Major League Soccer comes to Minnesota: Fresh start for youth soccer?

On March 25, Don Garber, the Commissioner of Major League Soccer (MLS), announced that the league will be picking up Minneapolis-based Minnesota United FC (MUFC) as an expansion team in 2017. MUFC currently plays in the second-tier North American Soccer League (NASL). In the introduction ceremony, Garber referred to Minnesota’s potential to become, as he put it, “a monster of a soccer market.” Introducing MLS to Minnesota will undoubtedly have many ramifications, not the least of which will be its effect on youth soccer. By following the examples of successful franchises that have come before it and properly navigating a complex landscape of clubs, coaches and players, MUFC has the potential to alter the size, competitiveness, and nature of youth soccer in Minnesota.

One of the cornerstones of every MLS franchise is its academy program, a branch of the franchise that operates youth teams of various age groups, each of which is directly tied to the professional squad. Academy teams have incredibly competitive selection processes that ensure that only the elite players make it. These academies are especially influential due to a stipulation in MLS roster regulations known as the “Home Grown Player Rule.” This rule states first that eligible local players may be added to the “home grown talent list.” The professional team may then sign up to two players from its list each year to major league contracts directly, exempting them from the MLS draft that most players have to enter. Thus, academy teams allow MLS franchises to develop elite players and keep them without risk of losing them in the draft. In addition to player development, academy teams hold occasional clinics and camps that give non-academy players a chance to train with the best.

The key to the strength of MLS academies is revenue. Average MLS attendance figures are more than double those of NASL franchises, and MLS teams command lucrative television and sponsorship deals that second-tier teams can’t touch. When a team joins the MLS, it immediately sees exponential increases in revenue and value, allowing the team to create academy programs and equip itself with the best coaches and facilities available.

These realities will not be lost on MUFC. When MUFC joins the MLS in 2017, it will immediately become the richest organization in Minnesota youth soccer. MUFC will have a brand-new facility, the money to hire the best coaches around and, most importantly, an academy that serves as a pipeline to an MLS franchise. Many parents, hopeful that their children can someday earn pro contracts, will be anxious to get their kids onto an academy team. Players and parents from faraway parts of Minnesota will take on long commutes to the Twin Cities to get a chance to play for an academy team; some may even move closer to the cities to make that commute more manageable. Further, some families from neighboring states without MLS franchises, like Wisconsin, will move to Minnesota to pursue their children’s soccer careers, desperate for the chance to play and practice with the pros.

John Curtis, Director of Coaching and Player Development for the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association (MYSA), is confident that the MUFC academy program will attract players from not only all over Minnesota, but from nearby states as well. “Not only is it possible [that parents will move here for their children’s careers], it is probable,” he said. “It may not happen initially, but it will happen. The important piece is that Minnesota United FC will have the financial backing to handle all of these players.” Again, the financial strength of MLS franchises is key.

At first glance, the emergence of the MUFC academy program may appear to only benefit MUFC. The team alone will be equipped with the best tools to get the best players, and may consequently dominate youth soccer in Minnesota. In the long run, however, the positive effects will trickle down throughout the state. As more and more elite players flock to the Twin Cities from all over the state and all over the midwest in hopes of playing for MUFC, there will come a day when there is simply a surplus of talent. There will be more elite, academy-level players in Minnesota than there are spots on the MUFC academy rosters, and the worthy players that don’t make it will be forced to play for other club teams throughout the state. There will potentially be a concentration of young, elite talent in Minnesota, specifically in the Twin Cities, the size of which will extend far beyond the rosters of MUFC academy teams. As high-level talent gets concentrated there will be more to go around, potentially making every youth team in Minnesota, and youth soccer as a whole, more competitive. This trend, in addition to the camps and clinics that MUFC will regularly host, could raise the level of play throughout Minnesota. Further, having an MLS franchise will drastically increase exposure for soccer throughout the state, something that Curtis calls “definitely a positive for the youth game here.”

Curtis, however, is still cautious overall. Success will rely, according to him, on MUFC’s ability to develop its players. “I have no doubt that there will be an initial effect, but the important thing is whether or not they can sustain their level of play and retain players,” he said. “They will still need good people that can do a good job working with the players in order to have long-term success.”

Luckily, the blueprint for long-term success is not hard to find. The New York Red Bulls Academy is one of the best in the country, consistently ranked near the top of every age group. The academy has been winning national championships as long as it has been around and has long been considered a powerhouse. Its players are treated and play like professionals, and elite prospects from all over the Tri-State area flock to New York and New Jersey to play for the academy. The New York Red Bulls Academy have the best coaches and facilities and have sent numerous players on to the professional ranks. This level of success has spread throughout the Tri-State area. In 2013, four teams from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania were ranked in SoccerAmerica’s top 25 for boys youth programs. This made it the second most-represented region on the list, trailing only California. If it can follow the example set for it by programs like Red Bulls, MUFC could raise the level of play in Minnesota soccer across the board.

Minnesota’s newest professional sports franchise has an opportunity to change the way that soccer is viewed and played throughout the state. It has the resources and the infrastructure to do it, but that alone will not be enough. In-training execution, on-field quality and consistency will all be major factors in whether or not MUFC can help bring Minnesota youth soccer to the next level. If MUFC takes heed of the lessons learned by those that came before it, the franchise may be able to replicate the success realized by programs like the Red Bulls. If MUFC doesn’t, then in the long run Minnesota soccer will stay exactly as it has always been, and MUFC will have wasted a valuable opportunity. MUFC’s success is not predetermined, but entirely attainable. “It all depends on perception,” Curtis said. “Like any club, if they do a good job, they will be successful.”