With the startling demise of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, MLS’s youth movement might be headed south.
The topic of increased international play for academy teams came up repeatedly in MLSsoccer.com’s conversations about the DA this week with technical directors and other officials across MLS, and the closest and most alluring option is Mexico’s productive youth system.
“We've got to play more with the Liga MX teams. I just believe that,” FC Dallas president Dan Hunt told reporters on Thursday. “You look at the success of the youth Mexican national teams, and what those clubs can do, I think we've got to build a much more meaningful format with them.”
El Tri’s junior sides have long turned heads around the world. They’ve won two FIFA U-17 World Cup titles and finished runners-up in two more, won gold at the 2012 Summer Olympics and groomed future stars like Carlos Vela, Giovani dos Santos, Raul Jimenez and Chucky Lozano.
At the club level, the top squads at Liga MX academies play a league schedule that mirrors the first team’s and typically travel alongside their senior counterparts and role models, elevating the stakes and professionalism.
“It was up to the clubs at some point also to step up on scouting, step up on quality coaching, step up on facilities – every single detail to [help] your U-20s and your U-17s – and even later we added regional divisions with U-15s and U-13s,” explained LA Galaxy general manager Dennis te Kloese, a respected name in Mexico thanks to productive stints with the Mexican federation, Tigres and Chivas Guadalajara.
“It made it very important for each and every club to step up to the occasion and don't come up with publicly-noted results that were negative. If, for example, Tigres plays Monterrey, it's pretty big news for a U-20 and a U-17 at that point already. And it creates, I think, good experiences for players.”
Meanwhile, a paucity of consistently competitive league matches was the most commonly-heard lament about the Development Academy among MLS circles for years. The league’s most ambitious academies sound eager to seek new solutions both at home and abroad, and MLS taking responsibility for the DA’s successor could make space for them.
North America’s sprawling dimensions often make a trip to Monterrey, Guadalajara or Mexico City of comparable scale to many visits to domestic markets, and a bigger bang for the buck in developmental terms. Hefty travel bills were already a concern for all DA clubs and value is expected to loom even larger in the caution and austerity of the post-COVID-19 world.
“You compare to an international trip where you can play a higher level of competition in the same amount of time or a little bit longer time, with different aspects to develop your players, and that comparison is obviously being made at the moment,” said te Kloese.
“Where are you going to put your dollars? And where are you going to put your money currently when it's a little bit more scarce? And then you have to look at little details to make a decision,” he added. “I'd probably rather look at the international competition and do a trip to Mexico City, where I can play America, Pumas, Cruz Azul in no time, and it's half of the cost.”
Stateside tournaments like Generation adidas Cup, Dallas Cup and the Nexen Manchester City Cup have given MLS kids a taste of this different flavor, and their coaches want to feed them more of it. Te Kloese and his staff aim to schedule a minimum of six to eight games abroad per season, and as many as a dozen, for their top academy squads.
It’s not just about the high level of opposition, but the overall experience it can offer aspiring teenage professionals unlikely to encounter too many unfamiliar or imposing environments in what some lamented was often a “sterile” DA experience.
“We need to improve, to increase the level of intensity, the level of play,” said Fred Lipka, MLS’s Technical Director of Youth Development. Hunt spoke of the intensity that greets FCD teams on trips abroad, where savagely competitive export markets stoke a fierce hunger to succeed in young prospects.
“The difficult environments are what’s going to help grow young players,” said Hunt. “Hostile environments where fans are in their face, the language barrier is a challenge, hours are different, sometimes you’re not staying at a great hotel or you're playing on a crummy field.”
Those atmospheres are generally more likely to be inspired by competitive matches rather than just exhibitions. A youth edition of Concacaf Champions League might be the ideal, though the confederation’s only comparable event to date is a week-long annual invitational for Under-13 boys teams from across the region that debuted in 2015 and, as far as we know, there are no new plans afoot.
Could more formalized modes of cross-border academy competition take shape? For now, file it alongside the recurring conversations about an MLS-Liga MX merger: An alluring idea with a distinctly hazy arrival time.