O'Connell sees big potential with the USL's new Academy League.
May 22, 2020
YOUTH DEVELOPMENT is a very important topic in American soccer these days. Over the past decade, MLS teams have invested more heavily in academies, minutes given to younger players increased in 2019, and U.S. youth national teams have also improved their performances.
But the landscape has changed dramatically in 2020. US Soccer terminated the Development Academy. In its wake, MLS has built a similar competition that also involves many teams outside of the league. Other youth leagues have also begun to expand.
Nearly 12 months ago, the USL unveiled an initiative that will allow its clubs to participate in youth development at a more organized level. Earlier this month, USL revealed what this new Academy League will look like. With a growing number of professional teams in USL, there is the potential its youth league can help expand the opportunities in the United States for young players to have a professional pathway.
ASN spoke with Massachusetts native Liam O’Connell who was the architect for the USL Academy league and the head of the USL's Academy Platform.
Brian Sciaretta for ASN: Congratulations on getting the ball rolling with USL’s new academy league. What have been the challenges to date and what are the big challenges in the future?
Liam O’Connell: The biggest challenge was conceptualizing it, to be frank. That was my biggest challenge and honestly accepting the role I took with USL, overseeing their youth development initiatives and a lot of the player and coach development initiatives. I had to almost think about this as I was going through the interview process on my way out from Sporting Kansas City - there is such a wide array of youth to senior football team pathways throughout USL. You have San Antonio who has an NBA ownership group fully funding the structure of an MLS academy - and I would argue operate better and more productively than some MLS academies do when you look at the players coming through right now and the staff they have.
Then you have other clubs who are only getting started and may not even have hosted a youth clinic before. That was the challenge but also the fun part. For the first six to nine months I just really engaged clubs across the country, pro clubs and amateur clubs, and just asked them if we were in a perfect world what would it look like to build a youth development pathway and connect your existing youth soccer community to this existing USL senior team in League One or the Championship? Through that process, we got to where we are today. The announcements you saw and the structure you saw [at the unveiling]. That is just a deeper dive in to the models we introduced last August.
ASN: The idea of the time, expense, and investment that goes into travel is widely talked about with youth development. How is USL going to address this challenge?
O’Connell: I kind of go back to the interview process. We use that travel needs to be a key component and limiting travel cost and the demand for travel is important. We knew, and this was a major challenge, from day one that the model we are going to implement needs to be cost-effective. With the San Antonio reference point, by far the majority of USL clubs aren’t in a position where they can be fully funding youth development programs - let alone across three to five age groups and a team in each of those age groups. That is one of the reasons why we created one team, in almost creating a reserve league for USL programs and kind of combining that idea of a reserve team with an academy model.
It all of a sudden clicked in a few different ways. Now, the barrier to entry is way lower. now, the majority of clubs can afford it because it is one team. There is a huge amount of cost savings as well because there are shared resources... Now, you can literally have your academy players report to the same facility, using the same field as the first team, using the same equipment and even having some of the same staff who are now working with the academy team along with the first team - just at a different time of day. Immediately we realized the day to day training environment becomes more cost-effective and because we are allowing so many more clubs, this allows us to regionalize it and now we can have a much bigger critical mass throughout the existing and future USL footprint.
ASN: In a topic that has come under a lot of debate, what is the status of allowing USL academy players not under a professional contract to play in high school games?
O’Connell: I think this is a big thing that will set us apart. It is our philosophy that this is decision should be back in the hands of the player. It should not be the governing body or the league telling players what they should or shouldn’t do with their career. The intent was good. It was that we want to have these kids in a controlled environment with a consistent curriculum and a consistent training environment.
But I saw in my first-hand experience in working in and with professional clubs over the years that if it is a player that is in the middle or bottom third of the depth chart or roster and they are not playing consistently week in and week out, they might be questioning whether or not they made the right choices and are missing out on experiences elsewhere. I think this is important when we are talking about not just developing players but developing people.
We have to think about this as a reserve team model. It is more of a vehicle to help kids get from youth to pro. We are going to have three categories of players in how they’re registered. The top end is what we call a part-time pro. this is the kid who is already full-time professional, like Francis Jacobs at Orange County at 14 or Leo Torres at 15 with San Antonio. They’re already on professional contracts... or Brandon Servania’s brother, Jaden, at Birmingham. Those guys are on the amateur academy contract with their USL team which allows them to play and train in USL without losing their college eligibility of they want to take that route.
Those kids are meeting the standard of the professional training environment, they are just not getting meaningful games at a consistent clip in Championship or League One. The Academy lets them drop down level and get meaningful games at a critical period of their development. There will be some players that are full time rostered for their team. And we are going to have registration windows every three months and they can change their status.
We are also going to have part-time players. You have the ability to add or drop these players from these statuses throughout the year. It works in a few different ways. You can have a player who is full-time in the Academy environment in the summer months but in the fall, they really want to play high school soccer. If that is the player’s short-term wish, they can take that. Another player might take their spot in the meantime. If their dream is to truly pursue playing professionally, they may have to make that short-term sacrifice. But I’d rather that be the decision of the player and family.
For the part-time player, the other benefits of this is that it’s an offer just a taste of this type of training environment. Especially for the young and talented player who might be under developed physically and now he has a chance to come into a training environment, see what it is like, test himself against physical and more experienced players while then also playing at his age group with [local clubs]. It really opens the door for collaboration with other local clubs for development.
ASN: On the topic of selling players. Is that critical to making this investment financially viable?
O’Connell: This is part of the strength of USL as a league - letting it be the club’s decision. The clubs have to define their own philosophy around long term player development. Some clubs are going to have their own goals and how many players they want to sign to the academy and then to pro and then move on from their team. We’re going to let that be a club by club decision.
Strategically yes, without a doubt this is going to be used as a platform where our clubs can recruit young talent, Bring them into a professional environment, help develop them, but also use it as a way to sell on as players. Strategically, we are trying to get our owners to understand that their rosters, which traditionally have been looked at as an expense at times, and look at them more as an asset. That can be monetized through the international transfer market.
Our clubs can go about that business and strategy in whatever way they want. Some clubs are already laying the groundwork for that. Orange County already has a strategic partnership with a club abroad with Rangers. There are certainly elements to the partnership that are tied to this long-term vision which entail transfers and player sales.
It is not purely for the business side, this is something where we can help further young Americans careers, give them a platform to showcase their abilities at a young age in USL, and move them on not just to further their career but I also get revenue which can be reinvested for future player development initiatives - like more coaches, facilities, scholarships.
ASN: In any country, the biggest buyer of second division players is the first division teams in those countries. 2.Bundesliga sells mostly to the Bundesliga, Ligue 2 sells mostly to Ligue 1, Serie B sells mostly to Serie A. How important is it to have MLS as a buyer of your players?
O’Connell: We hope so. Like you said, that is how it should be. What better place to sell, then your own backyard? But it is a two-way street. MLS has to see value in players developed in the USL Championship and League One. But as you see teams here are investing in facilities and technical staff and sort of catching up to what MLS has been doing the past five or six years, you are going to see some clubs become regular sellers. You are going to see some players believe that the first step in the career should be signing with a USL team and believe it will help them get to MLS or Europe. I certainly hope that becomes much more regular occurrence.
ASN: Last year MLS made a big announcement to accept training compensation. That came on heels of some players bolting academies for big clubs and the MLS teams got nothing for them. What is the USL stance on this? It seems like with this level of investment, owners will want to be protected against players leaving and USL clubs getting nothing in return.
O’Connell: I am a big believer that you have to get with the times and get with the rest of football. That should be part of doing business. I applaud MLS for saying they were going to put that into place moving forward. We want our clubs to be in the same position as well and feel that if they want to pursue any training compensation, they should. We will help in any way. I will even take it one step further and ask why we shouldn’t we have domestic training compensation instituted in this country?... Think about it this way: there are players that USL clubs have signed to pro deals in recent years from MLS academies. Those MLS clubs could have received training compensation and are due training compensation in someways. So, MLS clubs are already incentivized to participate in that.
But there are already lots of USL owners who are ready and waiting to put some serious investments into their youth development and infrastructure but if there was some sort of domestic training compensation in place and they knew there was some guaranteed level of ROI on their investment, they would be much more inclined to dive in. I think the Federation would agree that the more players we have in more professional environments, the better the chances are for our national teams to be more competitive at higher levels. if training compensation helps get us to that point with more owners investing in youth development, I think we should explore it.
ASN: Five years from now, what marks success for this initiative in your opinion?
O’Connell: For me there are three big things: we want to see the league grow. We want to see more teams participate through this model. As we get more senior teams in more markets in USL and in doing that, not only we will be able to create these really competitive regional sub divisions that have low travel demand but also maybe someday that can create a tiered system.
We want to see clubs use this as a way to invest in more technical staff and invest more in their rosters that supports not just them, but also their youth network - provide coach training and supplemental training, curriculum for younger ages. This would help them to be a leader for development within their community.
One of the measurements that I am already starting to see is to have more American players playing professional soccer and accelerating their development.
ASN: what does it mean for USL team to have players on U-17 and U-20 World Cup teams? It must mean a lot for clubs at this level.
O’Connell: 100%. I’ve had conversations with people in the Federation and said our clubs now have a vested interest in not just finding top talent in the region but also to put them into the shop window for you. Look at Louisville. I can tell you that they found some special talent two hours outside Louisville in rural Kentucky. These kids were not playing ENCL, not playing DA, they might not even have been registered in an official US Soccer league - but they’re players. There are even some MLS teams that tried to recruit them.
The staff at Louisville would want them to go to the youth national teams and get that experience. It will also help them recruit the next player - giving them reason to think of they go to Louisville, they can follow that path. That would be a big measuring stick for youth development in the league over the next five years.
ASN: MLS recently started a new system in the wake of US Soccer terminating the DA. There are even some USL teams who will take part What do you expect your relationship to be with them? Do you think it will be a symbiotic or adversarial relationship?
O’Connell: I see it as symbiotic. I am a little frustrated that people want to see it as a competition. They are just different models. We are filling in the map. I applaud Phoenix and San Antonio for being willing to fund and commit to teams for the U-13, U-14, U-17s and some MLS clubs might be down to two age groups. But most USL teams can’t do that or put together that many teams for that kind of travel... I am excited to see MLS invest and take things in this way and molding into a way that will benefit their clubs. We are already talking to San Antonio where maybe their U-19s are with us. That’s why we see our model as being complementary and collaborative to its core. We’re a big country.
Our goal is to develop not just future USL players but also players better than USL. If we do that, we’re going to be developing future MLS players and future Champions League players and future national team players. If we’re doing that, we’re also developing a lot of serviceable pros. The whole country will be better. The more ways we can find to work together, it is only going to make us all get better.