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How A Landmark Partnership Between MLS And U.S. Youth Soccer Hopes To Fix Soccer In America

U.S. Youth Soccer’s landscape is changing. Here’s how it’s trying to fix pay to play.

The U.S. Soccer Federation shuttered its Development Academy in April, citing financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic as the excuse. This week, Major League Soccer has stepped in to fill the void left by the USSF by joining forces with US Youth Soccer.

MLS and US Youth Soccer announced a groundbreaking new partnership on Friday, one the two organizations hope will transform soccer in America for the better, for both boys and girls.

On Wednesday, MLS announced it had invited 65 U.S. Soccer Development Academy clubs to join MLS’s existing club academies to create a 95-club Elite Youth Development Platform focused on player identification, coaching, environment, personal growth and community outreach. The league expanded upon that commitment to youth soccer in America with Friday’s announcement.

US Youth Soccer is the largest youth sport organization in the country, with nearly three million players registered annually from ages 5 to 19 across 55 Member State Associations and 10,000 clubs. 

“This is not a short-term vision, but rather one in which we realize the opportunity to truly connect the whole system of soccer in our country,” said U.S. Youth Soccer CEO Skip Gilbert said in a news release. “For too long the professional and youth systems have been working relatively independent of each other and with this MLS partnership, we start down the path of true collaboration. This will not only expand resources to grow the game at the grassroots level, but also reveal to players and families that there is a clear pathway to any level of soccer they want to achieve.”

So how exactly will all this work? Can this fix the broken system of soccer in America?

The partnership will certainly try its best, and it’s pointed to several aspects of youth soccer in America that has needed attention for decades.

MLS and USYS identified a few key areas to focus on around the country, per a news release:

  • Improving U.S. domestic youth player identification and selection processes
  • Building a more integrated pathway to advanced opportunities for both boys and girls
  • Creating a more inclusive and accessible pathway for a more diverse player pool
  • Reducing pay-to-play barriers and other access challenges for elite players
  • Expanding MLS outreach and opportunities through an expansive network of coaches and scouts
  • Building multi-tiered relationships that strengthen the U.S. talent pool
  • Supporting the MLS nationwide through player, club, & fan engagement designed to drive growth, participation and generations of new fans

That fourth bullet point might be the most important of them all and the one that will stick out to most people. Pay to play has long been a major complaint about youth soccer in America, one even Zlatan Ibrahimovic was quick to pick up on during his short stay in the U.S. 

MLS and USYS will hope their combined resources can alleviate the pay-to-play model that is far too prevalent in this country. But note that even the USYS news release couldn’t even promise to eliminate pay to play, only reduce it for elite players. 

“Our goal is to ensure that every player throughout the country has the ability to reach his or her highest potential,” said Fred Lipka, MLS technical director of player development. “There are so many young soccer players in this country that do not have the ability to access elite travel soccer programs that offer greater opportunities for talent identification. We want to ensure that every player has a clear pathway to achieve their dream of playing at the collegiate or professional level, regardless of location or financial resources.”

Saying you want to eliminate pay to play and actually doing it are two completely different things. 

What does this mean exactly? According to a news release from MLS, the U.S. and Canadian top-flight soccer league will absorb “all expenses for players attending and participating in the regional competitions at select age levels.” 

Importantly, these regional competitions will include players not just from the biggest and wealthiest clubs but from high school programs and even local soccer leagues, ensuring no player is missed. 

For far too long youth soccer in this country has been focused on profit instead of developing players. With COVID-19 wreaking havoc on youth sports around the globe, one can only hope youth soccer in America begins trending in the right direction with MLS joining forces with US Youth Soccer.

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