MLS NEXT Elevating Youth Soccer and Overcoming Challenges in North America
When the U.S. Soccer Federation made the decision to close down the Development Academy due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a void was left in the realm of youth soccer.
However, shortly after the conclusion of the league's operations in April 2020, MLS unveiled its ambitious project - MLS NEXT. The recent MLS NEXT All-Star Game presented by Allstate in July marked an unofficial close to the league's third year.
Numerous significant milestones have been achieved during this three-year period, including the establishment of a robust platform aimed at fostering competitive talent, the creation of an event schedule that can be scouted by college recruiters, pro scouts, and national teams, the implementation of standardized regulations throughout the league, and the addition of high-quality teams across various age groups throughout North America.
Among the crucial tasks on the agenda, winning the trust and support of an already-established youth soccer community has been paramount.
Fred Lipka, MLS Vice President of Player & Youth Development, explained, "There might have been skepticism about our ability to take over from our competition, specifically the Development Academy. We aimed to reassure that we could provide the same level of competition and a clear pathway, while also bringing our distinctive approach into the fold. I believe we successfully convinced everyone that we could match the achievements of the DA."
Looking ahead to the 2023-24 club season, MLS NEXT is poised to showcase an impressive lineup of 143 clubs, encompassing 677 teams and over 15,000 players across the United States and Canada. These teams span a range of age groups from U-13 to U-19. A multitude of players from MLS NEXT clubs are poised to make a significant impact on NCAA college programs this upcoming fall. Apart from regular league matches, three flagship events - Fest, Flex, and MLS NEXT Cup - offer national exposure to both MLS and non-MLS teams.
As MLS NEXT charts its course into the future, the focus remains on constant refinement and enhancement.
Fred Lipka elaborated, "The initial phase of MLS NEXT can be deemed a success. The subsequent phase aims to adopt a more holistic approach encompassing teams, coaches, and families. We're committed to fine-tuning their aspirations in terms of player development and playing style. Our primary objective is to support our players and coaches, thereby enhancing the value we provide."
Justin Bokmeyer, MLS NEXT General Manager, added, "We have the opportunity to evolve MLS NEXT, transforming it from its inception to its full potential. Our mission is to craft a unified vision and objectives, empowering clubs to determine how they will attain these goals. While the clubs are responsible for the competitive and developmental aspects, which we as a league cannot control, we can certainly assist in establishing the necessary framework."
The introduction of new technology will play a pivotal role in shaping this evolving framework. Through a partnership with Kitman Labs, innovative software will offer a range of off-field advantages, including player registration, schedule management, and performance analysis. Furthermore, a collaboration with ai.io will introduce artificial intelligence into the scouting process.
While a specific style of play or tactics will not be mandated, according to Lipka, there is alignment with the principle of developing players with a possession-oriented approach. However, there will be no dictate regarding a particular formation, in contrast to the era of the Development Academy when many clubs were confined to a 4-3-3 formation.
During his time in the United States, Lipka has observed an overemphasis on match outcomes. While this approach contributes to a competitive sporting culture, it can potentially hinder individual player development, especially when winning takes precedence over personal growth.
Lipka emphasized, "Numerous coaches excel without necessarily clinching the [MLS] NEXT Cup. Their contributions often go unrecognized. The message to parents is that exceptional coaches and developers are not solely those who secure victories in the NEXT Cup or similar events."
"Sometimes, it's the coach who creates a culture conducive to individual player development, establishing effective communication with all team members, ensuring that everyone benefits. The prevailing soccer culture in the U.S. is too fixated on outcomes, neglecting meaningful discussions about the essence of the sport."
When the focus is shifted towards player development rather than mere on-field results, the success of the professionals produced serves as a relevant yardstick for the league's accomplishments.
Although MLS NEXT is still in its early stages, the previous existence of its teams within the Development Academy framework provides valuable early benchmarks. Among the 44 players who participated in the MLS NEXT All-Star Game earlier this summer, 16 have secured homegrown contracts or joined MLS NEXT Pro teams. Ten of these players are set to embark on college soccer journeys at esteemed Division I programs in 2023 or 2024.
MLS NEXT players have also played pivotal roles in national youth teams. At the 2023 Under-17 Concacaf Championship, 16 out of 20 US players hailed from NEXT squads. For Canada, the number was 17. Players from MLS NEXT club teams were called up to represent countries including Mexico, Guatemala, Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica, Honduras, Haiti, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, and Bermuda, among others.
Alyssa Thompson, a member of the US women's national team World Cup squad, honed her skills in the league while playing for Total Futbol Academy in Southern California.
The journey of Benjamin Cremaschi stands as a vivid example of the academy pathway's success within MLS. In 2021, Cremaschi was named the Under-16 MLS NEXT MVP while competing for Weston FC in South Florida. Subsequently, he joined Inter Miami’s Academy, signed a professional contract, and is now a regular starter alongside Lionel Messi and other stars on Miami's first team. This trajectory exemplifies the growing trend of Homegrown players establishing successful professional careers through academy systems. Many others are progressing through youth setups and making substantial contributions to MLS first teams.
Fred Lipka reflected, "Seven years ago, the notion of an 18 or 19-year-old player making a significant impact, even starting in MLS, was a subject of debate. Over the course of five to six years, we've fundamentally altered this narrative. We've demonstrated that these young players can indeed become stars, and investing in their development yields increasingly positive outcomes. Jesús Ferreira, for instance, stands out as one of the league's top scorers. We've been able to sell players, and our young talents are making a meaningful impact on the game."
While ensuring top players transition to the professional league remains a crucial aspect of MLS NEXT's mission, it constitutes only one facet of a multifaceted mandate.
Continuing to address challenges, particularly by offering holistic development beyond the scope of potential professional athletes, is an important focus for Justin Bokmeyer.
Drawing from his military background, Bokmeyer emphasized, "Based on my experience, I'm keen on ensuring comprehensive development for these players. This involves collaborating with college coaches, creating off-field programs, and equipping them for success both on and off the field."
Bokmeyer and his team plan to directly engage with clubs to ensure the attainment of these objectives.
Maintaining a balance between collaborative efforts and empowering individual clubs to manage their respective developmental environments is pivotal for the league's triumph. Ultimately, the aim is to provide athletes with the best opportunities to realize their potential, both in terms of their athletic abilities and their personal growth.