With the USL Championship, League One and League Two seasons now in full swing across the country, the players vying to compete at those levels in the near future will take to the field in the upcoming weeks as the inaugural season of the USL Academy League kicks off.
Designed to bring together the best youth talent in academy systems and networks overseen by Championship, League One and League Two clubs, USL Academy League teams provide a key step on the road to either signing a USL Academy contract – which allows a player to retain NCAA eligibility while competing and training alongside professionals – or even joining the professional ranks themselves.
Here are four things to know as the inaugural season gets underway.
1. BRINGING TOGETHER ELITE TALENT TO COMPETE
Unlike other youth leagues, the USL Academy League will feature one team from each of the clubs participating in the competition. Pulling together a collective squad that includes U-19, U-17 and U-15 players will allow the most talented youngsters in a club’s system to compete against older and more experienced players. With the absence of age-group categories employed by other leagues, teams can pool the best available talent in their system, putting talented players on an accelerated path to the professional ranks with the help of USL clubs.
The players identified at having the potential to be a future professional will become part of a Championship, League One or League Two organization’s USL Academy League squad, which will effectively serve as a reserve team for the club’s senior squad. That step will subsequently lead to opportunities for players in the U15-U19 age groups to not only compete throughout the year, but also create a pathway to earning a USL Academy contract – or to be signed to a professional deal.
2. ROSTER FLEXIBILITY AIDS DEVELOPMENT
While for some elite players, the line from the Academy system to the First Team can be a direct one, for many players the pathway can have more ups and downs before achieving their ultimate goal of joining the professional ranks. The USL Academy League accounts for this by allowing roster flexibility throughout the three stages of the regular season, which will be fully implemented in 2022.
USL clubs will have the ability to work with local youth coaches to not only identify talent that has the potential to reach the professional ranks, but also put them on the appropriate path for their development. For elite players, this would mean being given Part-Time Senior Status, offering the opportunity to train regularly with Championship, League One or League Two squads – and potentially becoming a USL Academy to a club’s roster. For others, including younger players in the system, being afforded Full Time Academy Status or Part-Time Youth Status will allow for appropriate progression in the system until they’re ready to potentially join their club’s First Team squads for training.
3. CREATING FIRST TEAM OPPORTUNITIES
Since the introduction of USL Academy Contracts in the 2013 USL Championship season – an initiative that current League One club the Richmond Kickers was the first to utilize in league history – top young players in Academy systems have had the chance to train and even compete alongside their professional counterparts. While this has been used extensively in the past by Major League Soccer teams that own and operate teams in the Championship or League One, there are now 16 independent Championship clubs and four independence League One clubs that began the season with a USL Academy signing on their respective rosters.
Those players now not only have the chance to train on a weekly – or even daily – basis with their club’s professionals, but also now have a competitive outlet that will allow them to be part of a Championship, League One or League Two squad’s Matchday 18 one week, and in the starting lineup for their USL Academy team the next. With the league’s structure seeing the USL Academy League season mirror that of the Championship and League One between preseason beginning in January and the league’s conclusion in November, players will get a complete experience of what stepping up to the professional ranks entails.
4. TALENT GETS MORE CHANCE TO SHINE
You’ve heard of the story of Daryl Dike, right? Well, what you might not be aware of is the story of the current U.S. Men’s National Team forward trying to help English club Barnsley to promotion to the Premier League while on loan from Orlando City SC began in the development system of Championship club OKC Energy FC.
A native of Oklahoma City, Dike competed for Oklahoma FC – one of the affiliates in Energy FC’s local network – and both trained with the Energy FC First Team and competed for OKC Energy U-23 in USL League Two before his brief stint at the University of Virginia. The proliferation of professional clubs in the Championship and League One offers more chances for stories like Dike’s to come to reality. Now the USL Academy League will give players such as him – and other talented youngsters like Sacramento Republic FC’s Hayden Sargis, San Antonio FC’s Jose Gallegos and Leo Torres, and Orange County SC’s Francis Jacobs now competing on professional contracts in the Championship – the chance to take their games to the next level, whether in Major League Soccer or Europe.