MLS NEXT launches bold new era in North American player development | Charles Boehm

“You are the future. I know you've got what it takes.”

Alphonso Davies’ words of encouragement rang out to an online audience of thousands of youth players and coaches on Monday afternoon as a live YouTube stream previewed the name, start date and other details of Major League Soccer’s new youth league, MLS NEXT, which kicks off this weekend in areas where local authorities have approved match play.

From refugee kid to Vancouver Whitecaps teenage Homegrown to MLS-record outbound transfer and now a freshly-crowned European champion with Bayern Munich, Davies’ story has captured imaginations around the world, and given a tantalizing glimpse of what’s possible for North American talent.

Now MLS aims to shift the player-development apparatus that helped power his rise – and similarly, the likes of Tyler Adams, Jordan Morris and Jesus Ferreira, all of whom also appeared on Monday’s stream – into a higher gear with a league of its own, comprised of 113 clubs fielding almost 500 teams with more than 9,000 players from the Under-13 through Under-19 age groups.

Even if Davies’ cameo was briefer than U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the Moon” speech in Houston in 1962, the moment that sparked the Space Race, it carried with it a similar vibe: The launch of a bold new era, in pursuit of lofty goals.

“MLS has been involved in player development since our founding 25 years ago, but recently, we've made it one of the biggest priorities that we have, day in and day out,” commissioner Don Garber explained on the stream. “We recognize that the future of the sport of soccer in our country and really, the future strength of our league really depends on the improved and growing quality of our future players, as well as our future coaches.”

Star MLS academy graduates challenge the next generation

MLS NEXT’s creation was the product of a crisis: The sudden collapse in April of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, the league that most of the top academies in the US and Canada called home for the past 13 years. And launching a new project like this in the midst of a global viral pandemic is far from ideal, posing a range of challenges – not least of which the basic logistics of competition format and scheduling, which remain a work in progress due to the patchwork quilt of restrictions on organized activities across the two nations due to COVID-19.

But MLS NEXT aspires to be a far more comprehensive and ambitious platform than its predecessor, building off the DA’s legacy and taking lessons from the experiences of its membership, not only within MLS but among the “elite academies,” the clubs outside MLS who have been invited to be partners in this new endeavor.

“You’ve got to give MLS leadership and support credit; they jumped in at a time where we didn't know what was going on,” said Mickey Kydes, technical director at Connecticut’s Beachside SC. “There wasn’t a lot of time and then on top of it, you have this COVID pandemic, so it's been kind of rough.

“But the collaboration and cooperation that has happened with MLS’s leadership, and them reaching out to the people who are actually on the ground and working together to put something together, is incredible. And then we get on calls all the time and we share ideas. And when you have so many people with so many experiences on both sides, both at the pro level and the amateur level, everything that's happening is amazing … We're not going to create this world-class platform in two months. But it's looking good and it's very different.”

The importance of offering member clubs a modicum of stability in turbulent times means that many aspects of the DA will continue in season one of MLS NEXT. For many of those involved in the shaping of the new league, however, a marked departure from the past is already apparent in both style and substance. 

“If anyone's going to be able to do something, whether it's yes or no,” said Kydes, “it’s MLS, with their resources and their access and network. We're able to get things done a lot quicker than if it was, say, on our own or even with U.S. Soccer or another league.

“It goes back to talking. In the DA, no one ever asked us our opinion.”

MLS has set up a governance structure for the league, with working groups and committees tackling a variety of issues great and small, emphasizing proactive communication and a problem-solving mentality. While the shutdowns imposed by the coronavirus have necessitated something of a soft open to the competitive slate this fall, in the bigger picture they seem to have inspired a spirit of cooperation and evolution.

“When the soccer gets taken away, all of a sudden there's an opportunity now to come together and say, ‘OK, wait a second, guys. What is it we now need to do together as a collective group that could be good for soccer?’ Because right now, our clubs aren’t operating, the industry’s shut down,” said David Richardson, academy director at Chicago youth power Sockers FC, who have produced a litany of future pros like Michael Bradley, Mike Magee and Chris Mueller over the years.

“Let’s stick together, let's organize ourselves, let’s think about what we need to do when this game gets restarted – and it can't get restarted in the same way that it finished," he added. "So we've got to now get our heads up, not look at our own seat, and start thinking what's going to be best for soccer long-term in this country, and how elite academies can help bring our intellectual resources, our experiences in the game and use that alongside MLS now to help develop this.”

Much work remains to be done on many fronts; the unconventional circumstances of MLS NEXT's birth hark back to the old saying about jumping out of an airplane and building a parachute on the way down. There’s nonetheless real hope that the upheavals of 2020 can lead to more efficient and equitable mechanisms for identifying and grooming talent in the long run.

“There’s a plan, they organize the communications and even if they don’t know, at least they’re communicating that they don’t know,” said Omar Cervantes, technical director at pioneering Northern California youth club Sheriffs FC. “So you feel like you’re in the loop and you’re aware.”

Gregg Berhalter on why he's excited by MLS NEXT

Another example: MLS’s busy schedule since the resumption of play at the MLS is Back Tournament has opened up opportunities for young players like Ayo Akinola, Eryk Williamson and Gianluca Busio to earn serious minutes and make significant contributions across the league this summer. That’s provided further proof of concept for the academies, and a hint of what the future might hold.

“All those kids went through our youth system,” noted MLS Technical Director of Youth Development Fred Lipka, describing the “symbiotic process” guiding MLS NEXT's design in a conversation with MLSsoccer.com on Monday. “And we have to improve it. So imagine the potential.

“We need to provide to the domestic player an ongoing player platform to play in, but also to try to have the ecosystem with us to build this aspirational pathway,” Lipka added, “which I would say existed, but we wanted to improve, and maybe to be clearer. The pro pathway, the elite pathway needed to be clearer to send, and to offer to the kids which dream about professionalism – to know where they are to play, and also to offer the best avenue for the kids who want to achieve.”

If any of those watching on Monday had any lingering doubts, they could chew on the words of another notable guest: US men’s national team head coach Gregg Berhalter.

“This is a real opportunity. You're not far away,” said the former Columbus Crew SC boss. “Think about all the young players that are involved in our national team – Tyler Adams, Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Zack Steffen. All of them have come from similar programs. So you're not far away. Keep working hard and hopefully we're going to be watching you, and hopefully one day we'll be working with you.”

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