Once upon a time, back when the world was simpler and ignorance was bliss, youth soccer was the sole and exclusive property of the benevolent despots who ran the United States Youth Soccer Association.
(Yes indeed, there was AYSO, SAY and some others out there but their influence was largely regional and mostly limited to Saturday morning juicebox leagues.)
The road to fame and glory in soccer ran through USYSA via their grip on the prosaically named "Olympic Development Program".
The reason it carried that particular moniker was simple: the USOC, in it's infinite wisdom, looked around at the large number of Olympic sports that the US regularly got stomped at and decided to toss some money at those sports.
And since the USOC is a sports bureaucracy made up entirely of representatives of other sports bureaucracies, said money went directly to USSF who, in turn, disbursed it through their USYSA subsidiary (who, just coincidentally, were full voting members of USSF. One hand washing the other and all of that.) who took the concept and ran with it like a urban yoot with someone else's car stereo.
Because of course what this concept did was move USYSA beyond being the simple Mom and Pop bunch of cronies who collected registration fees from Johnny and Susies' parents so they could play unspeakably bad soccer under a coach who had never in his life watched an actual soccer match. Afterwards they might even throw a pot luck awards picnic. Bring a covered dish to share.
Now, however, they had control of THE PATH TO THE NATIONAL TEAM. The Keys to the Kingdom, if you will.
The story line was simple and pursuasive: in order to get noticed by the national team - or, for that matter, college coaches - you had to play ODP. Then you had the chance to play for the State team, perhaps the regional team, travel to exotic places like, say, France and otherwise make a name for yourself on the way to one day representing the Good Old USA in the Olympics and, just maybe, that odd World Cup thingie.
The gateway to it all - the ONLY gateway to it all - was ODP.
Times were good and the state organizations made the most of it. Everybody had a "State Coach" who in turn had some old pals working at various clubs and everybody made money.
Because of course by the time the "Olympic Development" money filtered down to Iowa or Vermont, there really wasn't all that much left of it. But because, as we've seen, they held every kids' future in their hot little hands, they could hit up Mom and Dad for extraordinary amounts of money.
And the best part? You could "go to ODP practice", write them check after check after check and NEVER BE ON AN ODP TEAM. Because of course the actual "teams" got picked from amongst the kids who are there.
Sort of like those ads for the lottery: You Can't Win If You Don't Play.
The fact that your kid was never going to get "selected" unless he was the second coming of Sir Stanley Matthews because after maybe three or four kids there's really not that much difference in talent and the State Staff was under tremendous lobbying pressure from club coaches who, in turn, desperately needed to get their kids on teams in order to justify the absurd amounts of money they were raking in from clueless parents.
if your coach was politically connected, you probably made it. If not, well, you still got to pay and pay until you got wise or your kid got older and quit soccer. State coaches made out like bandits. To coin a phrase.
When you'v got a monopoly, you can get away with almost anything. And to the average parents, who came into the process like lambs to the slaughter, "Your kid has the talent to get a college scholarship and play in the Olympics or the World Cup someday. Never seen a kid with such potential. Are you at all familiar with the OLYMPIC DEVELOPMENT program?" is an irresistable sales pitch.
Of course, among the other problems with this was the fact that it was, as noted, pretty costly, but since soccer was only played by upper middle class kids anyway, who cared?
Of course there was always some Hispanic kid who got dropped off by his Mom in a three tone ten year old Buick, but those kids normally didn't come back after the first day. Most of them felt about as comfortable as a nun in a whorehouse (an eerily apt metaphor) even before they got a look at the fee structure.
So everybody was happy - or at least everybody who mattered - and if it wasn't producing a lot of top notch soccer players, well, at least State Coaches all drove nice cars.
Of course, in the fullness of time along came US Club, whose pitch was that USYSA really ought to stick to running Snadbox Leagues for the uncoordinated and let an organization whose only concern is travel/premier/elite leagues run those things.
USYSA was aghast: not only was their monopoly in jeopardy but it was the fun stuff they wanted, the stuff that got them all free trips to tournaments and stuff. There's good money in the kiddies but the glamor is in club.
So USYSA brought out the big gun: ODP.
They announced that sure, you can register and play with a US Club team, but if you do you're no longer eligible to enter the holiest of realms, that gateway to glory, that path to all good things, ODP.
So USSF, who were interested in getting that old gang of mine knocked down a bit, decided that US Club could have their own ODP.
Then of course along came Frank Marcos and his USL, who were always sniffing around for money. They started the Super Y league which was, according to them, the "base level" of the professional soccer pyramid.
Again, to innocent parents, it made sense: you move from Super Y to USL 2 to USL 1 to MLS. Right? I said right? Hello?
Again, the whole thing boiled down to a sales pitch: we've got the "scouts" we've got the Olympics, we've got the road to the national team. If you want the best for your kid, the best training, the most exposure, the chance at the gold ring, we've got what you need.
This crock of crap was fed by the bucketful to countless thousands of parents who, in fairness, had no way of knowing what was real and what was not. No one can be blamed for wanting the best for their kid, and everyone loves to bore the hell out of their freinds and neighbors with tales of Little Johnny Rocketlegs exploits at OLYMPIC DEVELOPMENT games or at big tournaments down south with LOTS OF COLLEGE COACHES.
Which is why all of us who care about soccer in the US and want to see it grow and thrive and succeed can smile a little more this week.
Down in Houston, in conjunction with the MLS All Star Game, they're playing the SUM CU17 Cup.
All 16 current MLS sides have their academy players down there (the Earthquakes don't technically have an academy, about which I'm not going to comment, but they've pulled together a local team anyway, likely because MLS told them they had to). They played the group rounds over the weekend. Semis today, Finals Thursday.
You can read all about it over at mlssoccer.com.
I don't add that because I hope you'll go check it out. I don't care if you do or not.
It's not the biggest or most prestigious tournament around. A lot of top players didn't make the trip. That's not the point.
The point is that the news is on "mlssoccer.com" which, for better or worse, is the official website of the top professional league in the US (yes, yea, and Canada. But don't ask me to say "In North America" because that's intellectually insulting)
In short: the MLS Academy system is quicj=kly ending the youth soccer argument.
Wearing an MLS teams' uniform, playing against other teams in MLS uniforms, at the site of and in conjunction with the MLS All Star game, in addition to, as many Academy teams do, working out and traveling occasionally with their respective MLS teams does one thing above all else:
It ends the argument.
There is no slaes pitch that can top that. It's easily understood by even the most clueless of parents. You can't feed them piles of crap about "scouts" and travel" and big time tournaments and ODP and all the rest.
It was a great sales pitch, it worked for years and a lot of people made a lot of money.
But MLS has shot it down, stomped the crap out of it and buried it six feet under.
There'll always be club soccer and for thousands of youth players it's important and necessary and a good and wonderful thing.
But the best of the best are slowly but surely migrating to MLS Academies, because it's a simple and straightforward concept that you don't have to be a footie fan to grasp: Train, travel and play with an actual MLS side, and we won't send you a bill.
You want college? You want the Olympics? You want to play professionally? You want the national team?
Yeah, we've got that.
It's not just a small thing. It's a sea change and unlike most of other "progress" in soccer it's happening with breathtaking speed.