MLS unveils player development initiative, including franchise academies and 65 other youth organizations

Major League Soccer unveiled plans for its elite player development program, less than a month after U.S. Soccer shuttered its Development Academy. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Less than a month after the United States Soccer Federation permanently shut down its 13-year-old development academy, Major League Soccer announced Wednesday that 95 of the 133 boys teams that participated in the defunct U.S. Soccer program would join its own new youth development initiative.

In addition to 30 academies funded by MLS clubs — 26 existing teams plus the four that will join the league over the next few years — 65 other youth organizations will join MLS’ as-yet unnamed platform for elite player development.

It was always inevitable that MLS would eventually take over the process of producing future pros. Still, getting more than half of the former USSF development academy clubs that weren’t affiliated with MLS on board so quickly is no small feat for the league.

While MLS extended invitations to all of the youth clubs that competed under the U.S. Soccer umbrella, many independent organizations were understandably wary of the league’s long-term commitment to clubs they didn’t control. It didn’t help that U.S. Soccer’s sometimes heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all approach to a sprawling and diverse program led to resentment among certain constituents. Assuaging those fears quickly was key.

“It became very clear to everybody that if what we really wanted to do was to take all of the good things that were part of the [U.S. Soccer development academy] and take it to the next level, that it was going to require a lot of continued discussion and engagement,” Todd Durbin, MLS’s executive vice president of competition and player relations, told Yahoo Sports Wednesday afternoon.

“As that process unfolded, what you saw was a view that we are very aligned philosophically and with our passion and commitment. We didn’t see anything that was unworkable. ... Getting together and talking though it, the spirit of cooperation between the MLS academies and the non-MLS academies was unbelievable.”

The 38 ex-development academy clubs that didn’t join the new initiative did so at their own discretion. Some have already migrated to the Elite Club National League, which has its own proven track record for development. Many of the top girls teams in the U.S. either already played in the ECNL or moved to it when the USSF’s program folded. In its press release, MLS said that additional clubs could apply to to join its ranks the weeks to come. 

“Our position was if you were in the DA in the past, there was an open invitation,” Durbin said. “If you had already made a commitment, we were not going to step in the middle of that.”

MLS’s development scheme is expected to include up to 8,000 players throughout the U.S. and Canada from the under-17 level down to the U-13s. One of the most vocal criticisms of U.S. Soccer’s program in recent years was that it forbade top teenage players — the overwhelming majority of whom would not go on to become professional soccer players — from representing their high school squads. Durbin left open the possibility MLS could go the other direction.

“That’s a perfect example of an issue where we’re going to take a step back and talk about it and see if it makes sense,” he said.

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