Fred Lipka likes to talk about foundational pillars of youth development in regards to MLS NEXT, the league's first-year player development platform.
As MLS' Technical Director of Youth Development, it is his job, after all.
The most important pillar, Lipka is quick to point out, is competition. And the platform's most important competition is the MLS NEXT Cup Playoffs and Showcase, which begin this Friday in the Dallas area with 128 teams chasing inaugural MLS NEXT Cup titles in the U-15, U-16, U-17 and U-19 age groups.
“The quality is going to be good," Lipka told media on Thursday. "We have 4,000 players who are the best in the country. There are players who have signed MLS and USL contracts. Some may stay with their clubs, which proves the system works.”
Age-eligible players with MLS contracts – FC Cincinnati goalkeeper Beckham Sunderland, Colorado Rapids winger Darren Yapi and Sporting Kansas City forward Ozzie Cisneros among them – are expected to feature.
“I wish I had this opportunity, this platform to develop on and off the field," former MLS and US national team defender Greg Garza said. "With how they want to develop these kids, whether it’s college or having the opportunity to make it to the next level – I left home at 12 to follow that dream. Now I look at the opportunity these kids have and it’s amazing.”
Youth development is quite different in 2021 than it used to be around MLS. American and Canadian academies continue to produce not just professional-level players, but stars that reach the highest level.
“The biggest thing that’s changed is clubs within MLS have started to make larger and larger investments, in terms of time, technology and competition," said FC Dallas vice president of youth soccer Chris Hayden. "It’s led to an increased belief that these players are capable, given the right environment, to come into MLS at a very young age and gain experience.”
For one, Christian Pulisic spent the majority of his youth career at PA Classics before signing for Borussia Dortmund as a teenager. Weston McKennie, who was in the FC Dallas academy prior to signing with Schalke, is another American who helped create paths for young players to follow.
“There’s always a turning point," McKennie said. "Christian going over there and me going over there definitely helps break down barriers, but the people back here had to work hard and develop. It helps when you have success in Europe, it turns heads and defeats stigmas about American soccer players not being good enough. We definitely helped, but the clubs had to develop the players back here.”
McKennie now plays for Juventus, who won the Coppa Italia, and Pulisic is at Chelsea, who won the UEFA Champions League. Both were key players for their clubs during the 2020-21 season and, of course, are mainstays on the US men's national team.
“We made a big investment and commitment to develop the future of soccer in the US with our MLS clubs," Lipka said. "This project shows we’re committed. The recent success of the national team shows this pays off.”
It's an exciting time for youth development around MLS; teenagers are graduating from the academy ranks to MLS in greater numbers. Increasingly, more domestic players are also being scouted and transferred for big-money moves abroad.
“The potential of the country is unlimited in terms of quality," Lipka said. "We’re only at the starting point of the story.”