs in a pay-to-play system for as long as possible (or seek scholarship opportunities) because once your player joins the MLS club, the club can claim the right to “very steep” training compensation. Training compensation is defined as the price tag on a player by the MLS club (on an annual basis) for having “developed” the player during the formative years. The compound amount of money piles up significantly over the years and it can become a deal breaker when a non-MLS club is interested in your player because the price tag is too high. Currently, this price tag is non-existent for most non-MLS (amateur) clubs. Read more about it here. Our recommendation is to shorten (if possible avoid) the MLS academy environment for as long as possible to minimize training compensation costs by joining academy amateur clubs (ex. Barca Academy, Solar, Cross Fire etc.).

Each decision to move to the new DA 2.0 league (MLS club or amateur club) must be carefully evaluated and thought out. There’s no one size fits-all solution and much less “perfect situation”; inexorably, sacrifices will have to be made by player and families. However, make the most informed decision by gathering factual information, talking to other parents, coaching staff, and most importantly, your own player. In the end, the decision should be made as a family with the player’s input being the most critical. Once a decision is made, don’t look back on it. Pursue it with a passion; “enjoy the ride” and something is to be gained out of ANY outcome.

Good luck and please reach out to us if you have comments/questions.

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