When the US bid and won the 1994 World Cup, FIFA laid down one requirement: the tournament must result in a US domestic league; a league that could would both help develop top-level soccer talent at the youth level, and serve as the destination for the best American soccer players. Major League Soccer was created not just to allow fans of the most popular sport on earth to have a local club: it was created as an incubator for American youth soccer at a higher level.
Twenty years on, the Rapids have developed a couple of professional soccer players out of their academy: Shane O'Neill, Davy Armstrong, and Dillon Serna. But obviously, those players represent a tiny fraction of roster spots. They also have have a limited impact on the team's success. And... it's been a while since any Academy player made the senior roster. Serna and O'Neill were signed in 2012. The only MLS teams to have gone that long without an Academy signing are Portland and NYCFC; neither of whom have even signed a youth player to their Senior roster in their history.
This is the first part of a three-part series on the Rapids Development Academy. This article will serve as a basic primer and update about the state of our Rapids Youth development pipeline. In parts two and three, I sit down down with Colorado Rapids Senior Director of Soccer Development Brian Crookham to find out where we are, and where Crookham thinks we're going.
What, exactly, is the Academy?
Youth soccer in the US is a rigorously tiered system teams, organized by both talent and age. The major youth teams in the Colorado region; Colorado Rush, Colorado Storm, Real Colorado, St Vrain, Pride, and the Rapids; maintain a top-tier team at each of the age-divisions (U18, U16, etc) called their ‘Academy' team. In addition, they have several teams in each division that are a notch below the top. The Rapids designate these teams ‘Burgundy' and ‘White'. And then there are recreational teams.
Rapids academy boys teams at the U18, U16, and U14 level are free: travel, uniforms, and fees are waived. Other teams are ‘pay-to-play', and for travel teams, that can run families well into the five-figures.
It's not an ideal structure for producing a bevy of US soccer talent, and it creates an inequitable soccer divide based on class and race in our country. But that's another article entirely.
Who do they play?
Academy teams play other academy teams all over the US. All are overseen and accredited by the US Soccer Development Academy (USSDA) program, under the direction of US Soccer. Each is arranged regionally, and teams schedule most or all of their games against other USSDA teams. At the end of the season, which runs September to April, the top 32 (out of 74 in the U18s and U16s) are invited to the USSDA Playoffs, which concluded this past weekend in Frisco, Texas.
So, uh, how'd the Rapids do this season?
Not good. Here's the U16 results:
And the U18 results:
So that's 9-13-4 (WLT) for the U16s, and a lousy 4-17-5 for the U18s, with a -27 goal differential for them.
There might be an individual talent or two wedged in between an overall sub-par team of youngsters, but it's hard to discern that. On its face, the Rapids academy teams haven't produced a Senior team player in four years, and based on current performance, it would be a surprise if they produced an MLS-caliber player in the next three years.
How about other Colorado teams? And does that matter?
Rush and Real's U18 teams were a little better, finishing 6th and 8th in their USSDA division, respectively. Rush's U16 finished last, but Real qualified for the playoffs with a 16-4-6 record. They went on to top Group F with wins over Orlando City and Columbus Crew's academies, and a tie against the San Jose Earthquake U16s.
Does that matter? Sort of? Not really? It tells us that there is talent in the Colorado area for boys soccer. And it's not all concentrated with the Rapids. If a player felt ready to jump to pro soccer at the age of 18, or felt an affinity to Colorado and wanted to stay, that could mean that a Rush or Real player might switch club teams, since only the Colorado Rapids have a D1 senior professional team. And six current Rapids U16 came from Real, Pride, or Rush.
If the Rapids want to sign a youth player to a professional contract, they can do that outright with any player in their academy at any time. Additionally, the Rapids MLS team can designate any player that comes from their academy team as a ‘Homegrown Player', even if they don't sign them immediately to the Rapids 28-man roster. There are a few benefits to having an HGP. For one, their salary doesn't count against the MLS salary cap. For another, an HGP player that comes out of the Rapids academy and goes off to college can be signed outright by the Rapids at any time over the next four years: they won't be subject to the MLS Superdraft. That's why the Rapids could let Dillon Serna head off to the University of Akron, watch how he did, and then sign him after his first year when he looked ready for the Senior team. So an HGP is kind of like having a bunch of draft picks, stashed all over the country, while their development is paid for by university academic scholarships.
Unfortunately, a Rush or Real player isn't available as an HGP for the Rapids - only players out of the Rapids system can earn the tag. So as much as it is nice to see talented local kids make good, if they didn't play in the Rapids Academy, they don't help the senior team much at all. That's why Colorado product Taylor Kemp is a right back for DC United. Since he played for the Colorado Foxes, he went to the 2013 SuperDraft..
Where would a Homegrown Academy player play if not for the Rapids senior team?
The Rapids don't own a USL team. We have an affiliation with the Charlotte Independence, but although the Rapids regularly stash around four players with them annually, we don't control the Independence. The front office doesn't have the right to place twenty-three youngsters there. Additionally, there's the practical challenge of having a large coaching staff operate out of the Commerce City office working with your Academy and your Senior team... but not the four guys in North Carolina. That's a problem.
What that means is: if a Rapids Academy player is really talented, but not quite ready to step onto the field alongside Jermaine Jones and Shkelzen Gashi, we let them go to college. At that point, the Rapids coaching staff has to trust that the player will continue to develop under the tutelage of an NCAA coach. The other problem with sending a soccer player to college is the NCAA soccer structure itself. The NCAA season is four months long, and teams play between 21 and 28 games in that short time.
Then, NCAA players are off for eight months, training not included. Some players will join PDL amateur teams in summer, but not all. The Rapids, with this in mind, will have some of their college homegrowns playing with a brand-spankin' new U23 side. Their first game is Wednesday versus #bullshitpubteam Harpos FC.
This NCAA setup isn't great for US soccer development: players get too many games in too short a time, and the season isn't anything at all like the length or intensity of the professional game in any league. That's in addition to the long-held belief that college soccer emphasizes physical skills over technical ones. US Soccer recognizes the problem, and Technical Director Jurgen Klinsmann is on-record as supporting systemic changes to the NCAA that would improve soccer in the US. Whether that happens or not is another story.
Should I even care about the Academy? Why don't we just buy players and draft players? Seems to work so far in 2016.
The Rapids sit top of the table in both the Supporters Shield and Western Conference. They've purchased three Designated Players in the last 12 months: Kevin Doyle, Shkelzen Gashi, and now Tim Howard. Off-season acquisitions Zac MacMath, Jermaine Jones and Marco Pappa have helped turned last years pumpkin into a nifty carriage. And Superdraft selections like Axel Sjoberg have been critical elements to a successful 2016. So who needs an academy?
One could easily argue that a solid youth development system is unnecessary to a successful MLS team. And until recently, they'd probably be right. No team has won MLS Cup thanks to their own homegrown players.
Yet. But the NY Red Bulls just signed six academy players. Atlanta United signed their first homegrown before they even have a Senior team.
FC Dallas' academy U18 was the best in USSDA, and it's U16 team was number 2 in the division. FCD is so stacked with youth, they could sell talented midfield playmaker Alex Zendejas to Chivas Guadalajara.
That's money the club can use both in acquiring players over the MLS cap next year - teams receive additional undisclosed allocation dollars to compensate player sales. So it's beneficial and lucrative to develop your own academy talent. Not only that, but staffing and funding a youth system can cost a team between $2-4 million. The Red Bulls, meanwhile, sold Matt Miazga for $5 million.
So first of all, many MLS teams are building strong teams with kids out of their academies. Second, developing a talented player can be financially lucrative if you end of selling them on.
A good player can both help your team win and more than pay for the investment they made. I'm sure the Sounders are feeling pretty good about having developed Jordan Morris. Lastly, if your team has an identity or a philosophy, your academy can potentially produce the thing you want a lot easier than trying to acquire it on the free market. If you want to develop players that can run for days, then that is something you scout and train for at your academy. If technical prowess is going to be your hallmark, then look for those guys and train them the way you want them to play. Having a strong academy is good for business and good for winning soccer games.
So we're not where we need to be. How do we get there?
With all of the above facts in place, and all of the challenges clearly before us, there were a lot of things to talk about with Rapids Soccer Development Director Brian Crookham. Part 2 of my series on the Rapids Academy continues later this week.