Local clubs playing key role in development effort
As shocking as it was at the time, U.S. Soccer's decision last month to shut down its development academy might have a happy ending.
"In the initial stages in that first week there was a sense of panic," said David Richardson, technical director of Palatine-based Sockers FC. "There was a sense of frustration. There was a sense of anger."
Frustration and anger soon were replaced with action. And then the development academy was replaced too.
The U.S. Soccer decision gave Major League Soccer team academies and other club academies around the country the chance to start over.
The result was MLS and some of the nation's elite soccer clubs last week announced they are forming the MLS Elite Player Development Platform to take the place of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Palatine-based Sockers FC and Glenview-based Chicago FC United are taking a leadership role with the new organization.
The Chicago Fire Academy also is involved as an MLS academy.
Nationally, 95 clubs and more than 8,000 soccer players are involved.
"If we really want to do something that's going to make a difference in this country, then we have to take the responsibility to lead within our local communities, to work together, to put all of our 13 years of grievances and differences aside," Richardson said.
Steve Morris, Chicago FC United academy director, sees the new platform improving on the old one.
"The one thing that it probably lacked was that collaborative nature, where you had a seat at the table and a voice, and I think that's been remedied very quickly with the collaboration between first the elite academies across the country and then obviously integrated with the MLS academies," Morris said. "And then collectively the collaboration with MLS itself. "
MLS and the former development academy clubs took advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown to get on Zoom and figure out an answer to the lack of a development academy.
"There's nothing we can do in training, playing games, but we can plan, organize and lead," Richardson said.
Both Morris and Richardson praised MLS owners for taking responsibility and making a long-term investment in American soccer. It's an attempt to develop the sport, create more fans and be more involved in soccer as a whole, they said.
"They had an opportunity to become synonymous with soccer in this country and not just looked at as the pro league. And I think now they have a real opportunity to impact the game all the way down to grassroots," Morris said.
There remains a lot of details to be worked out, including a rebranding, Morris added.
"We're a month removed, five weeks removed, from U.S. Soccer dropping a bombshell on people," he said. "The fact that we're this far along says a lot about the leadership of the MLS, the MLS academies and the (elite youth) academies and what was able to get done."
The American youth soccer landscape is still fractured, but now it is a little more cohesive. Many clubs remain in the Elite Clubs National League, including Oak Brook-based Eclipse Select SC. The ECNL formed in 2009.
United Soccer League recently announced plans to begin its own academy league in March 2021.
Nevertheless both Richardson and Morris see this as a step toward improving American soccer player development.
"I think we're all very optimistic about where this is going," Morris said.