While there has been speculation for some time now that Major League Soccer would break away from the U.S. Development Academy and form their own academy league, the news last week that U.S. Soccer was shutting down both its boys and girls academy programs still came as a shock to many.
Not because MLS announced it would be filling the void of the DA closing by expanding its footprint in the youth landscape from the Generation adidas to a full league and additional competition structure but because of how quickly the decision came down and how little time it’s given clubs to forge a new path.
What we know a week after this news dropped is that the Philadelphia Union Academy teams will be part of this new league run by MLS and that the other boys programs from the area that were in the DA — like FC Delco, PA Classics, Players Development Academy and others — are at least in discussions for this new league.
“I don’t exactly know what it will look like but I do know that (the other teams in our region) will be in the discussions,” Union Academy Director Tommy Wilson said. “We have to decide what age groups we want to have, do we go local, where do we go regional, do we want to go national, when do we include international. We have to decide when the season is, how long it runs, how far down the age groups we go. We have a lot of decisions to make.”
FC Delco general manager Rob Elliott described last week’s announcement as a “curveball,” especially as clubs have been dealing with how to handle the shutdown from the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m not sure anyone really expected that,” Elliott said. “To be honest, I’m not sure anyone knows exactly what’s next. I think everyone is still in that process of figuring this out.”
FC Delco was part of the DA on the boys side from the beginning when it was formed by U.S. Soccer in 2007 as a platform to develop elite soccer players for the national team. They were joined locally by the Union for the 2013-14 season and have a close relationship.
The Girls Academy formed in 2017 and welcomed Penn Fusion Academy and PA Classics as two of its inaugural clubs. SJEB Rush in South Jersey joined the academy last year.
“No one had any idea it would come down as quickly as it did and there was no communication from U.S. Soccer,” said Tino Mueller, Penn Fusion Girls Academy technical director. “To make a decision like this at this time, that’s very difficult for clubs to manage. Usually clubs and leagues make decisions about next year around December/January.”
Mueller said it’s not clear yet what will happen with the club’s teams that were competing in the DA.
“Right now we’re focused on the future making sure we can provide the best possible environment for girls and boys,” Mueller said. “We can only control what we can control.”
In addition to the new league MLS is forming for boys, USL announced its plans for an academy structure last year and U.S. Youth Soccer has announced its intentions to “enhance” existing programming “to meet the needs of our partners.”
Clubs like Penn Fusion and FC Delco, which have a full offering of teams across the levels in addition to the boys teams that were in the DA, have been in communication with players and their families as they work through the details.
“Our job is to try to put them in the best platforms out there, that might be more than one, right?” Elliott said. “We’re still in that evaluation period but our goal is to have their kids be able to play in the most competitive platform that we can.”
For the Union, being involved in the structuring of a new league — as opposed to joining an already existing league as they did in 2013 — provides a unique opportunity Wilson is fully embracing.
“I’m so pleased that MLS wholeheartedly stepped in with the announcement of the new league,” Wilson said, noting that his counterparts around MLS have unanimously supported the effort. “We all have a chance to shape it and make it even better than it was in the past.”
In its announcement of the new league, MLS did leave the door open for girls programming in the future but for now the focus is on the boys side.
That’s left Penn Fusion, PA Classics and SJEB to seek out solutions for their teams and players that now don’t have a league to return to when soccer resumes.
“My hope is that there’s something good coming out of this, that the landscape is more united after we all come back, but it will take time to settle.” Mueller said. “We all need each other. We need the clubs around us to play, we have a responsibility for all ages and levels including grassroots and recreational programs. I believe we all have a job to do to make sure soccer in this country is moving forward.”