The Corona Effect - Exposing The Insanity of "Elite" Leagues
Updated: Jul 6
In this second installment of the Corona Effect, we continue to examine how the coronavirus crisis has exposed important issues affecting youth soccer. Again, the most important thing we can do right now is recognize what has been exposed by the pandemic and fix it.
COVID-19 has exposed the leading cause of a massive problem affecting youth soccer in the the U.S. The problem is the absolute insanity of youth soccer players and their parents chasing after teams playing in "elite" leagues, believing it is the path to successful player development despite all evidence to the contrary. It includes the insanity of soccer organizations creating new "elite" leagues to take the place of "elite" leagues that also claimed the ability to develop top talent, produced nothing and then collapsed.
In this post, I am not going to address possible solutions. It’s too big of a topic and deserves a separate discussion. The main reason I’m not talking about solutions here is that it is more important first to fully understand the problem before jumping to quick fixes. There will be no quick fixes. The problem facing us is systemic and deeply engrained in the mentalities and behaviors of players, parents, coaches and club leaders. In many ways, the problem is cultural. For that reason, the cure will be difficult, painful, confrontational and take time. Cultures don’t change willingly.
Over the past few months, my conversations with club leaders, coaches and technical directors across the country about this insanity have been illuminating and humbling. Illuminating, in the sense that I have been able to see issues from different perspectives that arise from so many different contexts. Humbling, in the sense that I did not expect so many of these smart, experienced people to reach out to me for my perspective, opinions and guidance on alternatives to "elite" leagues. Zoom fatigue is setting in for sure, but the information shared is worth every minute spent. To be perfectly honest, some of those I've spoken to do not see any insanity in players chasing "elite" leagues. They like the status quo and the money. However, just as many more are pretty much on the same page with me about what is wrong and what needs to change. What has emerged from these discussions is at once hopeful and disappointing.
EXPOSED: The Developmental Failure of “Elite” Youth Soccer Leagues
The most efficient and useful response I can offer is, where? Where are the players? [Marc Seber] named four American players that are playing at a high level in a world class league. Let’s run them down: Tyler Adams, Christian Pulisic, DeAndre Yedlin, Weston McKennie… Gio Reyna is yet to make his first team debut, but he looks like he’s on a Pulisic-like trajectory, possibly. Tim Weah has been injury racked, but he puts us in the half-dozen range, and this is 12 years of Development Academy play. Is this the ROI, is this the norm? I reserve the right to be under-impressed by this ROI. It’s approaching a 9-figure overall investment, maybe already past 9-figures if we look at what everybody has spent, with all the players in the DA trying to grow elite players over the last 12 years. And this is our ROI?” - Charles Boehm, SoccerWire
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the “Great Lie” of American youth soccer. On April 14, 2020, US Soccer Federation's CEO Will Wilson announced the shutdown of its Development Academy (“DA”). Wilson blamed the closing of the DA on "the extraordinary and unanticipated circumstances around the COVID-19 pandemic that have resulted in a financial situation that does not allow for the continuation of the Development Academy program into the future." Really? That's the reason? Or could it be that the DA was incredibly expensive, overblown, poorly executed and produced extremely poor results? Where are the world-class players the DA was supposed to produce?
There are many reasons why the DA collapsed, but there are two things we know for sure: 1. The DA did not collapse because of COVID-19, and 2. the DA failed to accomplish its mission as stated in the first word of its name - development. The DA did not develop legions of world class American players playing for the US men's and women's national teams and European professional clubs. If it had produced hundreds of "world class" players, it certainly would not have collapsed. The DA is dead because it did not and could not accomplish its namesake purpose - development.
In reality, the DA was never any sort of development academy at all. It has been exposed as merely a league with stricter rules and standards, operated and financed by large youth clubs across the country that needed an "elite" league for marketing and money making purposes. And here is where the insanity begins. Youth clubs marketed themselves as "DA Clubs" and used the prospect of playing for a DA team as a way to attract more youth players and generate more money. As "DA Club" marketing evolved, more and more players showed up at tryouts because of the club’s DA league participation and not because of any bona fide club philosophy or methodology. The road to the "elite" league runs through the club. The club becomes merely a waypoint for the player chasing the "elite" league, not the destination. That is the cause of the frenzy and insanity and also why club loyalty is at an all-time low. Players jumped from club to club chasing this "DA team" or that one. Since player selection was effectively outsourced by US Soccer to the youth clubs, cronyism and favoritism took root over merit when it came to making the team. If you gave enough at the annual auction, your kid could be on the DA team. There was nothing real on offer here, just promises of pathways and paydays. Some of us knew all along the youth club-driven DA was bogus and tried to warn players and parents. We could see the DA for what it truly was. Few would listen, however. We were howling into the wind. The DA promised a path to "World Class" status or to the US Men's or Women's National team. In the end, the promises were always empty.
It should be no surprise, then, that some of the loudest wails over the DA's death come from directors of large youth clubs that sunk massive amounts of money into their participation in the DA. It has turned out to be an extremely poor investment for everyone involved. In his recent SoccerWire article regarding the final days of the DA, Charles Boehm quotes a DA coach:
"All these clubs that you’ve now caused to spend all this money, and meet all these guidelines, and now you’re just going to pull it away? To now hide behind a virus and affect that many hundreds of people – preach for 10 years of development and then all of a sudden, pull the legs out from under it? That’s a bad one, man. I can name 10 clubs within a couple miles of our affiliate region that invested a ton of money, went all in, got facilities, fields – people went broke to fund it – and now it’s going to be gone?”
The spectacularly sudden collapse of the DA left many mega-clubs - or "Big Box clubs" as I refer to them - without their primary marketing and revenue generating tool for attracting players. Stripped of their ability to market themselves as a "DA club", boards, executive directors and DOC's stayed true to form and scrambled to find an alternative or replacement "elite" league in order to hold onto their marketing and and revenue generation advantages. Many clubs moved quickly to join the DA's surviving competitor, the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL). However, since "elite" leagues are by definition exclusionary there are limits to how many clubs/teams they can absorb. This is true for ECNL as well. We are learning now that the American youth soccer market will tolerate and financially feed many "elite' leagues.
In many ways, the DA proved to be like the mythical hydra that when one of its heads is cut off, two more would grow in its place. For many of us who hoped that the death of the DA would signal the end of "elite" league madness and their skyrocketing costs, our hopes were quickly dashed. We crossed our fingers thinking that with the COVID 19-era restrictions on travel, the economic devastation the national shutdown had inflicted on family budgets and the demonstrably poor player development results shown by "elite" leagues, Big Box clubs would entertain rationality and get off the "elite" league train. We were wrong. The market for these "elite" leagues is irrationally insatiable. Within days of the DA's demise, several brand new "elite" leagues quickly emerged. Major League Soccer (MLS) formed its "Elite Youth Platform" intended as a league for MLS academy teams, and shortly thereafter announced a partnership with US Youth Soccer to form a second tier league called the "Elite Youth Development Platform". The Development Player League (DPL), which was originally formed to create a second tier to the Girls DA, announced the formation of the Girls Academy League (GAL). These leagues joined ECNL in a crowded pack of leagues, each claiming "elite" status and prowess for developing players.
The mad rush by clubs and teams to find a replacement "elite" league has been eclipsed only by the even madder rush of players and parents leaving clubs that can no longer provide the "elite" league opportunity. Soccer illuminati began publishing tweets, posts and articles advising players to ditch their current club and move to an "ECNL club" or "Elite Youth Development Platform club." Few experts advised players to stay put or, better yet, find a club and/or coach that was better at teaching the game and really developing players.
If there is anything that singularly characterizes the current futility of the American youth soccer experience it’s the mindless pursuit of so-called “elite” leagues by players and especially their parents. But the players and parents are simply buying into a proven mythology that “elite” leagues develop players. This mythology is sold by a consortium of actors - a “Soccer Industrial Complex“ - comprised of “elite” leagues, their organizers and their member clubs, which tend to be the very largest and highest revenue producing clubs in the United States - the “Big Box Clubs”. It is an extremely symbiotic relationship revolving largely around massive amounts of money. The sales pitch involves the snake oil of “elite” status and player development achieved simply by playing in the "elite" league. The money part is obvious and offensive, but selling the mirage of ”elite” status and development by a league is more subtle and corrosive.
Unlike other countries with more evolved youth soccer cultures and structures, the U.S. has legions of youth players who define themselves not by the club that is primarily responsible for their soccer education, but instead by the league in which they play. This is a massive problem with our soccer culture! We need a culture of clubs, but we are feeding and embracing a culture of leagues. How many times have we heard a kid say they are a “DA player” or an “ECNL player” or how they made the DA Team or ECNL Team? Think about it. Think back on your interactions with players and how they describe or define themselves. This is how the vast majority of “Big Box” Club players define themselves or desperately hope to define themselves.
Somehow, in the minds of youth players and their parents, the “elite“ league has almost completely supplanted the youth club as the entity most responsible for their development and ultimate success as players. Real and honest soccer education or club culture is a distant consideration compared to the status of a player wearing an "elite" league patch on their shoulder. As a result, “elite” league clubs have become emblematic of the institutional laziness and educational failures of large format soccer clubs. Participation by these clubs in “elite” leagues gives them an extremely easy marketing tool to attract players and generate revenue. “DA” tryouts, “ECNL” tryouts - this is how ”Big Box” clubs market to players. Rarely do we see a “Big Box” club primarily marketing a unique playing philosophy, game model, or educational focus. At these clubs, “elite“ leagues are the main event and are used to recruit players and parents and generate revenue.
The truth is out there if you take the time to read it. The DA is dead. It was a dumb idea, but now it’s over. But here's another idea: Why don't we chase another "elite" league and this time we'll really create "world class" players? Do you see the insanity? We are being asked to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. As the tweet below shows, many different forces work to instill fear and panic in players about finding the next “elite” league. Find an "elite" league or you won’t get a college scholarship! Find an "elite" league or you won’t be ”seen”! Read that tweet again. "Clubs will be losing $". Does that sound like your kids' honest development as a player is at the heart of any of these "elite" leagues? Of course not! It means that being part of an "elite" league is BIG BUSINESS for these massive youth clubs. It means clubs will lose money as players jump ship to chase the next “elite” league.
Lonestar Soccer Club was a DA club in Austin, Texas. When the DA collapsed, they scrambled quickly to find a replacement league. According to the Austin American Statesman, the death of the DA leaves Lonestar, "a dominant force in local soccer since it launched in 2004", "threatened with the possibility of losing that status." Think about that. A league disappears and Lonestar is in danger of losing its status. The reporting makes it seem as if the only thing good about Lonestar was its participation in an "elite" league. That can't possibly be correct, right? Nevertheless, Lonestar is looking for a replacement "elite" league and will join the Girls Academy League (GAL), a brand new "elite" league competing with ECNL.
The scene in Austin is probably a great case study for exploring the insanity of "elite" leagues. Sting Austin joined ECNL in 2017. When the DA collapsed, the club found itself in a fantastic marketing position. Players at Lonestar and other former DA clubs think they need to find another club participating in an "elite" league and Austin Sting has just what they want. "Now, there is a bit of a panic among the area’s elite players...In the short term, Sting Austin has been gifted a massive opportunity. The club established in 2014 has only six teams with a total of about 150 players, but it has the ECNL status every top club in the country is jockeying to attain. now scrambling to find."
Panic. Status. This is exactly the problem we are facing. Apparently Lonestar is in a tough spot. They were in ECNL until the DA came along. Now it appears Lonestar has no way back. Sting Austin is the "ECNL Club" in the Austin metro area and there may not be room for another. Membership has privileges. "Ultimately, players and parents will be faced with yet another difficult decision. Do they continue with Lonestar, a proven entity in getting kids to college, or do they jump to Sting Austin in the more established ECNL? For girls in younger divisions, do they bank on Lonestar using its name to reclaim the top rung — either by proving it belongs in ECNL or helping lift the GA to equal standing in the eyes of college and youth national team scouts?"
Wow! The "elite" league drama here is intense. But here's the irony. The "elite" leagues know exactly what is going on. They know clubs are using "elite" league status to market, recruit players and generate revenue. They know that the exclusivity of membership they actively create stokes demand and feeds the panic and frenzy. Take it from Christian Lavers, the President of ECNL who apparently doesn’t have a lot of pity for a former member club: "If a club is going to lose a vast amount of players over a league spot, there’s a bigger problem in the club than the league spot,” Lavers said. “Leagues don’t develop soccer players. Clubs develop soccer players. There are clubs that are not in the league now that are going to do a great job even not being in the ECNL, and they’re going to get into the ECNL.”
Lavers is right, of course, leagues don’t develop players. The “Soccer Industrial Complex" has brainwashed players and parents into believing exactly the opposite. Lavers knows it and so do all the other "elite" league leaders, which now includes MLS. With the death of the DA we can see the brainwashing and the insanity more clearly. The truth is simple: clubs and coaches develop players, not leagues. Getting this message through to players and parents and waking them up from their trance is extremely difficult. Even with the death of the DA, you would think players and parents would start to question the investment in "elite" leagues. Sadly, that is not the case. The more money these players and parents invest in "elite" leagues, the more mentally entrenched they become in that system. After all, no one likes to be told they invested a lot of money in a failed venture.
But don’t overlook the subtext in Lavers comment: ”league spots”. Like DA and every other “elite” league, ECNL is a closed league and uses its exclusivity to create demand and panic. It hands out “league spots” like a franchise. Clubs and teams can’t earn their way into the league through promotion/relegation. It’s a status that is granted. This is a massive part of the culture problem afflicting youth soccer in the U.S.
Two weeks ago I was training outside with my son when a man and his son stopped to watch. His boy was probably 9 or 10 years old. My son was wearing his Eagleclaw training kit. The man yelled, "Hey, your son is pretty good. What club is he with?" I replied, "Eagleclaw FC." Without skipping a beat the man replied, "What league do you play in?"
This is the problem we face and it is systemic and deeply engrained. America desperately needs a culture of clubs, not a culture of leagues.