Much of the attention at the inaugural USL Academy Western Conference Event was on the players, but some of the country’s top youth soccer coaches and experts in youth development made the trip to San Antonio as well. All fourteen teams in attendance brought with them knowledgeable professionals in the youth development space, and as a result there was a highly competitive standard of play on the pitch.
Moving forward, USL Academy won't just serve as a platform for players, but also as one for coaches looking to further their own careers in the game while having a major influence on today's young players. Those in attendance at the Western Conference Event took advantage of the opportunity to compete against other top academy programs and exchange ideas and theories at events such as the Youth Development Workshop. The workshop was a great chance for coaches to meet and gain an understanding of the unique challenges each of them faces within their markets.
In breakout sessions, coaches discussed relevant topics such as vertical integration, player identification, and player integration, focusing on how those themes manifest themselves at their particular club through developmental philosophy.
SAFC's Nick Evans delivers a case study at the Youth Development Workshop. Photo by Cameron Koubek
Each coach shared the hurdles they face at their club, and the groups brainstormed collaborative solutions for overcoming those obstacles to improve their programs.
“I thought the workshop was a fantastic component of the programming. A lot of the people in the room [at the panel] I met for the first time, but we share the same developmental objectives,” said San Antonio FC Academy Director Nick Evans.
“But we’re all in very unique and different circumstances. It was great to hear what challenges people have within their own marketplaces, within their own clubs, and within their own cities.”
“The workshops were great. We feel that we learned from other markets - what they have, what they do. Some things may work for us, some things may not, but it’s just sharing,” said Rio Grande Valley FC Youth Academy Director and Assistant Coach Rafa Amaya. “I feel that the more we share at the top level, we’ll compete on the field but it’s only going to make the game better. Hopefully five to ten years from now we’ll see a good percentage of these kids playing at the next level.”
From a coach’s perspective, the new USL Academy model gives young players and coaches the opportunity to showcase themselves against different competition within USL. In doing so, the platform generates increased exposure as players can test themselves against other top prospects, and younger players get to sharpen their skills against older ones. USL Academy's developmental rule mandating that each team at the U17 level must have at least three players aged 16 or younger is geared toward serving that exact purpose.
“Our main goal is to professionalize and create a pathway for the players in our club, and the USL Academy Cup adds another level of development for our players and another benchmark for our players to want to achieve,” said San Francisco Glens Team President and Executive Director of Football Mike McNeill. “With the USL Academy Cup that goes underneath our USL League Two team, there’s natural progression now from the youth club into the USL Academy system and eventually into our first team. It’s exciting to see where it’s at now and I’m looking forward to see where they take it from here.”
For hosts San Antonio FC, a structured pathway from the academy to the first team has been an important part of the club since 2016. Since then, San Antonio has already integrated top talent from their youth setup within the first team, and the club sees the new USL Academy competition as a way to enhance development for its young players.
“I think it’s a wonderful platform for players to now have competitive, meaningful games within the USL framework,” said Darren Powell, head coach of San Antonio FC’s first team in the USL Championship. “It also allows the crossover from USL Championship to League One and League Two, where all the first teams can have academy teams and a platform for their players in their local markets to represent their city, their club in an event that will continue to grow. We want to make it continue to be more and more meaningful as time goes by.”
Jay Mims, head coach of Union Omaha's USL League One team, prepares his team for their first match. Photo by Cameron Koubek
In the near future, the relationship between each coach’s individual strategy and the overarching USL Academy Player Development Model will serve to support both clubs and players so that each can maximize available resources in helping young soccer players reach their potential. This model involves a holistic approach to centralizing an organization’s top talent between the ages of 14 and 17 in one team, and professionalizing their development process. Orange County SC Academy Coach Neil Armour says that in his experience, embedding players in a professional setting at an early age is key.
Evans gets his side ready for its opener at Toyota Field. Photo by Cameron Koubek
“I actually signed my first professional contract at 18, and the biggest thing for being a professional soccer player is the training,” said Armour. “I think creating an environment for somebody like Francis [Jacobs, who became the youngest male professional athlete in U.S. history when he signed with OC] where he’s 14-years-old, to be able to train with grown men and do it every single day is huge for these guys.
“I think the landscape for youth soccer is kind of in a strange place, and I think there’s a need for something that’s done a little bit differently. What we’re trying to do in USL Academy by making younger kids play with older kids and forcing them to play outside their comfort zone is really fantastic and I think it’s a great way forward. Us as a club are 100 percent committed to the Academy being successful.”
The USL Academy platform will expand upon the exciting precedent set by its fantastic first event when Eastern Conference clubs gather for another regional event at the Premier Sports Campus at Lakewood Ranch in Bradenton, Florida next February. The first-ever USL Academy National Event will follow in May. To stay up-to-date on all things USL Academy, visit usl-academy.com or search #USLAcademy on social media.