How the changing youth soccer landscape is affecting DMV youth soccer

A lot has changed since our last post in early 2020. To bring you up to speed on the constantly “evolving” youth soccer landscape, the US Soccer Development Academy was officially disbanded in April 2020. The reason that was given was Covid-19 and the complications that come with operating a youth soccer league during a pandemic, but anyone who has followed USSF over the years have heard plenty of rumors that this was a long time coming.

In its place, MLS launched an “MLS Next” youth league, but good luck finding any recent standings or results. One of the beneficial resources of the USSDA were the up-to-date results and player stats that college coaches could access on the USSDA website when scouting players. Most of the teams included in the new MLS Next league also weren’t necessarily past Development Academy teams. Instead, most local clubs have made the transition to ECNL, with the exception of DC United, Baltimore Armour, and Bethesda.

Instead of USYS and USSDA battling for youth soccer “supremacy”, now USYS will be basically split in half…those who participate in ECNL, and those who participate in EDP, National league, and other USYS leagues…all while trying to keep kids from switching to local MLS youth sides.

If you’re having a hard time following along with all of the acronyms, trust me, you’re not alone. I was an assistant coach for 3 seasons in USSDA, and am in middle of third season as an assistant coach in USYS, and I still feel like I have basically no idea what I’m talking about.

Here in the DMV, to make things even more complicated, the area’s only MLS side, DC United, are in the process of relocating youth teams and operations to Loudoun County. So for kids in Southern Maryland, PG County, Anne Arundel County, Montgomery County, and basically all of Maryland outside of Baltimore, your options are basically to catch on with a local ECNL side like Maryland United, or make the drive all the way to Bethesda or Baltimore in a search for higher-level competition. Not exactly ideal, in an area like the DMV which traditionally possesses a fair amount of talent. In Virginia, past development clubs like VDA, Arlington, Loudoun, and others were converted to ECNL sides, while Alexandria and Springfield were added to the new MLS Next league, along with a few less traditional DC sides like Achilles FC.

Still following along?

Here in Baltimore, if there’s one thing you’re not short on, it’s options. Baltimore Armour, who were previously made up of SAC, Pipeline, Bays Academy, and one other club during time of their merger, are basically now SAC but are called Baltimore Armour. Their program trains out of Columbia and are made up primarily of past SAC club staff and coaches, with a few exceptions. Pipeline is now an ECNL club for boys and girls, competing with Baltimore Celtic Union. Basically, Celtic’s long time face of the club, Brandon Quaranta, head coach of Mcdonogh HSleft the club for Pipeline, Celtic’s local rival club. Celtic is now collaborative partners with Baltimore Union in ECNL efforts, who up until a couple of seasons ago were Perry Hall White Marsh Soccer Club, to form Baltimore Celtic Union as both BCU and Pipeline attempt to secure local college and high school facilities to access some of the more skilled players in the area.

Just a few seasons ago, parents were told that their kids shouldn’t play high school soccer because “serious” competitive soccer players need to focus on playing in the US Soccer Development Academy. 4 sessions a night were required, along with A License coaches and top notch facilities. Then the number of weekly training sessions were scaled back, weekly scouting by US Soccer started to fade away, and other expenses were cut all while parents basically paid thousands per season hoping their kids would get a college scholarship. Did 4 sessions a week help? Absolutely, there is no question. Did US Soccer coming out to help scout players during matches and sessions help to hold coaches and clubs more accountable? Absolutely. But USSDA was expensive, and basically drew a huge line down the middle of US Youth Soccer with local High School coaches, the same coaches traditionally involved in USYS, on the outside looking in.

Fast forward to 2021 and enter the era of club rebrands, more USYS league competitions, and MLS doing everything they can to cash in on the next Pulisic, including starting their own youth league so they can rake in training compensation and solidarity payments when MLS Next league players are sold to European leagues later down the line.

As a result of all of this, the product on the field, and the overall understanding and trust in the landscape of US youth soccer, has taken a hit. Covid has affected participation, coaches have moved around clubs like musical chairs, and clubs who were basically forced to pay for the expensive privilege of having the ‘Proud member of the US Soccer Development Academy” logo on their websites are now navigating the brand new and evolving landscape of ECNL, the next “great youth soccer league”.

This isn’t meant to take shots at any particular league or club. Instead, to try to describe what local youth players and coaches are attempting to navigate. High school seniors this season already missed out on their state cups and regionals last season due to Covid, as well as multiple opportunities to be scouted during the extended recruiting dead period. Instead of a consistent environment for players to develop in following the initial wave of Covid, coaches and players are left trying to keep those who run youth soccer leagues happy by participating in their college showcases and regional events, smiling for the multiple camera phones constantly taking their pictures and videos in an ongoing marketing attempt to prove that they’re the best option.

So here in the DMV, we have 1 MLS team for the entire area. That MLS club is moving to Northern VA, while the rest of us are left battling it out in USYS leagues like ECNL, EDP, National League, NCSL, there are other acronyms out there for youth regional leagues but you get the point. Instead of US Soccer stepping in and recognizing the amount of talent the DMV has, the number of traditional youth clubs, and helping to identify more players who could be eligible to develop, they’ll take their usual hands off approach and let the leagues call the shots. Local coaches and club admins will continue to battle for superiority to try to access the best players for their clubs and, usually at the same time, the high school programs that they coach. Money and politics, would it really be youth soccer without it?