The USL Academy League is the central piece of the United Soccer League’s player development model. It is a first of its kind, pre-professional league that aligns with the United States’ professional calendar, complements existing local youth organizations, and allows participants extensive access to the senior team. It provides new professional pathways for both new and previously overlooked communities across the country.
USL Academy League serves as a reserve team program for clubs with senior teams in the USL Championship, League One, and League Two, with one team formed from players U19 and below. Each team is formed using a set of roster restrictions that require a minimum number of U17 or younger players, limit the number of overage players, and encourage clubs to integrate top U15/U16 players when developmentally-appropriate.
The USL Academy League is set apart from youth leagues in the U.S. by its regionalized competition structure, its minimum standards emphasizing a holistic approach to youth development, and its synchronization with the American professional soccer calendar. The league limits travel demands and costs for its clubs, while high standards ensure that clubs collaborate with their local youth networks and engage in proven best practices in youth development. Playing a season format similar to that of professionals helps USL Academy players become accustomed to the rigors of the competition level they are seeking to join.
The USL Academy’s “One Team” component is also unique. Whereas the traditional club academy structure involves three separate teams at the U15, U17, and U19 levels, USL Academy programs feature just one team comprised of players from the U19 level or lower. There is a minimum number of U17 and younger players required to ensure relative balance across age groups. In this way, a club’s USL Academy team functions as its reserve team. Additionally, USL Academy teams may utilize up to five over-age players on gameday, allowing for full integration with collegiate-age and professional players.
Finally, the opportunity for players who impress in the USL Academy League to train and play with senior team professionals by signing USL Academy Contracts offers something that has been missing in American youth soccer. The League's role as a crucial stepping stone on the path from youth to professional soccer helps push top young players from USL markets around the country to gain high-level competitive experience, raising the overall level of the elite American player in the long-term.
USL Academy League teams field a single elite pre-professional team. Geared towards top local players within the U15 to U19 age range, the USL Academy model is unique in the player development landscape and is built with a direct connection to the club’s senior team. This model allows identification and integration of elite youth players into a pre-professional environment at a younger age, giving them exposure to a higher level of play than they would normally experience, and access to the resources and teaching of USL senior teams.
The USL Academy League is comprised exclusively of elite pre-professional teams from across the USL’s network of over 140 Championship, League One and League Two teams. USL have released a set of established developmental standards and expectations for interested applicants. A formal selection committee will make final decisions on entry into the league, based on the level of the current player pool, history of player development success, population density, strength of affiliate programs, and other key factors. In some select instances, youth affiliates of USL clubs may also apply to field a team in the USL Academy League, providing that the club is working in close partnership with its local USL senior team and that all minimum standards are met.
One of the most exciting aspects of the USL Academy League is its alignment with the United States’ professional calendar. Each year begins with a period of full integration with a club’s senior team during pre-season, followed by a regular season of mostly regional competition that will align with the USL Championship and USL League One seasons spanning from March to November. The league will conclude with the USL Academy League Finals in November, where the top team from each Division will compete for the Championship.
Many League Two teams already have strong youth networks and/or clubs feeding into them, effectively serving as the senior team of that individual player development pathway. To provide examples, Weston FC, San Francisco Glens SC and Chicago FC United have all operated year-round youth teams in the most competitive leagues across the US, while pushing their top youth talents & former players coming back from college into their League Two outfits during the summer months. That player development philosophy of providing a long-term pathway to the club’s top players aligns perfectly with the goals through USL Academy, and proves these clubs will continue to play a critical role in providing players across the country opportunities to pursue opportunities at the professional level.
The USL Academy League’s model not only provides an elite pre-professional environment for all participants, but is complementary of existing youth soccer organizations. All clubs applying to participate in the USL Academy League will be required to have a league-approved youth network as part of the minimum standards. In doing so, the USL club must show how it is helping grow the game organically at all levels, while also working hand-in-hand with the existing local youth soccer community to provide new opportunities for players & coaches to be involved with higher levels of the game.
It offers USL clubs the flexibility to work with existing institutions, and provide opportunity and professional pathways to both new and previously overlooked communities across the country. Players competing in the USL Academy League may also be able to register as a “Part-Time Youth Player” on their local USL Academy League team, allowing them to play in other competitions for their respective clubs or schools, as the USL aspires to build respectful and trusting relationships between our clubs and the local Youth Soccer Organizations that are already serving our communities.
Comprised exclusively of clubs from across the USL’s network of over 140 Championship, League One and League Two teams, the League will be able to offer substantial savings on the traditional academy model. It offers regionalized competition across the United States – while still preserving national competition through the Academy League Finals and Academy Cup – as well as its player development model that prioritizes elite youth development through a single roster constructed primarily of U15-19 team players.
Teams will be responsible for ordering a select number of USL branded items for gameday presentation, as well as a nominal registration fee for each player, which provides secondary insurance for all USL Academy competitions.
The USL Academy League provides a new model that allows players to maximize their potential. It provides an opportunity for local youth soccer participants to walk past their local USL stadium, or sit in its stands under the lights on a Saturday night, and know that if they work and train hard enough, there is a pathway for them to achieve their dreams of becoming a professional soccer player. The aspirations of youth soccer players to compete at the highest levels around the world and represent their country have never been stronger. The USL Academy League helps those dreams become a reality. Players such as Kobi Henry, Jose Gallegos, and Cristian Nava have already paved a pathway from USL Academy to a professional contract within the USL ecosystem or internationally.
The 2023 USL Academy Cup will feature multiple divisions of girls teams. As participation grows, we will look to expand on the number of girls teams and divisions that we include in future iterations of the USL Academy Cup, which will allow more USL clubs the chance to provide their top local female players exposure and opportunities.
Over time, and as the female side of the game evolves across the youth and pro landscape, there will be further opportunities to expand our USL Academy League player development model as well. With the successful launch of the W League, and the upcoming Super League, clubs should begin planning to integrate their youth set-ups.
While the key focus of the USL Academy League is to develop professional players and provide as clear and direct a path to professional soccer as possible, all clubs will be required to offer a college advisory program to players on their USL Academy League team. We fully acknowledge most players in this competition will still play college soccer, and as such feel it is critically important for our clubs to provide them opportunities and resources to reach that level, if deemed appropriate. Additionally, USL League Two serves as the next step in USL’s player development programming, and is designed to help collegiate players gain additional exposure and opportunities to move up to the professional level of the game.