Wednesday, May 25, 2011

How Much Does It Cost To Buy The Best Youth Club in the U.S.?

Right now, that is the most important question among Academy Directors at MLS clubs across the country.
On Tuesday, Columbus Crew announced a groundbreaking move, that enables the MLS academy to partner with the Michigan Wolves, also known as the Derby County Wolves. The basic premise of the partnership is Columbus funds the Michigan club, and in return the Wolves players are now part of the Crew Home Grown list.*
The partnership with Derby County was set to expire in July and Wolves Director of Coaching Brian Doyle was actively searching for a new sponsor for the academy by January of this year. It wasn't bitterness or hostility that had the Wolves looking for a partner elsewhere, it was the fact that they had out-performed the current conditions of the partnership and wanted to look at something more enticing. Added to the fact Doyle was aware of how difficult it was for an American to qualify for a work permit in England, the partnership was unrealistic in the long-term.
When we spoke, he made it clear that unless an offer from a European club was jaw dropping, the new partnership would likely be with a local company. Since then, Columbus stepped in and took advantage of a new opportunity. **
No other club has had the foresight to actively engage in a partnership with another club outside the immediate proximity - say 100 miles in any given direction. Actually, that is not entirely true, other MLS clubs have established satellite clubs [RSL in Florida, Fire in Mississippi, etc.], but this will be the first with a pre-existing member of the Development Academy.
Granted, Philadelphia Union does something to this effect with multiple clubs, but those are all in the greater Philadelphia area. And while FC Delco is an impressive historic youth academy, it doesn’t have the same recent success as the Michigan Wolves [four national championships plus a handful of potential stars in the coming years at the international stage]. Perhaps, the Union’s tactics helped open the door for the Crew to explore this opportunity though?
One would have to believe that Columbus had to run this by the MLS offices before it began any serious discussion about the partnership. The greater Detroit area is an unmarked territory for MLS clubs, so that wouldn’t be a problem, but this still starts a precedent that many clubs will likely follow in the coming months/years.
For the motivated clubs [and there are motivated clubs in MLS that want to build their youth academies] this could be the start of the arm’s race. Columbus/Michigan Wolves put a price on success at the youth level. I have no idea what that figure is. And I doubt Columbus wants the financial implications of this move to be public at this point. The best I can do is guestimate.
I know that the estimated cost to run a program like the Michigan Wolves Academy [just U-16 and U-18] is between $20,000 - $50,000 per year. 

Given the amount of travel in that conference – one trip to Texas each year plus two showcases [this may seem surprising but this is the easiest conference in terms of travel in the Development Academy] – lets put the number on the lower end of that scale. Fully funded the Michigan Wolves academy program  ~ $20,000 a year would be a very cheap investment if Columbus Crew ended up with players like Josh Gatt, Sean Cunningham, Soony Saad, Dzenan Catic, etc. ***
Likely too cheap, so let’s anticipate the figure is more than that [but still in the five figures range] and probably covers some of the cost for the pre-academy teams [U-14 and younger].
However, none of those previously mentioned players are likely available to the Crew. Cunningham and Gatt are enjoying life in Norway with Molde FK. Saad is in Michigan right now as a free agent – he left University of Michigan after the 2010 College Cup and signed with an agent but failed to land with a club while on trial. And Catic is still in Europe [as far as I know] on trial with some club hoping to secure a deal.
Michigan Wolves U-18 coach Gary Parsons was hesitant when I asked if this was just the golden age for Michigan soccer or the teams from the Wolves were all this strong. He tried to make it sound like a little of both, but it sounded like more of a special group of young men more than anything else.

He did say there was talent coming up the pipeline at the Wolves, but it is going to be hard to duplicate what this two-three year gap of players accomplished both in the Development Academy [2009 National Champions] and in the professional realm. 
Beyond the players, Parsons and Lars Richter, the U-16 academy coach, are two of the best coaches in the Development Academy [read: the United States] and to that effect, this is a smart investment. Having Parsons and Richter as part of any brain trust for coaching in this country is a good start for a successful youth program.
I am rambling on here; so let me get to the point. MLS is infamous for flimsy rules and large gray areas. Crew established something on Tuesday that fans of American soccer can look back on and say this is when the push to really advance American youth soccer started – trust me, I am trying not to sensationalize this.
Clubs around the world – from Chelsea to PSG – have looked to the American youth game for brand growth and potential players. The latter has been less of a success, but the former has helped in some areas and will likely help the Crew too especially in a metropolitan without an MLS franchise.****
Now, other MLS teams will follow in Crew’s footsteps – that is just how this works – and it is a positive sign for player development in this country, but it will also raise some questions for the league regarding territory rights, legal questions*****, and eligibility for Home Grown contracts. Michigan Wolves accomplished a lot as a pay-for-play club. As a fully-funded club, the sky is the limit. Hopefully, other MLS clubs will follow this blueprint and give successful youth clubs the freedom they need from financial woes.
* In this manner, I mean that Crew would have the rights to the players if they stayed in MLS. If a player decided to go pursue opportunities abroad, then Crew would have no ground to stand on. But that said, MLS academies have wised up to this fact and been protective of their assets when exposed to scouts/agents.
** Columbus stepping in is another part of this puzzle, because the location between Columbus to Livonia (where the Wolves are located) and Chicago to Livonia is roughly equal +/- 15 miles. Crew definitely one-upped Fire in this battle.
*** Nermin Crnkic is the prize of the current Michigan Wolves U-18 team. Sources have said that he is a likely target for MLS clubs and Parsons confirmed to me that he was pursuing professional opportunities after the Development Academy season. This will be a sticky situation with MLS, but Crew could probably point to Zach Pfeffer and Philadelphia Union/FC Delco as a previous example. Crnkic is not the exact same, but it does in a way neglect the one-year rule if it comes to that.  Jack McBean was also signed before the one-year period as well. 
**** This is a point that deserves a 1000 words. Large cities with successful youth programs could really help certain brands in MLS - i.e. Chivas USA partnering with Nomads [San Diego] would benefit both clubs. 
***** FIFA rules/child labor laws are being circumvented by this type of setup. In reality, it makes sense for these types of relationships, but it is more complicated than what I said in this post.