Over the last decade we saw numerous changes in the American player development ecosystem. All of the changes we made derived from when the United States Soccer Development Academy decide to go from a Spring season league to a 10-month year-round league starting in the fall of 2011.
From there we have seen the quality of the average American soccer player increase, the depth of youth national teams spike, and the rise of Major League Soccer academies. Over the last five years MLS academies have seen a major increase in funding allowing them to provide better coaching, a professional training environment, a laid-out pathway to professional soccer, and better opportunities to go pro either through their teams or through opportunities to be found by a European scout.
The academies have become stable enough that U.S. SOCCER decided to close the under-17 men’s national team residency down in Bradenton as the clubs would actually provide a better environment for players to develop in.
Now as we head into the new decade we will see the MLS academies grow and provide a system that elite players all over the country will be able to join and fight for a chance to become a professional soccer player. Now we are seeing a few clubs who have earned the right to say they are the best of the best in youth development and we have clubs who used to not care about player development who have begun investing in their club to produce their own homegrown talent. Here I will lay out my opinion of where each active American Major League Soccer academy ranks amongst each other and will explain why I have determined these rankings.
The MLS Academies Rankings
Counting backward from 23. The first four teams are ranked at the bottom because their academies are so young that it is unfair to judge them on the same curve as the other 19 academies.
23. Nashville SC
Nashville comes in last in this list because while they do have an MLS team, their academy will not start their first season until later this year. THe academy will be completely hit or miss. When you look at southern states like Tennessee, Alabama, and Louisiana there is a lot of production in other sports (mostly football) so there is hope that they can launch a successful academy in a market that really has not shown much care for soccer.
If they can identify and recruit players out of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana to go along with the best players from Tennessee, then they do have a chance to produce some gems as those states do have the talent. The only thing to do is sit back and watch them work.
22. FC Cincinnati
FC Cincinnati better get used to not being very good as their academy will likely be one of the worst MLS academies in the league for a long time. Larry Sunderland is a very good coach but they will need to actively recruit around the country to find players and will be competing for players against other small market clubs with much better track records. The area of Cincinnati has been very poor at developing players. Bobby Puppione’s time at Cincinnati United Premier saw some very good players come through but none that would have been good enough to step up to the MLS level.
They are a club that is in an area that does not have a lot of talent, surrounded by other cities with their own professional soccer academies (Louisville City FC, the Columbus Crew, and most likely Indy 11 at some point) and a club without much of a track record for player development will make things challenging to bring youth into their first team. I would not expect this club to see results from their academy and I hope that Larry Sunderland can go to another club because he is too good of a coach to fight a losing battle.
21. Minnesota United
Minnesota United are about a year or two away from no longer being considered a new academy so they will need to start signing their talented local players. They have rolled out their academy in as slow of a manner as possible which is a huge knock against them as they are now in their third year of having an academy and have only signed Fred Emmings, a goalkeeper. One has to wonder why they did not choose to absorb the Minnesota Thunder or Shattuck St Mary’s academies like Atlanta, who came into the league the same season, did with Georgia United which allowed them to immediately sign Andrew Carleton, Chris Goslin, George Bello, Patrick Okonkwo, and Lagos Kunga.
The positives for Minnesota United are that they do have two very talented players in their academy. Their next homegrown signing will be Patrick Weah, the cousin of Tim and nephew of George Weah. Patrick Weah however, is not the most talented player in their academy. That title belongs to Bajung Darboe who is already playing up at the u16/17 level (2003’s) as a 2006. Darboe is one of the best players of his age group and will be a key player for youth national teams until the 2028 Olympics where he will still be eligible. Minnesota needs to sign both players as soon as possible.
20. Inter Miami
The best of the new academies is Inter Miami. They are owned by David Beckham who knows more than all what it takes to develop players. Beckham has stated multiple times that Miami plans to be a youth first club and seeing as how they are in a soccer hotbed in southern Florida there is a very good reason to be optimistic that this academy will be a conveyor belt of elite players every year.
There are two players to particularly be excited about in their academy currently: Franky Raggio and Axel Perez. Raggio has just been seen training with the u23 men’s national team and it should be assumed that he will be the club’s first homegrown signing. Axel Perez is the player that people should keep an eye on over the years. Perez is very young (he is a 2007 and turns 13 this year) but has the composure, technical skills, and soccer IQ of a player much older than him and is a player who is regarded by many to be a potential wonder kid and is the best player in his age group so far, keep an eye on him.
Rankings 19-1 are of the established MLS academies who have had ample opportunity to develop a competitive and quality academy.
19. Portland Timbers
Portland has taken the prize for the worst Major League Soccer academy. The only teams ranked lower than them are there because they are so young that you can’t actually rank them fairly. Portland has literally done nothing with their academy since they became a team in 2011. Their best academy product is Marco Farfan… yes, I know, that’s depressing to think about.
There are no excuses for their complete lack of success as other teams in smaller markets have managed to develop their own prospects. Portland had a gem in Rubio Rubin who they couldn’t even convince to join their academy as he elected to play for Westside Metros instead. They destroyed the career of Adrian Villegas as well who was a pretty promising midfielder. The only player in their academy with a future in professional soccer is Masango Akale, younger brother of former u16 youth national team standout Mukwelle Akale. They are without a doubt, the worst Major League Soccer academy.
18. Orlando City
The only positive about Orlando City’s academy is that they are not as bad as the Portland Timbers but outside of that there is nothing good to say. They have four homegrown players on their roster and only one was signed directly out of the academy which is Jordan Bender. Orlando City is now entering their sixth season so there is no reason that they could not have produced one player capable of getting first team minutes as a teenager. The area is not lacking for talent either so that is not an excuse, just ask Dillon Payne (@DontTreadSoccer) and he will tell you about every talented player the area has ever had and then fall into depression after because Orlando City are so terrible.
The only good thing is that they at least have a USL team that has played academy players but that is literally it, there is nothing else that can be thought of as a positive for this academy. They should not be expected to improve unless they are taken over by new ownership and hire a new GM. If you are an Orlando City fan, I am sorry.
17. Houston Dynamo
The Dynamo’s only successful homegrown is Memo Rodriguez and from there their only real academy prospect is Marcelo Palomino who is back in Houston after not finding a club in Europe. Houston like Chicago sit on top of a massive metro population so the complete lack of production falls directly under the reasoning of the organization being completely incompetent.
There is hope for the Dynamo as they have brought in the best youth coach in the country in USMNT legend and former u20 youth national team coach Tab Ramos. No one in the country knows more about the youth landscape than Tab and no one knows how to better develop young players than Tab. If there was an academy to bet on becoming a power house out of nowhere then bet on the Dynamo. Tab will likely revitalize the Dynamo to become the second homegrown factory in the state and a real rival to FC Dallas.
16. Chicago Fire
Chicago may be the most disappointing of the MLS academies yet. This is because they have had success at the Development Academy level and then refused to sign hardly any players out of high school until 2019. The only exception to this has been Djordje Mihailovic who has plateaued over the course of 2019. They have waited too long to sign players and let them go to college when they could have immediately been signed out of high school. The list of players that apply for this are Mauricio Pineda, Grant Lillard, and Harrison Shipp. The list of players who have played for other clubs in the area or the Fire have passed on signing is down right depressing. Here are some of those names: Andrija Novakovic, Chris Mueller, Emmanuel Sabbi, Joshua Penn, Cam Lindley, Axel Alejandre, Andrew Gutman, Michael Jimenez, Perry Kitchen, and so many more. The most disappointing part is that they discontinued their u18/19 Development Academy team which means that their best prospects have been stuck playing at the u17 level all season which is not a high enough level for their development.
However, there is some very good news. They may have finally learned their lesson! Since the start of 2019 they have actually decided to start signing players including Gabe Slonina, Nick Slonina, Andre Reynolds, Javier Casas, Brian Gutierrez, and Alex Monis. They also have two of the best 2004’s in the country in Allan Rodriguez-Lopez and Justin Reynolds who will be receiving contracts soon enough. On top of that the Fire have also announced a partnership with Forward Madison FC in the USL where they will be able to send all of those signings to get minutes against better competition. If the club’s new ownership decides to dive into the academy then they could quickly become a power house as the Fire are home to the third largest metro-population and have relatively little competition for players compared to other MLS academies.
15. New England Revolution
The best of the worst is the New England Revolution. The good news is they have had some success with Diego Fagundez, and Scott Caldwell. The bad news is that is all they have done since becoming a team in 1996. They should have signed Justin Rennicks when he was 18 but decided to be petty and wait an extra two years just because he went and trained at other clubs in Europe.
There are some positives that have recently developed. They have announced the addition of a USL team and have picked up the rate of signing homegrown players. The potential downside is that Bruce Arena is their coach and he was not exactly friendly to young players during his recent tenure at the Galaxy or with the USMNT (Pulisic doesn’t count). Take the steps they have taken recently with care, we have no idea if the organization will change their ways yet.
14. Los Angeles FC
LAFC ranks very high for a brand-new academy because they already have numerous prospects who are contract ready including Antonio Leone, Erik Duenas, Luis Lima, Donovan Palomares, and Christian Torres. At the rate they are going, they will quickly surpass LA Galaxy’s academy in the same manner as how their first team has quickly emerged as the best soccer team in the city of LA.
What they need now is to sign their first player (looking right at Antonio Leone) and launch a USL team to house all of these young prospects that they are producing.
LAFC has done a fantastic job in developing what I think is the best local scouting networks amongst MLS academies. If you haven’t taken a listen to the Scuffed podcast with LAFC Academy Director Todd Saldana I highly suggest that you do. At the rate LAFC are going, the will become the top academy before the end of the decade.
13. San Jose Earthquakes
San Jose is an academy that is improving but still has a long way to go. They have been a club since 1996 and have managed to only sign seven homegrown players which is to put it lightly… awful. With those homegrown’s they have seen some moderate success as Nick Lima and Tommy Thompson (still the greatest name of all time) have both made regular appearances for the first team over the years and Lima has received nine USMNT caps since Gregg Berhalter took over which is a big positive for the Earthquakes academy. But only seven homegrown players in 24 years as a club is a haunting number. The good news is that four of the seven are 18 or younger so they are trending up as of late.
The key for their academy success is obvious, identify, develop, and sign more players. The Earthquakes sit on top of the fifth largest combined statistical area according to the 2018 census so there is a huge market to get players but they have to start scouting the area more first and make sure the best area talent is in their system. The talent they have signed over the last three years in Gilbert Fuentes, Jacob Akanyirige, Cade Cowell, and Casey Walls are all quality players who have gotten great USL experience and Cowell may potentially be in the immediate first team plans as he made his MLS debut on March 7th this year. So, overall the last few years have been positive for the Earthquakes but they have the potential to be doing much better.
12. Atlanta United
Atlanta United does a great job at producing great prospects at the academy level but they have done a horrific job of taking those academy products and turning them into first team players. Andrew Carleton was the undisputed best prospect for his age group and is now playing for Indy 11 because the first team has failed him, Chris Goslin was a top midfield prospect for the 2000’s and was released from his contract… last I know he was playing in Armenia.
They still have a chance to break the cycle with George Campbell and George Bello. Bello would have been their first homegrown success if not for some very unfortunate injuries. Atlanta are aware of their mistakes as shown in this article by Felipe Cardenas.
What Atlanta does well is identifying talented prospects and turning them into USL level players but taking the next step and getting a player to go from USL to MLS has been a test that Atlanta has yet to pass. Once they can unlock the secret that other clubs have seem to figured out then they will become a youth development gold mine. Their academy is stacked with talent with players like Nigel Prince, Efrain Morales, Will Reilly, Daniel Mangarov, Jackson Conway, Tyler Wolff, Caleb Wiley, Kobey Stoupp, Brendan Lambe, Andrew Durkin, Alan Carleton, Italo Jenkins, Ty Wilson, Ty Wilson and more. If they can finally turn academy players into first team players then they will completely change the player development game and immediately become a top tier academy, but they can’t keep being a homegrown graveyard like they have been up until now or they will fall down this list.
11. Columbus Crew
Columbus have had one incredibly successful homegrown in Wil Trapp and then they have had unsuccessful homegrown players in Ben Swanson and Matt Lampson. Their academy has been improving as of late as they have been ramping up their funding and recruiting efforts which has paid off in three recent signings of Aboubacar Keita, Aidan Morris, and Sebastian Berhalter. They do have some talent in the academy in Elton Chifamba, Sam Sarver, and Noah Hall that should be signed within the next year as well. What is keeping them from the top ten is that under Gregg Berhalter they did not incorporate youth prospects well outside of Wil Trapp who was the poster of the club for the last year.
Columbus need to tap into the Cleveland market more which is completely underserved and sign their promising talents and loan them to USL teams (or… launch your own program that can play at Mapfire Stadium which will soon be vacant). Columbus let players like Aboubacar Keita, Aidan Morris, Sebastian Berhalter and Isaiah Parente go to college when they all should have been signed out of high school and loaned out to get better experience than what college soccer provides. If they can sign, develop, and integrate homegrown players into USL teams and MLS teams at a quicker rate then they will quickly rise up this list.
Check out 10-1 top MLS academies.