Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 20 No. 42
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

MLS steps up its game with youth academies

When Dan Hunt sees 22-year-old London Woodberry playing this season for FC Dallas, he starts to dream big. Woodberry, a midfielder from McKinney, Texas, started playing for the youth teams of the MLS club when he was 13.

“I look forward to the day when our roster is made up of at least 50 percent home-grown players,” said Hunt, vice president of FC Dallas’ parent company, the Hunt Sports Group. “It will be coming — and faster than you think.”

United Healthcare sponsors the New England Revolution’s youth academy.
Photo by: New England Revolution
Nurturing local talent has been a priority for MLS since 2006, when the league announced that clubs could retain the professional rights of players developed within their own youth academies. The “homegrown protected list” enables clubs to sign those players directly from their youth programs or after they end their college soccer careers. From that moment on, it benefited MLS franchises to run the best programs in their markets.

Over the last seven years, MLS has only increased its dedication to youth soccer. The league has mandated that, beginning this year, the soccer academies of all MLS franchises must have under-14, under-16 and under-18 teams competing in the U.S. Soccer development league.

MLS also has upgraded the quality of coaching at team academies. In a partnership announced in February, the French Football Federation provides MLS academy coaches with a 16-month course in which they can earn Elite Formation Coaching Licenses.

“For years in the U.S., the sport had been mostly recreational,” said Alfonso Mondelo, director of player programs for MLS. “The goal was for kids here to make it to college and that was it. As our clubs become more sophisticated about the process of taking players as young as 8 or 9 years old and showing them the technical and psychological aspects of the game, there’s no ceiling to how good these players can be.”

Youth typically are invited to the academies through open tryouts. In some cases with older youth, players are scouted and invited to join. The MLS club typically covers a large portion of the cost to participate.

Chris Hayden, vice president of FC Dallas Youth, estimates that the MLS club invests $14,000 per player each year for teenagers on its academy clubs. FC Dallas also has teams as young as under-7, with more than 5,000 players in club programs.

“When we started seven years ago, there weren’t any examples of players that we could cite to kids as role models,”

FC Dallas signed London Woodberry from its academy program.
Photo by: Getty Images
Hayden said. “Now we have London Woodberry and plenty of players coming through our ranks, so we can say, ‘Look, they did it. You can make FC Dallas, too.’”

The New England Revolution has seen a pair of players, Diego Fagundez and Scott Caldwell, graduate to the MLS club after playing in its youth academies. The Revolution run the only fully funded youth soccer program in New England and pay for all player expenses, uniforms and travel costs for its under-14, under-16 and under-18 academy teams. The academy is sponsored by U.S. Healthcare.

“We want to lead MLS in minutes played by our own academy players,” said Revolution President Brian Bilello. “There’s always a bit more affection for a player on your roster who’s a hometown guy. Players growing up in New England, they don’t want to move across the country and play for L.A. and the Portland Timbers. They want to play for the Revolution.”

The Los Angeles Galaxy has four players from its academy on its roster this season: Jack McBean, Oscar Sorto, Jose Villarreal and Gyasi Zardes. Villarreal and Sorto are on the U.S. roster for this year’s FIFA Under-20 World Cup. In April, seven Galaxy academy players signed letters of intent to play for Division I soccer programs. There are currently 140 in the Galaxy’s academy and another 1,400 players in its affiliated youth soccer programs.

“If you look at Barcelona and the rest of the world’s biggest and most successful clubs, they all have their own academies, invest in them heavily and keep most of the top players in their system,” said Galaxy President Chris Klein, a former MLS player. “The area our league was most behind in was player development, but now we’re catching up. In L.A., we have access to an incredible amount of local talent. The potential is unlimited. If we continue to do this right, I believe we can be one of the global leaders in player development.”

An added benefit of MLS’s blossoming youth soccer initiative is that it not only develops players, but future ticket buyers.

“When kids wear a certain uniform and dream about playing for the first team, even if they don’t make it, the connection will remain,” Mondelo said. “Maybe their friend makes the MLS team. When they grow up, they can proudly say, ‘Hey, I played against that guy,’ or ‘I was once a part of that team.’ With the academy programs, you definitely win fans for life.”