Doug Robeson of the AJC has done some digging at local clubs and has outlined a basic understanding of how Atlanta-area clubs will be moving forward in the wake of the dissolution of the DA. To learn more, click here.
To summarize, many of the big clubs are heading to the Elite Clubs National League, a nation-wide league of girls' and boys' youth teams covering U-18/19, U-16/17, U-15, and U-14. There will be a total of 5 Atlanta-area clubs competing in this league now in the Southeast Conference against teams in Alabama, Tennessee, and Florida. These teams are color coded light blue in the map below.
The situation continues to evolve and several clubs are still looking for a home. Once the MLS model becomes more clear, I'm sure we'll see some more movement from ECNL and other youth leagues as teams try to find a home that aligns with the goals and demographics of their players.
Development of future generations of MLS prospects will be put to the test with more international academies in the mix.
"We've got to play more with the Liga MX teams. I just believe that," FC Dallas president Dan Hunt told reporters on Thursday. "You look at the success of the youth Mexican national teams, and what those clubs can do, I think we've got to build a much more meaningful format with them."
Liga MX is our ultimate CONCACAF rival and seems to be the target of our push towards tougher and more competitive youth teams at the club and international level. They have produced the kinds of wunderkinds that European clubs salivate over and are willing to offer up exorbitant bids to acquire. Image having an American Carlos Vela, Chucky Lozano, or Raul Jiminez who can win games for an EPL side and bringing in millions of American advertising dollars in the process. The new MLS model of developing and selling talent to boost the overall level of play and the resources available to clubs can directly come from putting our kids to the fire early and often to see who can excel against the toughest squads out there and who can't.
At the club level, the top squads at Liga MX academies play a league schedule that mirrors the first team’s and typically travel alongside their senior counterparts and role models, elevating the stakes and professionalism.
"It was up to the clubs at some point also to step up on scouting, step up on quality coaching, step up on facilities – every single detail to [help] your U-20s and your U-17s – and even later we added regional divisions with U-15s and U-13s," explained LA Galaxy general manager Dennis te Kloese, a respected name in Mexico thanks to productive stints with the Mexican federation, Tigres and Chivas Guadalajara.
"It made it very important for each and every club to step up to the occasion and don't come up with publicly-noted results that were negative. If, for example, Tigres plays Monterrey, it's pretty big news for a U-20 and a U-17 at that point already. And it creates, I think, good experiences for players."
This is also an intriguing development. Let's imagine this like baseball. Imagine going to see the Braves on an evening road series and then being able to see Gwinnett or Mississippi with the stars of the future for free that morning. I can see diehards getting behind that and I can see that atmosphere and mindset creating a top to bottom next-man-up competitive mentality among the lads where they can almost taste the big stage that they are working and fighting for everyday. We already have some of that here in Atlanta with how the organization trains at our facilities with youth being on the field or on neighboring fields as the 2's or 1st teammers. Even seeing some promising academy players in the preseason is a step in this direction.
While the front office could not have predicted the pandemic and demise of the Development Academy system when they signed DeBoer, this is exactly what he was brought in to do. He is here to help Atlanta United build a top-to-bottom Ajax style organizational system that can compete on the biggest stage in every age group and the churns out talent for years to come.
UPDATE - April 19
According to a new article from Charles Boehm on MLS.com, the end of the DA was a complete shock to MLS and non-MLS clubs across the nation. He discusses what the future of youth development looks like with Fred Lipka, Technical Director of Youth Development for Major League Soccer.
"We weren’t prepared," admitted Fred Lipka, the league’s Technical Director of Youth Development, in a conversation with MLSsoccer.com on Friday.
Even with the details of the new league in flux, Lipka wants to emphasize one key pillar of his department’s approach: This is not an MLS-only affair.
"We are still in a thinking process about informing people the right way, and to make sure that everyone is aware about our [willingness] to commit ourselves, and also to make sure that all the MLS clubs and all the non-MLS clubs will have a platform to play in next year," he said.
"We have not invited one of them or some of them, we invited all of them," he said of MLS’s overtures to their fellow DA members. "The statement was clear. I understand all the questions about it, [but] we are going to give all the opportunities for all teams which were in the platform to stay in the platform. It's not time to exclude, it’s time to include, to think about the kids, about the players and to try to continue what I think the DA was intended [for]."
The DA was not perfect, but it filled a key space in the ongoing effort to elevate player development. With the past few days’ upheaval, Lipka said it’s important to minimize further disruptions.
"We could address some things, but I think because of the period of uncertainty, this platform will first look like what we had in the past," he explained. "So if there are changes, it will be minor changes and all the members are going to be secured. We’re confident that the kids are going to be able to find another competition to play in if they want to keep on the same path."
"To develop the players we need for our first teams, for the national teams, from some specific ages we need to improve, to increase the level of intensity," explained Lipka, "the level of play against international competition, against the best domestic players and domestic teams, and we always had this kind of need.
"So it was maybe a point of miscommunication, and sometimes a point of friction. But we never really wanted to quit the big league. It was more, OK, we are going to play more MLS against MLS, and we need that because we invest a lot of money, and there’s pressure on the CSOs [chief soccer officers], the pressure on the academy directors, the pressure from our owners."
Rising expenditures were a driving factor behind US Soccer’s decision to shutter the DA, and Lipka hopes to cut, or at least stabilize, the financial burdens on families and clubs alike.
"We hope less cost, because at this point I think we also have to have some ideas to try to relieve the pressures on parents," he said. "Travel is, to be sure, sometimes not needed at [age] 12, 13, 14 to drive six hours to play a game … It's up to us to address this issue."
As many of you may have seen, there has been a big shakeup in American soccer with US Soccer's decision to shut down the Development Academy. Since 2007 for boys, and 2017 for girls, the USSDA has been home to over 200 organizations across the country from U-13s to U-19s age groups. The reason for this abrupt conclusion was the financial losses expected by the US Soccer if they attempted to maintain this structure through the pandemic.
In related news, the cuts didn't stop there. Stars and Stripes FC are reporting that these financial concerns are also leading to the prolonged hiatus of many of the national youth programs for the men's and women's teams. Other federations are likely to follow suit, but this could easily impact player development, careers, and the status of dual nations on the international level.
Locally, it is another story.
In the wake of this sudden and shocking reveal, Major League Soccer has announced that it will be launching the DA's replacement in the form of a year-round platform for elite American girls' and boys' programs to compete domestically and against international academies.
MLS is also evaluating expanding participation to include clubs beyond the former U.S. Soccer Development Academy, in addition to future potential competition opportunities for girls.
"Major League Soccer is deeply committed to developing world-class players through an elite competitive pathway, from our academy teams through the professional game," said Todd Durbin, MLS EVP of Competition & Player Relations in a league statement. "As we look ahead to the 2026 FIFA MLS World Cup here in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, now more than ever it is incumbent on us to establish a competition that sets a new standard for elite youth play and allows athletes to achieve their full potential."
"We are seeing significant contribution to the quality of play in MLS from homegrown talent," said Jeff Agoos, MLS Senior VP of Competition, Operations, and Medical Administration. "As we currently have 2,500 elite players and 250 top youth coaches in our academies, MLS is uniquely positioned to provide a new and enhanced platform that will include high quality coaching, professionalized environments and enhanced player identification."
While this development is intriguing, it is vague on which non-MLS youth programs will be joining this new group and what may happen to players who live in regions that don't have an MLS team.
The inclusion of women's programs in this is significant. The NWSL has a smaller footprint than MLS and while the former developmental infrastructure used prior to 2017 still exists to some degree, it has been seriously disrupted. Two factors come to mind in this going forward. First, in late 2019, USL began discussions on the formation of their own academy development system which would in some cases include girls' programs. Around the same time, grassroots and internal momentum was growing at Atlanta United for a women's team in the not-too-distant future. This perfect storm, and the absorption of a local girls' academy similarly to how our academy came from Georgia United could be what we need to jumpstart a homegrown pipeline of our entire regional player pool.
To see how this may impact our region and our academy, let's take a look at what currently exists and which Developmental Academy teams live in our backyard.
Local US Soccer Developmental Academy Clubs
AFC Lightning of Peachtree City are already members of the Atlanta United Soccer Development Partners program which offers support for the clubs growing the sport. This community outreach program helps grow the game while also providing scouting opportunities for poaching talented youngsters. AFC Lightning offered U-13 and U-14 Boys' teams in the Development Academy which graduated players who went on to feature of Atlanta United's academy along with other larger area programs.
AFC Lightning will move to the National Premier League.
These are the big boys. Concorde Fire are the toughest local competition for our academy and most likely one of the non-MLS programs to get an invite into the new elite training platform. They offer teams from U-13 up to U-18/19 and often see players moving back and forth between their teams and ours, including the top U-18/19 player in the state other than our very own George Bello, Josiah Blanton.
Current and former graduates who have played for both teams include collegiate players: Machop Chol, Mike Ille, Bryce Washington, Clayton Dawes, Russell Shealy, John Michael Bandy, Dawson Gideon, and Alex Bahr. Current academy players with Concorde Fire roots include: Chase Oliver and Miguel Ramirez (U-18/19); Bryce Griffith, Brandon Manzanarez, Mateo Barnagna, Jose De Avila, Justin McLean, Matthew Taylor, and Evan Theriot (U-16/17); Luke Brennan, Anderson Cruz, and Blaine Smith (U-15); and Omar Balcazar (U-14).
Departed academy players who played for Concorde Fire include at least another couple of dozen players.
These teams will continue to share a close friendly rivalry into the future in recruiting even if they are unable to play league matches.
Concorde Fire also has a robust girls' program which will moving with the boys to the ECNL for next season.
The Lanier Soccer Association of Gainesville is similar to AFC Lightning in that they develop younger male players in the U-13 and U-14 age groups. Their players have had a much smaller footprint on the Atlanta United academy than some other local programs but 3 current players can trace their roots to this club.
Teams like this and AFC Lightning may see their best players poached earlier and more frequently by larger clubs possibly leading to a more formalized affiliate program for elite programs and smaller regional talent pools. This team is also part of the Atlanta United Soccer Development Partners program.
Doug Robeson reports that the Lanier Soccer Association has not yet been contacted by MLS about the new program and is still looking for a good fit for their club.
The North Atlanta Soccer Association of Marietta features boys' U-13 and U-14 teams but is not a part of the Atlanta United Soccer Development Partners program. They have had a small impact on the academy with at least four of their former players suiting up for AU Academy teams.
Top Hat is the Girls' program. They offer teams from U-14 to U-18/19 in Atlanta
and would be an ideal candidate to be the girls' Georgia United for our brand new women's program. They are one of two Development Academy programs in the state to offer girls' teams and consistently see graduates heading off to the college ranks.
This combined girls' and boys' organization will be playing in the ECNL next season.
This team is a feeder program for the wider Chelsea network in the US. They offer U-13 and U-14 programs for boys and have seen at least 7 former players suit up for Atlanta United's academy.
The UFA are the other academy to have girls' teams
and are the only program in the state to offer development teams for both boys and girls. They offer U-14 to U-18/9 for girls and U-13 to U-18/19 for boys. They have a great deal of talent and could potentially join Concorde Fire and Atlanta United as Georgia's 3 representatives in the new elite league.
Like Concorde Fire, this team has a close relationship with Atlanta United as an area rival which is constantly sending players back and forth between rosters. Over 20 current and former Atlanta United Academy players have also worn UFA's kit.
UFA are moving with Concorde Fire to the ECNL as they try to maintain local rivalries and viable competition for their players in this time of uncertainty.
While these clubs listed above represent the former Development Academy teams, there are dozens more in the region which have had players feature for Atlanta United. Some of these are associated with USL or independent pro teams but many are local academies that continue to identify and churn out talent. The Kalonji Soccer Academy is one of the many which has seen players feature for Atlanta United's academy and for pro clubs around the world.
What I hope comes from all of this is a greater formalized collaboration for development where MLS and USL teams build networks of academies and youth teams throughout their region which can help identify talent and create clear pathways to success for young athletes across our country. Identifying players early is key and giving them consistent and structured instruction with a path to professional soccer will create a golden age for the sport in our country.
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