TAMPA, Fla. – In the past, youth soccer in the United States has for the most part been segmented by age group, keeping players alongside their peers as they make their bid to join the professional ranks.
While there have been exceptions where players have competed in higher age groups, that hasn’t been the norm for the vast majority of players striving to take their games to the next level.
With the introduction of the new USL Academy League, scheduled for kickoff in Spring 2021, a new model has arrived.
“We focused on a select U-15 to U-19 team with the idea that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough,” USL President Jake Edwards told ESPN’s Taylor Twellman in the latest edition of Banter on Wednesday. “We want to connect the pro teams in our market with all the youth teams in our market and work collaboratively together to give those top players a platform to showcase themselves.”
The next stage in the USL Academy initiative was unveiled during Banter, marking the next step in what the USL believes will provide a broader collaborative opportunity for professional clubs in the USL Championship and League One, pre-professional clubs in USL League Two and youth soccer organizations to come together and provide a pathway to the top of the game.
The model has a clear admirer in Birmingham Legion FC President Jay Heaps, who as a former player and coach believes this new concept will allow teams the chance to cast a wider net when it comes to scouting while also allowing players to progress at the right pace for them.
“We’ve talked a lot about how to produce the next soccer star and I think in doing so you have to be collaborative, work with the clubs that are already there and make sure you’re nurturing these soccer players as they go through,” Heaps told Twellman. “You and I, Taylor, we played other sports, you had a full scholarship to another school. Making an athlete choose before they’re ready to choose can be detrimental at times. Our idea is to nurture, create an environment where they are being developed, but now we can go in and augment that.”
The inaugural USL Academy League season is slated to kick off next March, where it will play a mostly regionalized schedule alongside the U.S. professional calendar before the Academy Playoffs in November. Edwards believes the importance of providing that next step in competing alongside current professionals and top collegiate talent at the Championship, League One and League Two levels is essential.
With the current reach of 129 teams across the three senior divisions – and the likelihood of further expansion in both the Championship and League One to follow – the USL Academy League’s aim is to allow more top players to be identified and offered the chance to maximize their ability.
“The pro teams have a responsibility to play in this space, identifying talent, providing a pathway forward and getting to the top level,” said Edwards. “The USL has 129 clubs between the Championship, League One and League Two and we’ve tried to identify a platform where we can have a youth infrastructure affiliated with each one of those clubs.
“As you know, we’ve not really had a great scouting system in this country, so we’re losing a lot of talent, and I think the next Christian Pulisic may well be coming out of a USL Academy or be in one of the USL markets. [To identify him], we need that infrastructure in place.”