The USSF DA
The DA is dead…Long live the DA! Yes, USSF killed the Development Academy with almost no notice. As usual with USSF, something was done by fiat, with very little input from stakeholders, with almost no notice that it was going to happen, primarily with monetary interests at heart. From the ashes rises the MLS-DA. The USSF’s process of closing the DA could be a whole article in itself, but let’s go in a different direction, more central to the point of Chasing A Cup.
The DA was working; or at worse not hindering. The most obvious evidence is the incredible young talent discussed in many recent articles here. All the following grew up in the DA: Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Josh Sargent, Richie Ledezma, Alex Mendez, Reggie Cannon, Gio Reyna, basically every US based youth national team and USMNT player. Compared to the previous “Lost” generation, which had limited or no time in the DA, it is night and day.
Maybe it was not efficient money wise for USSF, but it was working. When it was announced it was being discontinued, this USMNT fanatic took the news as a bad sign. The one thing we have to hold on to as fans is the incredible young talent coming through the pipeline. But now the USSF has filled that pipeline in with concrete and said, “no more, sorry”.
MLS stepped in, literally 12 minutes later, and announced they would run a competitive league with their DA teams (all teams older than 2 years had DA teams). Later, they announced that all the former DA teams could participate too. This makes sense, as it is easier to set up something that was set up than do something from scratch.
But, we have to assume, since MLS is a business, that the new structure (call it MLS-DA) will be put in place to maximize utility to MLS. US based pro sports leagues always want to control labor and reduce the bargaining power of players to demand higher wages. Therefore, drafts exist in all American pro sports. The MLS Superdraft has lost relevance as college soccer has become irrelevant; the main mechanisms for MLS teams to get starters is develop them through their MLS-DA or buy them.
MLS set up the Academy system with the idea of developing kids, sign a few, have most go to college, then possibly resign them. It was supposed to supplement the college draft, not replace it. While the top team at an Academy was free, there was usually an entire soccer school underneath that was pay to play and very lucrative. Home Grown (HG) contracts were mostly given to almost proven players. This is why HG contracts are actually quite long compared to similar contracts given in other leagues to teenagers and start at the MLS salary minimum, which is higher than most U19 Bundesliga players make, for instance.
The DA changed things because it introduced a European derived model that was new to the USA. Unlike most travel soccer or high school and college soccer, DA games followed FIFA rules. Substitutions were limited. This is a big change, bigger than usually thought of. Soccer games with unlimited subs, like in college and high school and most travel soccer, is played more like hockey. Entire lines are subbed in and out and maximum effort expended by players at all times. This leads to a different game that rewards mostly brainless physical tools. With limited subs, players need to run less, pass more, pass and run efficiently, and that means completely different tactics and skills.
The DA also increased the training to game ratio. Whereas college or high school might play 3 games a week and barely practice, DA teams played one game with 4-6 practices a week. Travel teams would practice maybe twice a week and maybe play more than two games a week. The increased training allowed players to improve the technical skills that were not that important in the run and gun American game played up to that point.
The DA was also free for MLS Academies (except DC and Minnesota) and costs were subsidized heavily by USSF. It has always been very expensive for players to play elite soccer. Many players were priced out; especially those from lower income households. It wasn’t perfect but it was better with many lower income kids on scholarships.
These three changes were revolutionary and mostly had the desired effect. Looking at players like Josh Sargent, Sebastian Soto, Mathew Hoppe, success in the DA translated to immediate success in the U19 Bundesliga. In other words, if they were among the top scorers in the DA, they were then among the top scorers in the U19 Bund. This is a big change from the past when guys like Bobby Warshaw realized, at 23, he didn’t even understand the angles involved in defending until he went to Scandinavia. Americans that went to Europe needed a long period of learning the basics, stuff non-American kids learned at 12-14, if not earlier.
More evidence for the increased talent of the country’s teenage players is the success in CONCACAF and FIFA tournaments in the recent past. If the DA started in 2007, a 12 year old then would have turned 19 in 2014; completing the first wave of 12-19 developed players (this is a bit simplified as most teams didn’t have U13 teams and the DA was in its infancy). Is it a coincidence that from 2015-2019 the USA made the Quarterfinals of every FIFA U20 World Cup? In the two U20 World Cups before that, the USA finished last in its group in 2013 and didn’t qualify in 2011.
That the talent was translatable is a significant factor in the interest from German, especially, teams in young Americans. A German team scout could scout a DA game and be comfortable with the idea that the performance of a player in that game would be similar to what he would do for that club’s youth, reserve, or first team. This makes scouting much easier and cost effective. Easier and cost effective things are done more and are especially enjoyed by Germans.
The same was true of MLS scouts. MLS has only recently realized the revenue stream they have been sitting on. The revenue stream being youth talent they can sell or simply collect training compensation on. MLS scouts could pluck the best players from other DA teams then sell them or put them in their pro teams. An example is Chris Richards who played for a DA team in Alabama, then moved to one in Texas until he moved to the FC Dallas Academy team at 17. He had a cup of coffee there and then was sold to Bayern Munich, a little over a year later, for $1.5 million.
“Sadly I did hear [the DA closed]. It was a great avenue for me and a lot of my teammates. Even players coming up after me.
…It wasn’t perfect, but it was a good avenue for youth soccer.”
— Chris RichardsChris Richards: https://chasingacup.com/chris-richards/
This is probably the best we can hope for from the MLS-DA. That MLS sees the tremendous money possible from developing players. USSF was never going to be able to collect money from the players they were sinking so much money into. It was just an expense to them. But for MLS it could be an investment. MLS teams will develop the players to play on their MLS-DA teams or to collect compensation when they try their luck in Europe. In that sense, keeping it all working is probably best as the country is too big for the MLS teams to only have other MLS-DA teams to play. MLS will probably try and limit the ability of players to sign for non-MLS pro teams like USL and European teams. It is something to be watched for.