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D.C. United’s bizarre approach to development continues apace

Written by Will Parchman


You might’ve seen this week that D.C. United is cutting funding to its academy to divert money to its impending stadium project. Chucky Boehm over at Soccer Wire reported this week that the club has already cut ties with longtime academy coordinator Steve Olivarez, and U14 coach Jonny Frias isn’t coming back next season.

By and large, MLS academies have been slowly slashing their cost to the player since the Development Academy was implemented in 2007. A practice once commonplace is now almost entirely extinct. Only five MLS academies require any sort of fee at all for its players, and even fewer require an annual fee. None present a cost above $500, let alone $500/year.

Well, except one. D.C. United.

Last year, I scoured the league to determine exactly who’s charging players and who isn’t among MLS academies. The list updates all the time, so it’s generally a good idea to take a glimpse every now and again. The numbers were largely complimentary toward MLS. The league doesn’t release anything approaching regular numbers on how much it spends on its youth, which is a problem that hits back at the transparency issue the league can’t seem to outrun. Don Garber’s continual hemming on the matter – the number has vaguely marched from $20 to $30 million over the past year – hasn’t helped.

But at least we know the league’s teams are largely free to play, if you’re identified. Which has always made D.C. United’s pay-to-play stance look like something of a pterosaur confusedly wandering the streets of modern day New York City looking for an Apple Store.

D.C. United charges $1,500 per year for its U16 and U18 academy teams and a staggering $2,500 for its U14 team. This is orders of magnitude greater than any MLS club charges. To top it off, U14 parents are now paying $2.5K per year to send their budding soccer player to a team that just culled a U14 coach from the organization. That kind of uncertainty at the most critical age in the academy right now doesn’t lend itself well to development. And in the sense that pay-to-play is a scourge to elite development, well, it’s there’s a unique storm cell settled over the district.

Boehm ended his story with this sentence, which hit like a single lit arrow arcing out of the ink-dark, star-littered sky toward a floating funeral pyre of the club’s own making.

However, Stouffer said that no imminent changes are planned for the current fee system.

Let that sink deep into the inner caverns of your soccer soul for a moment. One United employee told Boehm the club was leaning toward a free-to-play academy. Craig Stouffer, the club’s spokesman, shot that down with clear-throated vehemence. The club’s economics don’t allow it.

D.C. United is not a volume academy, but it’s been markedly successful in two bursts since its founding. Bill Hamid alone has played more minutes than every unique club’s combined list of Homegrown signings except Toronto FC. And then there’s Andy Najar, who’s been to a World Cup and now plays club soccer in Belgium. Beyond those two, though, the tableau’s been turbulent. Center back Jalen Robinson could be something at the next level. There are a few others with promise. But it’s hardly joined the ranks of top cohort academies like FC Dallas, LA Galaxy and RBNY, which have all been sunk into their communities for just as long.

The academy is hardly a joke – DCU tends to be competitive in the DA in every age class – but to put that sort of cost on an academy that was never a top tier MLS operation to begin with is the very definition of excess. Watch this video. Try to keep your fingers from clasping over your eyes.

The club felt strongly enough about this exercise to advertise its use, which is… something. The video calls these “tactics,” which, whatever, but pay attention to what’s actually happening here. These are U12 players, in an MLS academy, doing largely static two-person passing drills between a couple cones. As a showcase drill. The most “dynamic” of these drills simply asks the players to take a quick touch through the gate, turn and bump off about a four-yard pass.

These drills are fine at the AYSO level. When a player is six. If an academy player, at 12, needs this instruction, he shouldn’t be in an MLS academy. At top academies this fits in as a 90-second warmup exercise, not a thing labeled “tactics.” And many of these players would likely be receptive to higher levels of training, but if it isn’t being fed, the muscles don’t grow. If you wanted to highlight a youth drill and push it forward, why not something more sophisticated? Like this quality first touch/space creator drill from the Al Nassr U13s.

Because you can’t get to where D.C. United was at the U12 level and expect this of them. These, by the way, are U11s. In America.

Now, D.C. United is asking its players’ families to pay a premium no other MLS academy demands with resources it can no longer sustain. That’s a hard ask on parents, many of whom have quality players with high cielings but can’t afford the club’s exorbitant prices.

The day United strips its academy of that price tag is an inevitability. The revenue shot in the arm the club will take by controlling its own stadium’s income will allow it leeway it doesn’t currently have. When that is, however, is uncertain. Unfortunately, it’s already taken this long for the club to join the rest of the professionalized world in the way its academy is priced. Too long.

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