MLS Academies Need More, and Better, Competition

So, I’ve harped on the fact that competition in the US isn’t a good gauge of where we’re at. International competition is the barometer.

As such, the past 5 years we’ve gone on international trips with a group of players to play in legitimate competitions against the best academies in the world. Full matches vs FC Barcelona and Man City, among others, have been captured.

The latest installment was with our neighbors down south, Mexico.

The top 4 Mexican teams joined 4 MLS sides in a round-robin at #LigaMXInternacional.

Our first 3 games were vs MLS sides. All of them were won with 6 GF, 0 GA. 9 points. Which practically assured advancement to the final.

In the final we lost 4-2 to Xolos.

I encourage you to watch the match as I think there’s a lot that can be learned.

I’m more than happy to comment on the array of conclusions that were drawn (hint: they’re almost all positive – the team was excellent, and the individual players are on a top level trajectory).

There’s one overarching conclusion I’d like to share here though. It’s the one I opened this article with, and is a constant across all our international experiences.

We don’t have the requisite week in, week out, competition in the United States.

With due respect, playing against youth clubs with no pro team (i.e. amateur clubs) does us no good. It’s too easy. Pound for pound, not only is our roster superior, but the entire development environment from proper training, to facilities, to incentives, make the team too good to play against the amateur sides.

Against current domestic opponents, our players can take plays off knowing we’ll rarely get punished.

Against current domestic opponents, our attackers can take 7 touches in the box and still get a shot off and score.

Internationally, you don’t have these luxuries.

Same goes for every player in every position. Domestically, there’s far more time and space. Internationally, you can barely breathe.

In other words, our competitive environment instills poor habits and impedes development.

Remember, the context is developing top shelf professionals. That’s the objective of a legitimate academy.

What’s the status quo solution?

If MLS academy teams are the strongest, then superficial logic drives one to conclude they should just be playing each other and not against academy teams from amateur clubs.

For us, though, that would still be a problem. MLS teams are all pretty much the same. They don’t really give you different looks in terms of style of play. On the team front, there’s almost no top-shelf orchestration going on. Yes, a few coaches are trying some orchestrated tactics, but it’s simply not up to snuff.

On the player front, in general, they don’t have that intelligence, that nastiness, that craftiness, that wisdom, their international counterparts do – they’re very naive. That, in turn, contributes to our players staying naive as well.

Yes, in terms of the scoreboard, a game may be lost here or there. But the lessons derived from those losses aren’t remotely the same.

Now, that’s just looking at our particular player development needs. If we zoom out, the status quo solution is still a poor one for all clubs and franchises across many factors – from the impracticality of economies of scale, to the lack of establishing a wealth of fierce regional competition which makes for a healthy local talent pipeline.

What’s the proper solution?

Well, the reason MLS academies are stronger than youth-only clubs is simple – they have a pro team.

That, by default:

  • Siphons the *better players away from the amateur clubs to the pro organizations.
  • Generally provides a better overall environment.
If we want MLS franchises to have more and better competition, we must enable others to compete with them.


You open the soccer economy to all clubs. For those of you who aren’t aware, that means opening the pyramid (aka promotion & relegation at the pro level).

When you open the pyramid, there is more competition for MLS franchises.
They will no longer have a monopoly on their geographic player pool.
They will no longer be the only ones with an incentive to develop professionals.

Opening the pyramid provides a real business case for existing lower division pro clubs to take player development serious. Currently most don’t even have youth teams, let alone take it serious. So of course MLS academies aren’t being challenged.

It also provides historically youth-only clubs a real business case for launching their own first teams. That, in turn, obviously stimulates them to take player development seriously.

It mobilizes investors & capital currently locked out of MLS to flow into lower division clubs, which as mentioned above, would now have a strong incentive to develop and field far more serious youth sides.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is how top performing ecosystems work.

It’s called an open economic market. Open markets create fierce competition.

Competition, which as we’ve described and MLS academies will attest, is currently weak.

So, if we want to give the LA Galaxy academy fierce local and regional competition, this is the solution. If we don’t, that’s fine, just start understanding our country’s development potential will not be realized.

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  1. Ali says

    I saw this game Live on one of the Spanish channel. It was a great game. It was tough watching them during the trophy/medals presentation as I too had tears when seeing them with tears in their eyes. All the hard work the players put in that game not come to fruition was tough, but thats what this beautiful game brings. I wish you continued success and am still waiting to get you to come over to our club and train our boys.

    • says

      Thank you, Ali.

      The players of course wanted it, but they have a great future. They’ll have more opportunities and will look back at this and realize its importance in their trajectory.

  2. HTPLBC says

    Do you think maybe the boys should be playing up in age at the Academy level? Would that help in their ability to create a get shots off with less touches? Might be too simple of a solution but I ask myself this question a lot. I’d love to hear your pros and cons about this.

    • says

      Good questions.

      They’ve mostly been playing up their whole youth careers, including the past several years in the academy.

      It has helped, to a certain degree.

      But playing up doesn’t address the fact those opponents are not using tactical orchestrations and individual craftiness to break you down (on both sides of the ball). So the result is you’re just playing against a more physical team, and NOT a high level team.

      What we need are opponents that operate at a high level. There aren’t any in American soccer.

  3. Coach S says

    I agree with your primary point, and appreciate your (and I assume Brian’s) candor, as you are now part of the “establishment” and I am sure there are those who disagree with your stance based on monetary reasons.

    Regarding this game; I am wondering how the team would have fared had they faced that team earlier in the tournament? Was fatigue another issue? Technical breakdowns really hurt them.

    Thanks for posting!

    • says

      The team did face Xolos earlier (the 7th and last game of the round-robin). See here:
      But that game was completely meaningless (more like a forced scrimmage) as LAG was already qualified to the final. Both teams totally mixed and matched their lineups.

      Fatigue a factor? Absolutely.
      8 games in 10 days doesn’t set up a final where both teams are operating anywhere near a good competitive form.

  4. Steve says

    This is the best, most thoughtful argument I’ve ever seen for pro/rel. It’s typically a lot of magic thinking from people, and this is concrete.

    One thing of note is USYNT does pretty well in international competition, until about U19 when they start falling behind. This is for varied reasons (relying too much on athleticism, for example), but a big contributing factor is competition dwindles with age as players drop out of the sport for college, etc, and because there just aren’t enough professional teams.

    If there’s any counter to this, it’s got to be the fact that Team USA walks into the Olympic and World Championship tournaments in basketball, hockey, water polo, etc and can expect to be at the top, if not win every game. What makes soccer unique that it requires an “open” system to develop players?

  5. Michael says

    The other piece of this argument is that not all MLS franchises see value in the Academy and are not fully invested. It is also my understanding that there are more than a few MLS franchises that only have an academy because it is mandated by the USSF and therefore operate on minimal budgets. Perhaps with an open system these very same franchises might be more interested in youth investment and development with the potential threat of teams rising the ranks through their own youth development. This of course would limit MLS’s ability to simply skim the talent out of those systems because they have a first division entitlement. Furthermore, the very real threat that they would be replaced in the first division by these very same clubs would seem to be ample motivation to focus on the development side of the game.

    But in fairness to these franchises, they did not pay $100 million to be part of a country club that would allow everyone and anyone in, no matter how much those others earned it! They payed to be exclusive. Even if it means the best version of the game would be played elsewhere!

  6. Geeps says

    Bottom line: non-MLS pay for pay clubs cannot compete with MLS for reasons you state. At least as currently devised by USSF.

    If a youth club all of a sudden had the opportunity for solidarity payments and investing in a first team to work their way up the pyramid – you better believe the investment, incentive, and opportunity would fundamentally change the dynamic. As important to soccer development as concrete, electricity, the wheel, and capitalism was to mankind being where it is today. Promotion/relegation and all the benefits (e.g., solidarity payments, independent clubs, international schedule, proper loaning of players, development academies who’s # mission is to identify and develop professional players) is inseparable from a properly functioning football system.

    USSF the federation is here in part to solve football problems to help the host nation achieve success at all levels. What problem are they solving with closed system? USSF perpetuates American football problems, not help fix them.

    Sunil Gulati as head of USSF is the #1 enemy of a Protestant Revolution, Medieval Enlightenment style fundamental soccer movement. He’s had a few decades with his hands messing things up for generations past and many to come. I’m not sure how much more the pro/rel movement can do to make the case. USSF is a functioning dictatorship.

    Sure Libya has elections, but el presidente always wins. The only way to change is ugly total restart. 5-10 years tops and America passes point of no return as MLS expands and stranglehold tightens.

  7. DAVID says

    Hi Gary,

    Enjoy your passion about the soccer and your efforts to change the soccer landscape in the US.
    Do you think the level difference between MLS -academies and non-MLS academies is due to coaching (quality of coaches) or mostly because of player talent level differences?

  8. Kana says

    Just as ticket and jersey sales and watching on TV, more competition for MLS academies ultimately serves to help MLS. Watch European teams in summer friendlies, only serves to help the MLS/SUM/USSF triad.

    They got us hook, line and sinker!

    MLS is a monopolistic cartel. SUM helps finance it. USSF protects it from FIFA.

    The reason they are all against pro/rel is simple: they will lose power, especially MLS.

    NASL was franchise model. We repeated it with MLS. When closed leagues go belly-up, all franchises go with it. When a franchise goes belly-up, it cannot go to a lower division to reorg financially and then go back up to first division.

    An open system has most diversity of investment. individual clubs, not the league or franchises has the risk. As an economist, I’m not sure how Gulati accepts the all eggs in single bucket system rather than diversification, incentive, opportunity.

    Sunil Gulat is bought and sold by MLS. As simple as that.

    What MLS Academies needs is an open system. Then it can develop and sell player contracts to various clubs within the pyramid. They then grow and gain experience.

    In current model, more competition only serves to strengthen MLS.

  9. Kana says

    Pro/rel is the proper thing to to. The second America goes pro/rel, MLS will lose it’s power grip on American soccer. They will act like any other league: there to provide a “league” open to any club given their level of ability. No longer will players be employees of MLS. No longer will the chummy relationship between MLS and USSF be so powerful.

    It’s all about control.

    I say MLS academies need to fail. Make painful step back to move forward. If MLS academies get better, MLS more and more controlling. “See MLS does develop . . . .” And the more franchises there are, the more MLS is in control.

    • R2Dad says

      I don’t think academy failure is required–I see a different path to pro/rel. Eventually MLS will become “full”. Garber will cap the league at X teams (40?). After that, NASL will handle all overflow interest in professional soccer. Once NASL reaches critical mass, MLS will have to buy it out or otherwise become marginalized due to the superior NASL business model. MLS will then enforce pro/rel as a means to keep NASL teams down, only slowly allowing one or two teams up each season while sending teams the other way. Unfortunately, this acquisition won’t occur for another 20 years. Maybe by then Gulati and Garber will be gone and we can move forward.

  10. Kana says

    What MLS Academies needs is an open system.
    What MLS Academies needs is an open system.
    What MLS Academies needs is an open system.

    Repeat a millions times!

  11. Kana says

    Couple thoughts:

    1) Soft doesn’t mean Pillsbury Doughboy. It means that our ecosystem (U6 – through professional ranks) isn’t setup to highest international standards. We don’t have a pyramid where several dozens of clubs that can compete and incentivized to get to the next or highest level based on sporting merit.

    Sporting merit is directly correlated to what a club (i.e., its owners) put into the product. The number of clubs (N) that can contribute to a nation’s overall football success is based on this rough equation I made up:

    N = number of independent clubs * number of youth players identified * the fraction of players who develop to professional prospects * the fraction of qualified coaches * fraction that have elite academies * fraction of clubs that participate in high level competition * fraction of clubs with financial ability * fraction of clubs with visionary leadership to achieve success.

    Strangely enough, if you consider individual variables, it’s exactly what the top footballing nations must maneuver to achieve their rightful place in their given pyramid.

    I’m no mathematician (someone please correct me if my equation needs modifying), but I think you get where I’m going. That is, the number of clubs within the pyramid that are connected to professional football is critical. The larger the number, the higher the probability of producing greater numbers of elite players. As you get more elite players, competition increases. That ultimately trickles down to lower divisions as there is a large enough pool of players to fill each level. “You play at the level you are most suited for.” Sporting merit applies to clubs and players.

    Like any equation, each variable is subject to randomness that doesn’t always translate to desired results. That’s how the free market and all of world football operates. Risk / Reward.

    USSF and MLS prevents all of above variables to either exist. Think of what I said: “the current system does not allow any of above to exist.” Think about it while comparing USA to Europe, Africa, South America, and now even many countries in Asia.

    2) I think I’ve proven or at least shown that the quantity and quality of a nation’s player quality is a function of (proportional to / correlated to) the number of clubs within a pyramid and ability to freely move between levels (leagues) based on sporting merit. This is foundational! Now the free market can work its magic.

    With over 10,000 clubs, 330 million people, political stability, strong dollar, one of best infrastructures in the world, more middle-class wealth than any other country, more millionaires and billionaires than any other country, a growing sport (soccer) with untapped potential, and the opportunity for investors across the world to come to the most powerful country in the world and invest in low cost lower division clubs and then reap rewards of first division football is a highly attractive opportunity. I find it impossible to believe rich oil sheiks, Russian oil tycoons, Asian investors, and many others won’t come looking to invest in this huge potential.

    Think back to the above equation. Imagine if we can go from 20 MLS teams and their academies, to 100 clubs across 5 leagues or 200 clubs in 10 leagues. Imagine that in an open pyramid with influx of investment. Imagine what the competition for clubs to develop players and sell their contracts or put them on first team will do to player ID and development. Think of how it will push coaching to new levels. The free market mechanisms will demand it. In a closed system, these mechanisms are shut off or sub-optimized as its limited competition across a tiny fraction of the potential ecosystem.

    There will be winners and losers, but that’s how it is in free market. We should be focusing on the overwhelming positives it will do for our American soccer ecosystem.

    That is the power of an open pyramid. Anyone who argues against an open pyramid (of which pro/rel is a foundational component) is doing a huge disservice to all of American soccer – past, present, and forever!

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