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‘It leaves me even more optimistic for the future’ – Q&A with USL Technical Director Liam O’Connell

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 12/09/23, 7:25PM EST


Rising levels of players, organizations highlight 2023 USL Academy League Playoffs, with referee and coaching development a key element

The 2023 USL Academy League Playoffs have left USL Technical Director Liam O'Connell feeling even more optimistic about the direction of the program, and the impact it is having for clubs across the USL ecosystem. | Photo courtesy Emily Sullivan / United

TAMPA, Fla. – The 2023 USL Academy League Playoffs will conclude on Sunday afternoon as Orange County SC and the Charlotte Independence square off in the Final after each navigating the 16-team bracket with a series of three consecutive victories.

As the third edition of the Playoffs neared their conclusion, we took a moment to talk to USL Technical Director Liam O’Connell, who has led the direction of USL Academy since its inception five years ago to get his thoughts on the progression of the event, and the clubs and players who have participated this year.

We also discussed the change of format to a straight bracket format – a change from the group stage and final format used in the past two seasons – as well as the broader impact USL Academy is aiming to have on the coaching community at the event, and the work the USL is undertaking with PRO and Florida Soccer Referees in referee development through the event.

Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What's your assessment of this edition of the USL Academy League Playoffs?

Liam O’Connell: It leaves me even more optimistic for the future and where things are going. Every single time we host one of these events, the level continues to increase. On an individual level, we see players like Bryce Jamison, who made his debut in the Finals last year in the Showcase Division. This year, after having returned from the FIFA U-17 World Cup, he is truly a different player than he was even a year ago. It’s a credit to him spending the past year in the professional environment with Orange County and the experience he had at the international level.

But it's not just individual talents like Bryce. Entire programs are all taking a significant step forward in how they use the USL Academy program to develop better players and teams. Look at AC Connecticut. They’re proving that small markets and smaller clubs can do big things with the right setup and the right model. It’s encouraging to see that.

Orange County SC's Nico Ruiz, Ben Barjolo, Bryce Jamison and Joseph Buckley have all featured in their side's run to Sunday's Final. | Photo courtesy Emily Sullivan / United Soccer League

Q: The change to the knockout bracket feels like it has pros and cons, but the competition as it has gone throughout the week has been incredibly high. What has it meant to see that after making the format change this year?

LOC: It’s incredible. At the end of the day, the goal of USL Academy is that it’s an experience that prepares players for senior football, for the next step of their career – be it collegiate or professional soccer. So, being able to have a do-or-die tournament experience that replicates what they’ll see at the next level of their career is incredible.

For storylines, that might not always produce exactly what we want, and it might lead to some heartbreaking results for teams that were “favorites.” But that's football, right? It’s real. And I think you can see with every player and every team, there's a different level of meaning. There’s just more on the line. These games of consequence really mean something, and I think that will make these players better.

Q: This week also has the element of coaching education coaches, bringing coaches together to learn from each other, but also with what’s going on here with Florida Soccer Referees. What does that mean in terms of how the USL is trying to develop American soccer more broadly?

LOC: We actually updated our vision statement for USL Academy. It’s not just a player development pathway. It’s a talent development program and pathway. So, every time we’re operating in the USL Academy space, we want to ensure we’re positively impacting every stakeholder in and around the player – that’s coaches, parents, referees, administrators, educators. Yes, I think we highlight what happens between the white lines, but every moment that we’re not playing games during the day here we’re investing our time into developing coaches and referees. We’ve brought a number of top educators from PRO, who have experience refereeing in Major League Soccer and at the international level who are now teaching local referees here in Florida and in the Southeast how to manage these high-pressure games, which are high pressure for referees too.

The same thing with our coaches. We have our Coaching Workshop, which kicks off the weekend and allows us to create a real community amongst our coaches to share ideas and best practices and learn from each other. We’re also keeping the focus of this program, while results matter, on developing players through building that winning mentality. And hopefully it also allows parents to gain an education as to where the game is going and what the intent is behind USL Academy. I think you see that on the sidelines, which is obviously that much more encouraging.

The Charlotte Independence have rallied for victory in consecutive games to reach Sunday's Final in impressive fashion. | Photo courtesy Emily Sullivan / United Soccer League

Q: We’ve got a great Final in store for us on Sunday. There’s Orange County SC, which obviously has been a great story and a great developer of talent at the USL Championship level, but also the Charlotte Independence, who have been doing good work in their own sphere as part of a club that this year went to the USL League One Final. What does it mean to see those two clubs achieve that level of success and get the chance to go head-to-head for the title?

LOC: It’s especially cool for me because they’re also both founding members. At our very infancy of USL Academy, when we announced the first participants in what would have been our first Academy Cup in 2019 – I think it was probably about 30 to 40 clubs at that time that committed to the vision that we were building with USL Academy – these were two of those founding members.

They have very different models, but ultimately are still developing local pathways for their players. I couldn’t be more excited to see what is ultimately going to be two very different profiles of teams, but a competitive game for both parties. I think the pro staffs of both clubs will learn a lot about the top talents that they have within their pathway, and that this game will be a great litmus test to see which players will be the next that are ready to make that jump full time to the senior team.

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