U23 teams are not common in MLS. As far as the academy level goes, most teams stop at U18. Players will finish in the program at about the same time they finish high school, and go off to college, head abroad if they can, or sign a Home Grown contract. Very few of those who leave the system ever come back. It is a gap in the Academy system that some say needs to be fixed. The college level isn’t enough to properly develop a lot of these players for the professional level. This is where a U23 team would come in. Whether all teams create a U23 team to compete against each other, similar to the MLS Reserve League games, or all U23 teams play in the Premier Development League (PDL), there needs to be some way to cover the development gap.
Many collegiate players play in the PDL to maintain fitness prior to the collegiate season. A prime example of this is the Philadelphia Union’s Chandler Hoffman – Hoffman’s stock prior to the 2011 NCAA season rose tremendously because of his good showing in the PDL. The PDL isn’t necessarily a stage for top collegiate talent to get noticed, as many of them are on the lists of MLS scouts since their high school days. However, it does help these players gain substantial experience outside of the college setting.
There are many complaints from the MLS community about college soccer and the types of players it develops. The season only runs for three months, coaches are allowed unlimited substitutions during games, and the level of play tends to be less than ideal. That’s why you see many of the top collegiate picks playing in the PDL in their offseason – it helps maintain fitness levels while also providing them with a competition level not available in NCAA soccer. There are players of various ages and playing experiences in the PDL, and it can help prepare young players for the professional ranks in a way that’s quite different than the experiences they get in college.
Now, this is where the exact details of a PDL team come into play. It is NOT a reserve team – remember the reserve system? This isn’t that. It’s not a bunch of players who don’t start getting playtime to prepare for making a game day squad. There are two types of PDL teams in the USL-PDL, the PDL Pro, and just PDL. The Pro teams are exactly what their name says, professional teams. These cannot have college players on them, due to NCAA rules. The Whitecaps’ PDL team is an example of a PDL Pro team. They still feature mainly U23 players, but they receive a salary. A non-Pro team is purely amateur, which is what allows it to feature so many NCAA players.
Chivas USA is no stranger to players with PDL experience – Blair Gavin, Ben Zemanski, Zarek Valentin, Patrick McLain, Dan Kennedy, Bobby Burling, Rauwshan McKenzie, and Sacha Kljestan are just some of the players who previously played in the PDL. The league is prime scouting ground for MLS coaches across the league.
So, what does this have to do with the Chivas USA academy? As per MLS rules, teams are allowed to have a U23 team as part of their Academy. Many teams across the league are realizing the importance having such a team. The Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps, and Chicago Fire are just some of the teams that have had PDL teams in the past. D.C. United will have one for the first time in 2013. It’s a way to keep many of their academy prospects that have gone off to college under the watchful eye of the club during the offseason while also providing them with a competitive atmosphere beyond simply training with the first team.
Because of this, I think it’s time Chivas USA explores the idea of establishing a U23 squad. Obviously with the new "regime" and everything up in the air, it is unclear if a plan for a U23 is on the horizon. But hypothetically, it could be really beneficial in retaining our young talent. All the news this year regarding our top Academy players has been fairly disappointing (such as the departure of Stevie Rodriguez to Club Tijuana), with the exception of Marky Delgado. Additionally, with the new staff at Chivas USA looking to scout players locally, it could be a way to remain competitive with the top players in the region. Sure, many of them could already be in the ranks with other local PDL teams, but having the opportunity to be affiliated with a professional club is always a good way to get your foot in the door for an up and coming soccer player.
It would probably be extremely difficult to create such a team since there are already a few established teams in the area – Orange County Blue Star, Los Angeles Misioneros, Pali Blues, Southern California Seahorses, and Ventura County Fusion all represent Southern California in the PDL. However, the team could decide to affiliate themselves with one of these teams, or even acquire one outright, potentially saving themselves a step in the process.
Having a U23 team could benefit Chivas USA in more than one way. As I said previously, it can help the team continue in the development of top academy players that go off to college – it gives them more experience, especially under the watchful eye of the team’s coaches. Another way it could be beneficial is in looking for new talent. Chivas USA is known for finding some players with unconventional backgrounds and throwing them into the first team mix. The most recent example of this is Cesar Romero, who came to the team from an indoor soccer team. A U23 team could bridge the gap for these players before requiring them to join the first team outright. We all know Romero didn’t play much this season. Having the option to field them in this setting prior to joining the first team could provide players with beneficial game experience. Whether a "pro" PDL team or strictly amateur, it could help take Chivas USA's development system to the next level.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!