TAMPA, Fla. – This weekend sees the final event of the 2021 USL Academy League season as eight teams convene in the Tampa Bay area for the USL Academy Playoffs. Since the original announcement of the new youth development initiative by the USL in 2018, the program’s growth has been impressive, providing more players than ever before an opportunity to train and compete in professional environments.
Some of those players – including those competing in the event this week – have joined the professional ranks themselves, taking the big step toward what will hopefully become a long and successful career on the field.
Ahead of Thursday’s opening day of games, we caught up with USL Academy Director and Technical Director Liam O’Connell on a wide variety of topics, including the initiative’s progress across the Championship, League One and League Two, and the opportunity it is now providing players with aims of competing in Europe and at the youth international level.
Q: It’s now been three years since the USL launched its Academy initiative, starting with the opening events in 2019 to this year establishing the USL Academy League across the full calendar. What has it meant to see the way the initiative has grown over that span?
Liam O’Connell: Candidly, it’s less about the number of clubs that we have necessarily had opting in, it’s about the quality of the pathways that are getting built. I think that’s one of the big differentiators in the way we’re rolling out USL Academy and the strategy for expanding and building this. For me, it’s less important that our clubs in the Northeast Division got 16-to-20 games in this first year of USL Academy. The more important performance indicator is the fact that a club like New Mexico United used the USL Academy platform to build a fully funded pre-professional academy and a pathway for players that has never existed in an entire state like New Mexico, let alone the community of Albuquerque, and not just that they’ve put that pathway in place and created the opportunity for players, but that players are actually able to successfully take advantage of that opportunity.
Cristian Nava is obviously the best example of that where a year ago he was just playing amateur pay-to-play youth soccer or high school soccer, now he’s a full-time professional who’s playing for a top club in the Championship with a number of other players seemingly just behind him. I’d say that’s the real measure of success for me when we look back at this year, those pathways being built and the players benefiting from them.
Q: We have eight teams coming to Tampa this week to be part of the first USL Academy Playoffs, and we’ve seen more and more teams in the USL Championship and USL League One add USL Academy signings to their squad. How do you gauge what success looks like for the program overall?
LOC: It’s an important one, and it’s an interesting balance where it needs to be real opportunity. Signing a kid to a USL Academy contract – or even a professional contract – but never giving them a pathway to the First Team isn’t really a measure of success in our opinion. It goes back to not so much the quantity of players making that jump from the youth to senior team environment, but the quality of those experiences that the players are getting. Is the opportunity to be in a senior team and training environment positively impacting or maybe even accelerating the development of these young players and is it preparing them to eventually make that jump to where they’re actually contributing for the senior team, helping the team win and eventually working their way from contributor to starter to impact, staple player that’s one of the first names on the roster.
That’s the next true measure of success, and then obviously the pie in the sky is that if those players reach those heights like a Jose Gallegos [at San Antonio] – whom hopefully Cristian Nava will follow in his footsteps – hopefully his next move aside from winning a championship for his hometown club in San Antonio will be moving on, either to Europe, MLS or a higher league.
New Mexico United's Cristian Nava (center) was a USL Academy signing and turned professional with the side during the middle of the campaign, making his Championship debut in July. | Photo courtesy Josh Lane / New Mexico United
Q: What has it meant to see teams like San Diego Loyal move into the USL Academy sphere, bringing in signings to a First Team environment, and then teams like FC Tulsa and New Mexico United take the next step in signing their first Academy graduate to a professional contract?
LOC: I commend those clubs for being willing to take those first steps and I think that’s one of the benefits in how we’re rolling out USL Academy, the platform, and how our clubs can integrate into it is there’s a lot of flexibility in how they can do that. Whether its SD Loyal being able to create a Select team, All-Star environment where there’s a sense of a club and country call-up feel that the youth clubs want to support while also stepping into this professional environment. It also makes it more feasible for a pro club and more sustainable to grow it year over year, and then even for clubs like Tulsa, even if they’re not ready as a club or as a community for various reasons to be launching a part-time or a full-time USL Academy program or team environment, they still recognize that, you know what, there are quality teenage players in our market who have dreams and aspirations to play at the professional level, and that in fact they can create that immediate pathway for those 1 percent kids in that community. They can work with the local youth soccer clubs that have already developed these talents and say, ‘hey, this is the first reason why we should look at a partnership,’ and create a collaborative player pathway because there are clearly players who are going to benefit from making that transition from youth to senior team environment. We’re incredibly excited to see over the next few years a vast amount of new clubs and new pathways being built along those lines.
Q: We’re going to see Queensboro FC this week at the USL Academy Playoffs, which has built a strong academy program in anticipation of its arrival in the Championship in 2023. What lessons can future expansion clubs – like Lexington as it prepares to join USL League One – learn from that as they plan their development programs?
LOC: I’ve got to give Queensboro in particular a lot of credit because they’re laying out the blueprint for how a lot of expansion clubs will go to market and really, organically build a strong connection to their community. That’s the great part that dovetails into both creating a youth development pathway and supporting the grassroots youth community while also creating a community relations opportunity. I think a lot of teams will follow suit with Queensboro where one or even two years prior to the team kicking a ball at the senior team level, they will be looking to start to establish that Academy pathway. Whether it be like Queensboro, where they’re really knocking it out of the park with a fully funded, full-time pre-professional team that will be providing a direct route to pro soccer, but also clubs that may look to scale up to that point but still be able to provide a pathway for players to get them to understand what the culture of the club will look like and what the expectations will be if they want to be playing for that senior team by the time it kicks off in the next few years.
The good thing is there’s a number of expansion clubs, be it Knoxville, or Lexington, or many more that we’ve already been working with and many more that will be announced in the coming months, and honestly while we’re giving kudos to Queensboro, we should give credit where credit is due to past iterations as well. Two years ago, at our first Academy Cup event, Union Omaha did much of the same thing. They were able to form an all-star team that truly broke through all the politics of youth soccer, brought together players from 14 different high school programs that was representative of the Omaha and greater Nebraska soccer community, and they were the first players to wear Union Omaha colors. It ended up being a huge moment in getting those fans excited about supporting their future pro team six-to-nine months before they kicked a ball in League One. We’re looking forward to seeing that become more of a best practice, not just a unique case study.
Queensboro FC will join the USL Championship in 2023, but is already building out a successful USL Academy program that will compete at the USL Academy Playoffs this week. | Photo courtesy Queensboro FC
Q: The element of flexibility offered to clubs, coaches and players has been something that has differentiated the USL Academy initiative from other age-group driven programs. How pleased have you been with the way teams have taken advantage of that in offering talented young academy products a chance to compete at this higher level of competition?
LOC: So far, we’ve been really excited in two regards. Although it does make it more complex, the flexibility does allow for this platform to be really molded based on the unique realities that each market and club presents. Whether it’s geography, the player pool, the local youth clubs that are or are not part of the youth network or supportive of the pathway being built, the resources the club has available to them, and then the senior team level that it’s offering. Is it a pathway to pre-professional men’s soccer in League Two – which can still lead to pro soccer – or is it a direct route to local pro soccer in the Championship or League One. All of those factors are going to continue to make USL Academy be unique in each setting you see, but that’s incredibly exciting to see so many different clubs mold this and make it work within their community.
Q: It’s notable that all three of the players nominated for this year’s USL Championship Young Player of the Year award compete for independent clubs, with Jonathan Gomez at Louisville City FC, Jose Gallegos at San Antonio FC and Diego Luna at EL Paso Locomotive FC the finalists. Why do you think Championship and League One clubs are becoming a more attractive destinations for top young talents, even those vying for Youth National Team places?
LOC: It’s a great question, and it’s going to be an interesting trend to follow in the coming years, but one that we feel very confident will continue to strengthen with more success stories expected in this trend like Jonathan Gomez getting his move to Real Sociedad. I think it’s very similar to college recruitment for players our age when we were growing up where in the past before there were opportunities for youth players to go straight to pro, you often found you were looking at a college program, and a top player would sometimes have different options in front of him where he could take the opportunity with the top D-1 program, the MLS equivalent or European equivalent, where it’s the shiny brand, amazing facilities, top players and coaches in the program, but the reality is – especially for a young player – they might not be super-high on the depth chart the moment they arrive on campus. I think you’re going to see a lot of Youth National Team players realize, ‘which experience do I want at arguably the most critical point of my development?’
There’s no right or wrong answer, but the question will be are you getting real opportunities not just to train in a professional environment, but to play and compete for a spot on that pro team? I think you’re going to see more and more young players realize while it’s their goal to play professional soccer, if they’re successful in the Championship or even League One at a young age, it’s only going to accelerate the likelihood of them getting promoted up that domestic period, or potentially off to Europe. I think we’re already seeing that, and it’s another interesting trend when we’re talking about national teams, there have been young players – I’ll use Matthew Hoppe as an example – who are now part of our senior national team pool, and they never played a minute of youth national team soccer. Our hope is there will be more players that see the best route to make it pro be a quick and early integration into a senior team environment that provides real playing opportunities, and then celebrate the success stories of the players who use that to catapult their career to even higher levels.
Louisville City FC's Jonathan Gomez was named the Championship's Young Player of the Year on Tuesday, highlighting the opportunity available for young talent in the league. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
Q: We saw Luna and Orange County SC’s Kobi Henry get called up to the United States U-20s for the Revelations Cup in Mexico in November, a big accomplishment for them both. What does the path they are taking – and the one Jonathan Gomez is now preparing for as he heads to La Liga’s Real Sociedad this offseason – say about how Championship and League One teams are integrating young talent into highly competitive squads?
LOC: I think one of the best quotes I saw coming out of the Championship Final this weekend was Orange County, one of their leaders acknowledging that this was their vision, to be a club that could do both, that could provide a pathway and a developmental environment for top young players while also competing for championships and playing to win. I think that’s extremely exciting in the case of both Kobi and Diego. They play for two of the more competitive sides on the Western side of our country in the really competitive divisions that we had set up, but at the end of the day I think the bigger thing isn’t that the club provided that opportunity, it’s that the players earned that opportunity. The coaches will tell you the same thing, it’s not just that the clubs were meeting a youth quota, these players earned those opportunities to start and contribute on a regular basis and their performance in the Championship allowed them to keep that and has now led to youth national team opportunities.
Let’s be honest, a year ago there were other players besides Diego and Kobi who were on the U-20 National Team depth charts that were higher than them, but the reality is this past year, Kobi and Diego played pro soccer and contributed at a men’s senior team level, where their counterparts who a year ago were higher on the depth charts were playing in youth leagues and have now been jumped. That points toward that trend of players realizing the most important thing may just be being on the field consistently in a good environment.
Q: We’ve also started to see a trend where clubs who are developing young players while competing for titles like Orange County set out to do five years ago is starting to become more prominent. What did it meant to see three of the four teams in the Championship’s Eastern and Western Conference Finals – Orange County, Louisville and San Antonio – all competing there with top young talent as part of their squads?
LOC: It goes back to first the club’s having a belief in playing young players and giving them that opportunity and being willing to have them learn while competing, but it’s also the clubs establishing a culture where they understand they need to earn that spot. As Jonathan Gomez has said, the players are choosing the USL because they don’t just see it as a pathway to begin their professional career but to really be a jump-off point for much bigger things. Jonathan Gomez signed with Louisville with the intent that if he earned playing time, the club would help promote him on a pathway to European soccer, his ultimate dream.
I think you’re going to see more and more players want that challenge and say, ‘hey, if a club’s willing to give me the opportunity, I want to chase it,’ and hopefully provide a pathway beyond the Championship, though as you’ve seen for the clubs that are able to also compete domestically – let along competing in competitions in the Open Cup, let alone if we can get to the vision of the USL having a more consistent path to the Concacaf Champions League – more of these players may choose USL as their long-term league of choice to continue their professional careers. Either way will be good, and it’s encouraging to see top clubs coming through the playoffs all having a mixture of youth and experience while building a really competitive roster.
Q: We’re going to see some really talented young players this week at the USL Academy Playoffs, what do you hope the teams and players get out of the week, especially potentially getting to play at Al Lang Stadium in the Final where the USL Championship Final was held last weekend?
LOC: That’s the coolest part, right? This is the carrot to playing in the slog of the regular season, the opportunity to take home a championship and for this year to carry the mantle of one of the top Academy programs in the country. We’re excited for the opportunity to offer significantly meaningful games to these clubs. With the way we’re setting up the competition with the group stage that leads to placement games, where only two teams ultimately qualify for the Final – the top team in Group A and the top team from Group B – it should mean that every match is meaningful and every moment in every match may be the deciding factor of if your team gets to that final or not.
Besides that, just as a player wanting to be competitive and try to win a national title – the first of its kind at this pre-professional level – we think there’s the added bonus of it being a truly professional experience. We’re going to be hosting the first Academy League Final at the almost exact time and same location as where we crowned Orange County SC as the Championship title winner last Sunday night. The fact that those teams are going to be in the same locker rooms as Orange County and the Tampa Bay Rowdies were, stepping onto the same field with field boards, stadium lights, fans in the stands, it’s hopefully an experience many of them will remember for a long time and on a personal level I’m very excited to see in a few years how many players that were in this first event do get to realize their dream of competing at the professional level and are playing in the Championship or League One at the senior level.
Q: What do you see as the next step forward for the USL Academy League as we move into 2022?
LOC: It’s two things. Yes, we want to continue expanding this, we want to get more clubs and communities to be establishing USL Academy pathways, but before we rush on expansion – because there has been a ton of interest from every corner of the country in both current, future and prospective USL clubs because of the success of USL Academy – I think first our goal is sustainability and standards. We’ve been going through a really extensive process for a few months now with the clubs that have concluded their participation in the first season of the Academy League, going through an audit process, not just collecting their feedback from the first year of USL Academy so we can learn and improve on the platform, but also to hold them to higher standards.
Since the onset, one of the most critical strategies and foundations of how we launched USL Academy is that it’s standards driven, that we ensure these playing environments are structured by a number of elements that we can police and provide guidelines for that will only make it a better environment for the players and coaches there and hopefully increase the likelihood of that transition from youth to Academy, and from Academy to Senior Team. We’re really excited to see the collective current group in terms of their operating abilities and the quality of the programs they’re running. They could also be doing a part-time program like San Diego Loyal, working closely toward full-time in the next full years. There’s a number of current expansion clubs we’re working on and then as a I said there will be new communities looking to establish Academy pathways next year and some that are already working on plans for 2023.