After 10 years, is U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy working?

ISI Photos-Robin Alam

Experts are split on whether the DA is truly changing the youth soccer landscape.

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Here's a question: How do you get the best youth players, coaches and clubs together, at minimal cost, in a country that spans thousands of miles and features hundreds of approaches to the game?

That's the task that faces the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, currently wrapping its 10th season of boys' play and preparing for a fall expansion into new age groups and girls' competitions.

For all the strides it has made, the Academy has not yet won over all its critics, many of whom complain about inflexibility, imbalance, travel and top-down organization. It’s a fair time to ask: Is the DA working?

We’re challenging people to think in different ways. And it changes. The Academy program evolves year after year.

- DA director Jared Micklos

Development Academy teams play each other in a national league split into regions. With a few exceptions for big tournaments and scattered friendlies, they only play each other. In the 2016-17 boys season, the Academy included 147 U-12 teams, 90 clubs with U-13 and U-14 teams, and 72 clubs with U-16 and U-18 teams. They include professional teams, mostly from MLS, where the ability to develop and sign young players is essential.

“We believe it’s the lifeblood, the centerpiece of our organization,” said Peter Vermes, manager and technical director at Sporting Kansas City. Developing from within helps keep a smaller-market club competitive with MLS clubs in more internationally known cities that can attract global stars.

And the DA is making a dent in the “pay-to-play” model. A couple dozen clubs are cost-free. Scholarship money, from U.S. Soccer itself or elsewhere, helps the DA ensure that cost isn’t an insurmountable barrier. Academy director Jared Micklos says in half of their regions, clubs cut costs last year by an average of $700 per player.

Still, some prominent voices remain unconvinced.

Hearing the critics and making the changes

Ex-MLS star Alecko Eskandarian said in 2014 that he cringed at the inconsistent level of training and play in the Academy. Veteran high school coach Steve Nichols criticized the DA’s top-down approach, outlining all the reasons he ditched it and launched a new club with greater freedom to train how it wanted and enter tournaments of its own choosing against suitable competition.

The new girls DA has met some resistance. The majority of clubs in the ECNL, the national league launched in 2009 to provide top-level play for girls, are staying put. Some clubs will awkwardly split the difference between the two.

The Academy might not be able to please everyone, but Micklos says it continues to adapt.

“We’re challenging people to think in different ways,” Micklos said. “And it changes. The Academy program evolves year after year.”

Fundamentally, the goal is to get the country’s best players to focus on training several days a week, then play one or two games over a weekend instead of the typical three to four games in a weekend youth tournament, all under the guidance of highly trained coaches who get advice and feedback from regional and national directors.

That feedback is one of the areas in which the DA has changed. Clubs used to receive an evaluation that looked like a report card or a Yelp review, with stars awarded in several categories, including style of play. Today’s evaluations are more descriptive, Micklos said.

And Micklos says the DA isn’t dictating style from the top down, despite critics who say otherwise. They have some common principles, particularly at younger age groups -- no one wants a 12-year-old playing defense and never learning to play the ball out of the back. But some clubs are more direct than others, and some may adapt to an opponent in a game with playoff positions at stake.

Another change in recent years: MLS clubs have the benefit today of a transitional stage between Academy games, typically attended by scouts and family, and a debut in front of 20,000 fans in an MLS stadium. Partnerships with USL teams -- some outright reserve teams, some simply affiliates -- give players a pathway that includes meaningful games against wily veterans in front of big crowds in markets like Cincinnati and Sacramento.

Is lack of flexibility hurting competition?

ISI Photos-Robin Alam

ISI Photos-Robin Alam

But what about the DA games themselves? Nichols said at the NSCAA Convention and elsewhere that his Baltimore Bays weren’t getting competition that justified the travel.

“In a 28-game schedule, we played four good games: [New Jersey club] PDA twice and D.C. [United] twice,” Nichols told when he left the Baltimore Bays. “So to play four or five competitive matches out of 28 games really doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t work.” (Nichols, now a college coach, eventually returned to the DA ranks as an assistant coach on his son's Baltimore Armour team.)

The DA selects the clubs that participate, based on a number of factors ranging from logistics to experience developing high-level players. But there’s no system of promotion and relegation that moves high-performing teams into the same division with each other while lower-performing teams get more suitable challenges.

“In Germany, where I lived and played, they had division after division of play,” said Benjamin Ziemer, who currently keeps a foot in and a foot out of the Academy as a Sacramento Republic Academy coach and the president of the NorCal Premier Soccer league.

“If you have a board of directors and a field, you could start a club. If you were in the ninth division and win your way up, then they promote their way up to a higher level. They’re chosen by the results on the field.”

Without such a system in place, the DA has some competitive imbalance. The 2016-17 standings for the U-18 group finds clubs with wild goal differences: plus-46 (FC Dallas), minus-51, minus-60, plus-64 (Atlanta United), minus-85, minus-92.

The DA does keep tabs on these games to see if they’re as one-sided as the scores show. But the action they can take is limited. Perhaps it’s tempting to reduce the DA to the MLS-affiliated clubs and a handful of clubs that have shown they can keep up, but then what happens to the known issue of travel costs and travel time?

“Nationally, that’s a challenge we face,” Micklos said. “It’s something we talk about multiple times a year.”

At younger ages, which just launched in 2016, the goal is to keep travel times at 90 minutes or less. Fortunately, that overlaps with the goal of having a pyramid with a wide base. By the time players hit their late teens, the DA wants the truly elite players with a shot at professional or international careers. But coaches can’t always project who those players will be at age 11. So having more teams at U-12 helps the DA cast a wide net at that age while also keeping travel time and cost down.

But the Development Academy isn’t hurting for clubs that want to join. Micklos says the DA has received about 100 applications each of the last three years -- some for younger age groups, some for full membership.

NEXT: The case for the grass being greener on the other side