Youth soccer academies in the United States are run differently to the rest of the world. Throughout the world they are free, and clubs value the young players for a number of reasons. They are a source of fresh in-house talent well-trained in the club's culture and methodology. The work and effort put into academy players also pay off because most of the world's clubs and players operate with the acknowledgement that all academies and clubs contribute to the development of a player, no matter how small. Some contributions can be larger than others, based on time, age and resources. A chain is forged as players grow their game and improve. Should other organizations request a transfer, compensation is expected for, not just the current club, but all the clubs and academies that came before. The specific rules may differ from place to place, but transfer and solidarity payments are the lifeblood of the sport's global development system
The United States however stands apart. From a distance, there may appear to be a wide network of academies. But nothing could be more different and unhelpful for the long-term growth of the sport. Most academies in the United States are for-profit. For the privilege of training, access to tournaments and pipelines perhaps leading to MLS, or for international leagues, parents are charged large sums of money every year. Around thirteen years of age, MLS academies - mostly, but not all, free - begin their search for players.
The New York Cosmos are almost unique in the United States in that they operate a free academy. From the start, it has been part of the Cosmos mentality and culture to participate as closely as possible to the expectations of the global game.
The Cosmos DA is 100% free, and that fills Cosmos supporters with great pride. It can't be overstated how much of a gift this is to the local and even national soccer scene. Many academy, Cosmos B and young first team players have risen over the past six years, and gone on to do well. But the club pays a heavy price for that rich development history.
The United States Soccer Federation does not support or require transfer and solidarity payments. Outwardly the federation appears neutral. According to a source, the club shells out high six figures each year to fund the academy. Without regulatory support driving expectations, youth player contracts remain a gray area. Parents are reluctant to sign terms that restrict choices for their children down the line, especially if the college soccer scholarship track is put into jeopardy by doing so. Once they reach a certain age they can move on and join other local professional clubs. It's not an unreasonable concern, and is one more way that NCAA, a means of monetizing athletes in their late teens to early twenties, supports the closed-system status quo.
Without the means to fund academy activities, the global game's understanding of an academy largely does not apply in the United States. Across the world, clubs value their youth players, they invest in their academy so they can play for the first team and eventually cover its expenses from an ecosystem of transfer and solidarity payments. That revenue would then be invested back into the academy, or into the first or second teams. In the US however, they are a straight profit center, a contractual obligation, or a nonprofit that nonetheless must be self-sustaining. This closes many doors to many youth players, leaving it open only for those who can afford to pay.
It's great that the Cosmos offer a free academy for all youth players especially in a city that is diverse like New York City. Most families don't have the resources to spend year to year on youth soccer. It is truly an unmitigated gift to the local soccer community. But, under current conditions, how long can even the Cosmos afford to pay homage to the global soccer culture it so loves?
Hopefully U.S Soccer engages with the youth player problem. Creating an incentive for professional clubs to invest in their youth academies is part and parcel with expanding the development pipeline, creating more opportunities and raising the level of sporting excellence in our country. It's win-win for everyone, except perhaps those for-profit academies that take so much from some and give far less to us all in return.
James Izurieta, a First Team Podcast contributor, edited and co-wrote this article.