In mid-April, U.S. Soccer announced that financial circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic were forcing it to end operation of its Development Academy, effective immediately.
The announcement signaled the discontinuance of a program that was heralded as the most effective means by which to prepare elite American players for the highest levels of soccer and improve the sport nationally. The Development Academy (DA) also restricted its players from competing for their high schools, removing many of the country’s most elite athletes from the prep sports talent pool.
With U.S. Soccer removing the DA from the national soccer landscape, a significant number of elite players are now at least being given the option to return to their respective high school programs. That’s bound to have an impact on how the prep sports scene looks when action eventually returns.
“I believe we will see some significant changes,” Broomfield boys and girls head coach Jim Davidson said. “I think there are some players that do believe an academy-like system is in their best interest and they will still try to do that and not participate in high school soccer. I’ve also already had a number of players who have been playing in the academy setting reach out to me and say they are excited about coming back to play high school soccer again.”
The DA was often effective at producing world-class talent. It had also become a somewhat polarizing league, and many had come to view it as a pay-to-play environment that contributed to a watered-down and byzantine club system. There has long been infighting and debate on all sides over which developmental model is best for young players in the country, in which unique challenges like geography create roadblocks that other nations don’t face.
The dissolution of the U.S. SA doesn’t mean that the soccer academy model is going to just disappear, either. It is, however, certain to change in ways that are not yet clear.
“I think there’s been a little bit of a lack of direction and also a lack of results at the higher levels,” Davidson said. “A lot of this was driven by the coronavirus and a lack of funding, but there’s also been a push by the MLS (Major League Soccer) to have an MLS-only academy model. That seems to be the direction the academy model will go.”
The effects, or any potential benefits, at the high school level are also yet to be determined.
Davidson believes the opportunity for DA players, many of whom will still opt to only play academy soccer, to play prep soccer could expose them to advantages like playing with their high school friends, representing their communities and competing for their schools. He also said he expects to see more of a change on the boys side rather than with the girls, who have more opportunities to play club with organizations like the Elite Clubs National League that don’t restrict players from also playing high school soccer.
Davidson also expects to see more significant changes in areas where former Development Academy clubs like FC Boulder, Real Colorado and Colorado Rush are located. On a Zoom video chat with Wake Forest head men’s soccer coach Bobby Muuss, Davidson said Muuss told him he was excited about the possibility that kids will have an opportunity to develop leadership skills that he believes develop faster while playing at the high school level than while playing only in one age group. High school coaches might also be increasingly relied upon to play their own larger role in player development.
“We’re not going to be relied on more to really challenge players and push them to develop technically and tactically,” Davidson said “We’ve got to be able to push those players and serve those kids so they’re growing as players and as people.”
One undeniable change is that the balance of power in Colorado prep soccer could swing heavily if players like Dawson junior Degen Miller, who was named CHSAA 2A Player of the Year in 2019 before opting for the Development Academy route, should return. That is, of course, now entirely up to the players themselves. Dawson head coach Dave Criswell thinks that agency is probably a good thing for young athletes.
“We’ve always been completely supportive of Degen and her choice to play DA this year, which restricts her ability to play high school to control the training and game schedule for their athletes,” Criswell said. “It was a hard choice for her because she’s such an incredible teammate. Whatever ends up being the case next, we’ll support her and whatever other athletes who come through Dawson.
“We want to do what’s best for the player.”