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MLS Unveils A New Elite Youth Development League

The Post Development Academy World: Part 2

Atlanta United Academy
Atlanta United FC

On the heels of the United Soccer League’s ambitious launch of its Academy League, MLS launched the future of youth development for its members and an additional 30 elite programs across the United States and Canada. With the initial league numbering 95 programs, this aims to have a massive impact on player identification and development when placed alongside the USL Academy League and the Elite Clubs National League (the new home of several Atlanta-area academies). This is expected to grow since the league will begin accepting additional applications for membership in the coming weeks. MLS estimates the number of players included in this new program to be about 8,000 across the 95 clubs and projects that number to grow as the new development platform evolves.

“Major League Soccer’s inclusive approach to the greater soccer market is the most exciting aspect of this movement,” said Ryan Miller, Portland Timbers Academy Director. “This new competition will continue to provide a platform for the top player development clubs in the country to get the most meaningful games. Elite player development requires the highest level of competition and this platform will provide that.”

MLS Elite Youth Development Program Map

What is most encouraging about this new initiative is their stated priorities:

  • Player Identification
  • Coaching
  • Environment
  • Personal Growth
  • Community Outreach

“There is strong positive momentum and excitement among MLS club academies and elite academy clubs to co-create a platform that will deliver an unparalleled experience for the nation’s top players and clubs,” said Fred Lipka, VP and Technical Director of MLS Player Development. “The development of professional and elite players requires a comprehensive and integrated approach, beyond just the competition format, and we are having daily conversations with academy clubs across the country who are committed to building that environment with us.”

If you have read my previous article about Tony Annan’s new approach to youth development with Atlanta United, you would find a lot of these elements familiar. Academy directors are focusing on building the best athletes and young people that they can by focusing on the individuals rather than the wholistic team so that they can help each youngster reach his or her full potential.

The league is shifting to a year-round calendar with opportunities during that calendar for new player identification, coaching educational programs, and ancillary programming meant to build program culture and beneficial environments for youth development.

“The Sockers FC Chicago organization is excited about this great opportunity to collaborate with MLS, in the development of this new competition platform,” said David Richardson, Sockers FC Chicago Technical Director. “In our soccer communities we feel that our work as leaders of Elite Academies alongside the leaders of MLS Academies will help to shape a world-class soccer culture in our country. This will be a benefit to all that play, coach, referee, and support our game from the grassroots to the professional level.”

This writer, and fan of American soccer, feels encouraged by and in agreement with David Richardson in his emphasis on how beneficial this can be to the grassroots element of the game because that will directly impact our professional and international experience.

Due to how quickly this has come together, the MLS program does not yet have the branding or divisions delineated like their USL counterparts who got an 18-month head start. We will likely continue to compete with Florida-based clubs if the league is broken into divisions, but the league wants to elevate play and enhance opportunities for elite matches against domestic and international competition.

Joining Atlanta United as founding members of this new development league are fellow Georgian academies Lanier Soccer Academy and Southern Soccer Academy. Both clubs competed at the U-13 and U-14 age groups in the USSDA program before it folded and both have sent a handful of players to Atlanta United’s Academy. Back in mid-April, Doug Robeson reported that this club was still looking for a new home following the dissolution of the Development Academy, so it just goes to show how quickly things have moved for these clubs.

“I am very excited to be part of this new league and new efforts to develop players across the nation. MLS is a young league that has taken giant steps to become a top league around the world. I am looking forward to helping develop the next top talent” – Jonathan Cueva, Executive Director of Lanier Soccer Academy

“Southern Soccer Academy is excited to be a founding member of the MLS elite youth development platform. This Platform will provide fantastic opportunities for our players, staff and community. The growth and development of our players is always at the heart of our mission statement and the new platform will give our players a professional pathway and an elite player pathway for our future college bound players. We are looking forward to exciting times ahead for United States youth development after the creation of this new competition.” - Southern Soccer Academy press release

The inclusion of these clubs in this new league fulfills the promise MLS’s Director of Youth Development, Fred Lipka, made to Charles Boehm on April 18.

“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].”

By emphasizing opportunity for players, coaches, officials, and parents, Lipka hoped to decrease uncertainty, stabilize youth development and hopefully decrease costs for families and clubs to operate. He also hopes to decrease travel for younger age groups and create more opportunity for local competition in the U-12 to U-14 levels.

Lipka envisions more MLS against MLS matches because that’s where he sees the investment in talent and development being highest right now but wants to see that level of player experience grow with rising standards across this new elite league.

What we can surmise from all of this is that our budding rivalries with Nashville SC, Charlotte, and Miami and our dislike for Orlando on and off of the field will begin at a much earlier age for our players as these four MLS programs will likely become our academy rivals as much as our regional MLS rivals. As Kings of the South, our young players will have to teach their competition early and often to respect the 5-Stripes.