Monday, February 25, 2013

USL Pro continues evolution with new Academy Player rule

Elite youth players will now have the opportunity to play lower division professional soccer in USL Pro
Last week, United Soccer Leagues announced that USL Pro teams will have the ability to expand rosters from the long-established Master 26 to a total of 31 with the addition of five amateur ‘Academy Player’ slots that are available for pre-collegiate under-21 players that are from an affiliated youth team, the local region or the club’s MLS affiliate.

The addition of the Academy Player rule is the second part of what is a major overhaul for the third tier of soccer in the US following the previous affiliation announcement made a month prior with Major League Soccer. USL Pro has gone from an isolated lower division league with post-collegiate players hoping to get noticed or extend their careers as professionals to a league that will feature a schedule with interleague matches with MLS Reserve teams and squads with MLS players on loan from affiliates and the absolute elite youth players on the cusp of professional careers.

The revolutionary implementation of the Player Academy rule by USL is the first formalized employment of the opening created by the recent change in NCAA guidelines that allow pre-collegiate players to play in official competition with paid professional athletes.    

“As of about three years ago, it became permissible for a player prior to his initial, full-time collegiate enrollment to compete on a professional team provided that particular player is not paid to do so,” said USL President Tim Holt. “This is reflected in Bylaw 12 of the NCAA Manual.”  [see Bylaw 12 below]

Though it is believed that MLS Reserve Teams have used their club’s academy players to fill depleted rosters for reserve league matches via this rule over the past couple years, this new rule will be the first proactive institutional adaptation of the NCAA bylaw.

"The era of professional youth development is well and truly underway,” said Richmond Kickers Director of Soccer Leigh Cowlishaw in the club’s news release.  “Across the world 16-18 year olds are training and competing every day with older, more experienced professionals.”

Cowlishaw, 3rd from right, spent time at DC United preseason camp
Cowlishaw, who heads up a Kickers club that has long been at the forefront of professional clubs developing a youth system, expanded on that belief with INWsoccernews.

“Long term there are definitely going to be players still in high school who can contribute to our pro team. In our first preseason game on Friday, three youth players got time - 90, 45, 30 minutes respectively - as part of a 3-0 victory versus George Mason University,” he said. “The more we can place talented youth players with the pros in practice and matches, the quicker they will develop. We have seen that first hand with our Kickers youth players who are involved with the pros.

“Another great example is Michael Seaton, DC United's new pro signing from their academy. I watched him over eight days in preseason camp and every day he was getting better and better just soaking up information and ideas from the older pros. Another key component is to add meaningful playing time to that training environment and that is where the new partnership can be beneficial.”

The new rule is great news for MLS and its fans. In addition to reserve team players being loaned to USL Pro sides, now MLS clubs will be able to send its top pro prospects from their youth academies to USL Pro to, in essence, trot them out in a test run at a lower professional tier before making the consequential decision to sign them as a Homegrown or Generation Adidas player. Previously, signing a youth player to a pro contract was a huge risk for both parties. There was no guarantee for the MLS club that the player’s performance on the training ground would translate to the pitch on game day.  And for the player, once they signed the dotted line they were eliminating all opportunity to play college soccer.

For Cowlishaw, whose Kickers who have long worked with and are now affiliated with DC United, another leader in youth development, there is “no question it will provide a realistic environment to observe potential pro prospects, but it will also benefit their long term development to compete in these pro matches.”  

The new rule is reminiscent of one previously used in the USL Premier Development League where teams were required to carry three U19 players in order to fill the final spots on their 26-player rosters.  The PDL rule created openings for younger players to train and play with university and post-collegiate players, enhancing their development opportunities beyond what youth clubs offered in an era well before the establishment of national youth and U20 leagues by USL and other organizations.

Though it is no longer in existence, the U19 PDL rule, along with an increased percentage of clubs developing youth systems, helped transform the PDL from the elite amateur adult league into the leading player development vehicle for players 16-23, giving teenagers the opportunity to develop for the collegiate level and beyond while college players were able to continue their progression to the pro game prior to graduation or signing of a professional deal.

Applicable NCAA Bylaws for USL Pro Academy Player Rule Exception—Competition Before Initial Full-Time Collegiate Enrollment—Sports Other Than Men’s Ice Hockey and Skiing. In sports other than men’s ice hockey and skiing, before initial full-time collegiate enrollment, an individual may compete on a professional team (per Bylaw 12.02.4), provided he or she does not receive more than actual and necessary expenses to participate on the team. (Adopted: 4/29/10 effective 8/1/10; applicable to student-athletes who initially enroll full time in a collegiate institution on or after 8/1/10)

12.02.4 Professional Athletics Team. A professional team is any organized team that:
(a) Provides any of its players more than actual and necessary expenses for participation on the team, except as otherwise permitted by NCAA legislation. Actual and necessary expenses are limited to the following, pro- vided the value of these items is commensurate with the fair market value in the locality of the player(s) and is not excessive in nature: (Revised: 4/25/02 effective 8/1/02)
(1) Meals directly tied to competition and practice held in preparation for such competition;
(2) Lodging directly tied to competition and practice held in preparation for such competition;
(3) Apparel, equipment and supplies;
(4) Coaching and instruction;
(5) Health/medical insurance;
(6) Transportation (expenses to and from practice competition, cost of transportation from home to training/practice site at the beginning of the season and from training/practice site to home at the end of season);
(7) Medical treatment and physical therapy;
(8) Facility usage; (Revised: 4/24/03)
(9) Entry fees; and (Revised: 4/24/03)
(10) Other reasonable expenses; or (Adopted: 4/24/03, Revised: 10/28/04)
(b) Declares itself to be professional (see Bylaw (Revised: 8/8/02)