Last week brought the news that the United Soccer League was continuing its restructure, unveiling plans to create a fourth competition with the introduction of the USL Academy Cup later in the year, the organization’s first formal foray into academy soccer. Having moved the entire academy out to Montverde and with the imminent relaunch of Orlando City B, where does both the restructure and the new Academy Cup leave Orlando City?
It’s no secret that the soccer landscape in America has been far from simple to follow. A convoluted web of separate, yet sometimes equal, leagues have come in and out of existence with varying success. Within the last couple of years, the USL ran parallel with the North American Soccer League, both holding second division status in 2017 as sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation.
This was after the USL was a third tier league even as recently as when OCB was a member in 2016. Since then, a dispute with the USSF forced the NASL into hiatus, where it still remains, while MLS ended its dedicated MLS Reserve league back in 2014, instead requiring teams to enter their reserve teams into the USL or to affiliate with an existing USL team, like Orlando did with Louisville City in 2015.
To add to the matter, a further new third division, the National Independent Soccer Association, has put forward intentions to begin play in August this year. Teams have not been immune to adding to the confusion either, with countless going on hiatus, changing league affiliation, relocating, or folding altogether. In short, there hasn’t been much by way of stability and, as a result, it has proven difficult to properly provide a clear, concise, and reliable pathway from the youth to the professional level.
As of 2019, the USL has created three leagues: USL Championship (USLC), USL League One (USL1), and USL League Two (USL2).
- USLC is simply a rebranded USL, a thriving league that is now the sole second division in U.S. soccer and currently contains 36 teams.
- USL1 is a brand new, fully professional third division that technically contains 12 teams, although only 10 are set to contest the inaugural season beginning later this month, with the newly reformed OCB being one of them. It is the lowest level of professional soccer in the country.
- USL2, unofficially a fourth division, as USSF does not recognize formal levels below the third tier, is now what was formerly known as the Premier Development League. The highest level amateur league was a regular landing spot for elite collegiate talent prior to their MLS draft eligibility. It sits roughly equal to the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), although the NPSL has no age restrictions, unlike the USL2.
When the USL originally launched the reformat, it marketed USL2 as #Path2Pro, but with the new USL Academy announcement, it appears the league already has plans to extend that vision even further. It should be applauded that the USL continues to take such a significant hands-on role in the nation’s youth development. As its partnership with MLS enters its seventh season, 21 of MLS’ 24 teams have USL ties. Twelve teams operate their own reserve sides (nine in USLC and three in USL1), while nine have affiliate agreements, including two with so-called “hybrid” deals (eight in USLC and one in USL1).
Fielding reserve teams in professional leagues is nothing new. In Spain, for example, reserve sides compete in the same league system, although they are not eligible for promotion to the same division as their parent club, nor can they compete in the Copa del Rey. But other countries, such as England, continue to run dedicated and separate reserve leagues, with the English system running a two-tier system across two age groups.
The USL therefore currently sits in an unusual middle ground as an American hybrid of both systems (minus the promotion/relegation, obviously). The biggest teams, like the hugely successful New York Red Bulls and Portland Timbers systems, not only have a reserve side capable of challenging in the USLC like a La Liga reserve team, but they also run U-23 teams in the amateur USL2 league for players too old to be in academies but not quite at the level of the USLC.
Meanwhile, teams like Orlando City (along with Toronto and FC Dallas) have essentially condensed both of those levels into one, and will field their U-23/reserve hybrid team in the USL1. Orlando folded its U-23 side in 2015 in lieu of OCB’s creation, with the team initially entering what is now the USLC before the hiatus.
The new OCB squad has an average age of just over 20, with the oldest, Evan John, having just turned 24 earlier this year. Coupled with new Executive Vice President of Soccer Operations Luiz Muzzi’s impeccable record of Homegrown Players with Dallas, there’s hope the latest move to USL1 will lay the groundwork for a similar set of results in Central Florida in the future.
FC Dallas’ 2–1 win over Colorado at the weekend saw the Texas team start five Homegrown Players. Orlando City B’s success will not be measured by the final table standings, but by how many players it manages to develop for the senior MLS side, a process that has already started with the likes of OCB midfielder and academy product Jordan Bender already seeing senior minutes in the Orlando City Invitational during the preseason.
Where the Academy Cup Fits In
The move to create the USL Academy Cup seems like the next logical step in formalizing the USL’s vision for soccer infrastructure, giving the opportunity for all its member clubs to host their own academies and bring a level of continuity to the development ladder. It’s not that academy programs don’t already exist. Many sides already have U.S. Soccer Development Academy (DA) or Elite Club National League (ECNL) teams. Indeed, there is a massive surplus with DAs currently boasting 197 clubs scattered across the country, while ECNL lists 94.
The USL’s issue is the lack of alignment. Many of those teams do not have a direct link to professional sides and there are plenty of USL teams across all three levels that currently have no youth setup whatsoever. Only 32 of the USL’s 118 clubs currently have teams competing in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and a only 10 have teams that compete in other competitions. Meanwhile, a side like Louisville City, which is coming off the defense of its USL title still has no youth program at all.
The USL’s intention, therefore, is not to eliminate those academies but instead to realign them by getting pro teams to engage with community clubs in their shared mission of developing professional players locally and providing a realistic vision of a path to pro soccer. Whether it be by absorbing them into their professional brand, creating formal affiliations, or pooling regional talent in Centers of Excellence, this is what the USL is aiming for.
In theory, having a collective approach with the support of a professional team has very little downside, as pro teams help offset costs. This approach also grows the potential of selling leagues, increases local fan engagement, and helps to accelerate those teams’ timelines that haven’t been able to write a blank check to fully fund a youth program, top to bottom.
Orlando City already has academy sides though, so how does this help OCSC? Well, it does little to affect the OCSC pipeline on a macro level in comparison to other clubs that have no existing academy. However, it could potentially extend the team’s reach and do a better job at identifying local talent earlier and providing these players with better facilities and coaching. What’s more appealing is the competition itself, even in its soft launch.
Initially, the USL Academy Cup looks similar to what the U.S. Open Cup is to professional sides and mirrors what MLS does with the Generation Adidas Cup. Spread across two age groups, it brings academies from the clubs across all three levels of the USL into one tournament.
The U-17s will compete in two regional qualifiers split between the Eastern and Western Conference. Regional results will determine seeding and placement ahead of the national event in May.
The U-13 age group will just compete at the national events. USL Senior Director of Youth Development Liam O’Connell stressed that the USL doesn’t want to cull existing competitions and monopolize the youth market. The competition will merely help flesh out the calendar with an elite competition while keeping costs as low as possible, hence the U-13s not having to go through regional qualifiers. Targeting two key pre-professional age groups, and under the guise of the USL and its professional partners, the competition has the potential to reinforce ideals and aspirations for players hoping to make it in professional soccer without moving abroad.
It might all seem like a pipe dream right now and, frankly, the scale is vast, with the individual nuances of each region, club, or even player far too complex to examine individually. Nor is there any way of predicting the impact the new competition will have both in its debut year and down the road. But in the simplest of terms, it’s a step or two in the right direction for Orlando City and soccer in this country.