MLS 101 – Development Academy And Nashville SC Youth Structure

One of the most important decisions for the long term future of Nashville SC is deciding on the structure of its youth development. Over the summer the club announced a partnership with the Tennessee State Soccer Association (TSSA) to among other things run four player camps for elite U-12 players. Since then all has been quite as to what the club is thinking. Most importantly, I’m sure they are planning a Development Academy.

What is a Development Academy? Back in 2007 U.S. Soccer created the Development Academy based on a philosophy of increased training, less total games, but more meaningful ones against tougher competition. It’s very European in approach and clearly the best group of youth talent in the country. As of the 2016-17 season, the Academy had 149 total clubs, in five age groups: U-12, U-13, U-14, U-15/16, and U-17/18. This is where all MLS youth teams play (except for Toronto FC for some reason) and I’m sure Nashville SC will be one of them. Ideally, the Nashville SC Academy will be located at the Fairgrounds, but there might not be enough land. It that’s the case it will likely be in a county adjacent to Davidson which isn’t a huge deal an many MLS academies aren’t located on same site as MLS stadium. At a DA, kids train daily and they can be residential, but don’t have to be. People smarter than me ranked competition level in Tennessee youth soccer this way. ECNL over club, but club can be just as good. Both a bit above the Olympic Development Program. There is a lot of revenue (pay to play) at this level. But better than them all are Development Academies. It’s professional. Imagine kids from all over the state practicing on adjacent fields at the same time as the MLS team with access to the same equipment, trainers and nutritionist. Atlanta was lucky that Georgia United already had a DA which they essentially took over. It’s non residential as Carlos Bocanegra said he wanted the kids to have as normal a life as possible. Staying in school and going home each night to eat with their parents. Given Nashville is centrally located I can see the non residential route making sense, though a 3 hour drive from Memphis is too far to do daily. Anyway, that’s a DA. It is ridiculous that the USSF has opened 3 in Georgia, 4 in North Carolina, but Tennessee still has none.

Now let’s look at how the two most recent entrants into MLS handled setting up their youth system and what that might mean for Nashville SC. Atlanta United basically took over the best local club team. For Atlanta that was merging with Georgia United. This has one major benefit. You are getting an established group of youth players at all age levels. For Nashville SC getting additional fields and existing infrastructure in the short run is also a plus. On the downside you are rejecting all the other clubs in the state so you need to get them to buy in. That was easier for Atlanta as Georgia United already had other big clubs in the state feeding it top players. It had formed in 2015 with United FA (which merged with Norcross SA), North Atlanta SA, Lanier SA and Southern Soccer Academy all providing their best players for one development academy team. It worked well too. In 2015, seven of the eight semifinal spots in the two U.S. Soccer Development Academy age groups went to MLS clubs. The other went to Georgia United. Georgia was very fragmented with a dozen or more quality clubs, but the talent was there. As part of the partnership Georgia United folded its two older teams (essentially passing them to Atlanta United) but kept the U13-U14 age group. This was a screwed move by Carlos Bocanegra, but would it work for Nashville SC?

While Tennessee is fragmented with many quality clubs there isn’t a super club pulling the best of the best. Also, just based on numbers, Tennessee clearly doesn’t have as many quality players as Georgia. Lastly, I’m not aware of any player in the state with the special quality of Andrew Carleton (Atlanta United’s first Homegrown Player signing). He led Atlanta United FC Academy to the U15/U16 Development Academy League title last season. Could it work in the Music City? Sure, but what would be most tricky for Nashville SC is which youth club to merge with. The clubs roots are sharing the name Nashville FC with the biggest club in Davidson County. However, merging with them makes little sense. Their facilities are far worse than clubs in surrounding counties and their teams as a whole are not as competitive. Tennessee Soccer Club makes more sense as I believe it is the only club in Middle Tennessee with teams playing in the Elite Club National League.

Minnesota United went about things slightly differently. Rather than merge with a club they chose to build their own Development Academy and partner with the state soccer association. They have a void at the U-15 to U-19 level but that will fill within 5 years. So the biggest difference between to two is Atlanta merged with an exiting club while Minnesota partnered with the state. I could see either working for Nashville. While the allure to having a U-17 and U-19 team playing even before the first MLS game is enticing, I’m not sure there is enough talent in Tennessee to where it would help the club. Certainly not like it has Atlanta. Atlanta has already signed five Homegrown Players. I’ll get into Homegrown Players in a future MLS 101 article. Rest assured, it has benefits for the club.

Whether they partner with a TSC or another club or just the TSSA I’m not sure and am neutral on. Perhaps a clue was given a little over six months ago when Nashville SC announced an agreement with the TSSA (Tennessee State Soccer Association) that was framed as helping best identify in state talent. The partnership listed three specific things. First, Nashville Soccer Club would provide coaching curriculum for four and eight week sessions. Nice, but I don’t see that making much of an impact. Second, Nashville SC will host four elite player camps in Nashville for the best Under-12 players in the state. Last and most interesting is Nashville SC will send coaching staff to five satellite locations where Under-12 sessions will be held.

Any thoughts on what the club should do with its youth system? As long as the Nashville SC Development Academy is built right I think the rest will fall into place.

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