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MLS’s new partnership with US Youth Soccer is a step forward in American youth development

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A new youth setup in America will, hopefully, tie top talent with the best available coaching and competition.

MLS

MLS did not waste any time following the launch of their new Elite Youth Platform in announcing their new partnership with the largest youth sports organization in the country, US Youth Soccer, opening their scouting network to 3 million boys and girls.

This news comes in the midst of a dramatic restructuring of the American and Canadian Youth Soccer landscapes with MLS and USL launching new development infrastructure aimed at identifying talent in an ever-expanding scouting dragnet into the previous blindspots across our two vast countries.

“Ultimately the entire spirit of this conversation that we’ve been having with them,” explained Gordon Bengtson, MLS’s Senior Director of Player Development, “is collaborating on finding solutions to some of the systemic issues our domestic player pool faces today.”

MLS and USYS hope this new partnership will:

  • enhance player identification efforts and growth monitoring
  • Building a more integrated pathway to advanced opportunities for both boys and girls
  • Creating a more inclusive and accessible pathway for a more diverse player pool
  • Reducing pay-to-play barriers and other access challenges for elite players
  • coaching and scouting educational programs for parents, volunteers and coaches
  • boost the number and quality of regional competitions
  • increase community outreach promoting fan engagement

“We’re setting up these platforms and processes and pathways [that] should at least help to funnel and channel the talent to the right environment,” said Bengtson. “That’s what we’re focused on first and foremost: making sure that the individual player has the opportunity to access whatever level of the system that they are aiming to, so they can reach their full potential.”

The goal here is to increase visibility of more players for professional and academy scouts by eliminating the financial and location-based limitations that previously hindered efforts of players and teams from connecting. MLS plans to eliminate all expenses for players participating in regional competitions in select age groups.

“Our goal is to ensure that every player throughout the country has the ability to reach his or her highest potential,” said Fred Lipka, MLS technical director of player development. “There are so many young soccer players in this country that do not have the ability to access elite travel soccer programs that offer greater opportunities for talent identification. We want to ensure that every player has a clear pathway to achieve their dream of playing at the collegiate or professional level, regardless of location or financial resources.”

“We are very proud that USYS and its 55 member state associations have decided to make MLS their league of choice,” said Gordon Bengtson, MLS senior director of player development. “The state associations are crucial partners in creating more meaningful connections to the professional levels while supporting the overall growth of the game. This is particularly important in communities that have not historically had access to elite development environments or professional pathways. This is a first step towards our goal of making the size and diversity of our country, our biggest strength.”

While the development of MLS’s new Elite Development Platform may have been hurried in the wake of the USSDA’s dissolution, Charles Boehm reports that this arrangement with USYS is nearly a year in the making and is geared to create a greater alignment of ideas, objectives, and funding for first division teams and the national youth player pool. This current arrangement is slated to last at least through the 2026 season.

“This is not a short-term vision, but rather one in which we realize the opportunity to truly connect the whole system of soccer in our country,” said US Youth Soccer CEO Skip Gilbert in a statement. ”For too long the professional and youth systems have been working relatively independent of each other and with this MLS partnership, we start down the path of true collaboration. This will not only expand resources to grow the game at the grassroots level, but also reveal to players and families that there is a clear pathway to any level of soccer they want to achieve.

The size of this is truly impression. With over 3 million players from ages 5-19, over 10,000 clubs, and 300,000 coaches, this partnership intends to close as many gaps as feasibly possible but they realize that gaps will still exist. Some players may still go unnoticed, but they hope that number grows smaller and smaller so that young talent regardless of location and financial means can have a shot at being seen by a scout.

“The primary boxes we want to tick are helping further clarify the pro pathway for all youth players in the country, and really take the size and diversity and increase the sort of MLS collaboration and conversation at the local levels, particularly in areas where it’s not endemic – outside of our markets, working with those groups. Because we know it’s going to take all 55 state associations and more than our academies to really shift this, and realize the potential that this country has.”

MLS and USYS have yet to share the details of what those platforms will actually look like but the theoretical model they are pitching is very encouraging. At the very least, we know the goal is to rebuild the competition calendar, pyramid and competition pathways so that every player and club can be a part of a much larger interconnected network.

That network starts with regional competition platforms. To identify players, MLS plans to host regional competitions where top high school, club, and local soccer talent identified by local technical directors and leaders can compete on a larger stage. This stage will be where professional team scouts can see this elite crop of players compete with their peers.

As our country gears up for the 2026 World Cup, we are seeing major steps that are necessary for building a world soccer power and for establishing the kind of selling league that MLS sees as a sustainable business model going forward. By financially subsidizing and linking this entire network the MLS, the sticky issue of solidarity payments for young player sales becomes less of a potential source of conflict as more and more players will be ascending to the professional ranks.

We are on the doorstep of something special and the clubs with strong front office cultures and with robust scouting networks will greatly benefit from this future. I will reiterate from a previous article how this is why Frank DeBoer could be a great asset for Atlanta United beyond his work with the first team. The more integrated development structure developed by Tony Annan’s academy staff points towards an Ajax-like approach for Atlanta United — to be a development powerhouse refilling the ranks year after year with young sellable talent who will captivate and excite fans during their time with the club and, hopefully, on the world stage.