Clarifying rules for development academy players (boys and girls)

With the recent expansion of the US Soccer Development Academy (DA) to the younger U-12 age bracket (which will actually be the ‘old’ U-11 age bracket starting Fall 2017) for boys and the launch of the Girls’ Development Academy in the Fall next year, it might be helpful to clarify the rules for DA players doing non-DA activities.

The rules are more difficult to understand and interpret than I expected, and even emailed clarifications I received directly from the DA aren’t necessarily 100% clear, at least to me.

Please let me know in the comments below if you think there are inaccuracies and/or missing pieces of information.

With that in mind, here are the rules for all DA players, boys and girls, starting at U12:

DA clubs are responsible for developing an individual development plan for each player. This plan is meant to have each player’s best interest in mind to further his/her soccer development.

With that in mind, the DA is very focused on an appropriate train-to-play-to-rest ratio for the longer-term healthy development of players. This ratio is understood by all DA clubs and is taken into consideration when designing the individual player development plans.

Given that the DA-mandated activity load is already substantial, any additional outside activities are cause for concern.


DA players are not allowed to compete in *any* non-DA league or tourney. This includes activities such as high school soccer, beach soccer tourneys, and winter futsal leagues/tourneys. In fact, this applies to any *sport*.

DA clubs can apply for exemptions to compete in elite non-DA activities such as Dallas Cup, Surf Cup, and tournaments in Europe, but this is at the club/team level, not for individual players. Approval requires a written request by the club to academy staff for decision making.

And any non-DA *training* done outside the club’s training program such as additional strength conditioning sessions, private clinics, or weekly futsal practices are at the discretion of the player’s club and have to fit into the player’s overall development plan.

In other words, the player’s club can make a case-by-case decision to allow non-DA *training* if the DA club believes it to be beneficial for the player’s development.

However, my understanding is that any training exemptions are rare, so for all practical intents and purposes you should assume that non-DA training won’t be allowed.

During the DA off-season from mid-July (after Nationals) to the first week in September (about 6-8 weeks), players are permitted to get outside training and attend outside camps (ID camps, soccer, camps, college camps etc.).

But any consideration of outside training even during the off-season has to be brought to the attention of the club and discussed with them to make sure the training is in the best interest of the player.

I’m in two minds about this.

On the one hand, having flexibility to pursue soccer activities outside the regular DA structure could help youngsters enjoy the game more and for longer. For example, traveling to Spain during the Christmas/New Year break to train and play futsal at FC Barcelona (with a Bay Area non-DA futsal group) would surely help motivate a soccer-passionate youngster.

But on the other hand, the schedule for DA players truly is heavy already. The time commitment and physical exertion is considerable. And how many parents are in a position to make the right decisions regarding their youngster’s possible over-exertion? Many of us might think we can make the right decision “because we know our son or daughter best”, but I’m not sure about that, at least not at this elite level.

And then there are the resources that USSF and the DA clubs invest in the development of our elite players. Shouldn’t the DA and the clubs be able to protect that ‘investment’ for the longer-term?

Nevertheless, clubs need to do a much better job providing individualized holistic player development, not just focus on improving team-level play. And this is supposed to set the DA apart from non-DA programs – individual player development.

In contrast to non-DA players, who have a lot of flexibility to change teams/clubs/coaches and engage in a range of different soccer activities, DA players have to put a lot of trust into their DA club and coaches to truly take care of their entire player development needs and interests.

This isn’t easy – there are many points of view supporting both sides of this debate. Please let me know what you think in the comments section below. Keep in mind that we are talking about the most elite girls and boys players in our country when you consider the pros and cons of these DA rules.

Thank you!

Here are some relevant links and pasted information from those sources:


No Outside Activity/Competitions

To maintain a focus on club training environments, Academy players and teams do not play in any outside competitions without written permission from the U.S. Soccer Development Academy staff.

This includes any other leagues, tournaments, State Cup competitions, ODP or All-Star events. Development Academy players for all teams must choose to participate in the Academy full-time and forgo playing for their high school teams.

Full-time Academy players can only participate on their designated Academy team, with only two exceptions: U.S. Soccer Training Centers and Youth National Team duty.

The Development Academy upholds this rule because we believe elite players require world class environments. The Development Academy’s 10-month Program allows for a greater opportunity to institute style of play and implement a system according to U.S. Soccer’s Development Philosophy.

It also gives teams increased opportunities for younger kids in their club to “play up” against older players in both training and matches, thereby accelerating their development.


Outside Activity/Competition

Academy players and teams cannot play in any outside competitions without written permission from the Development Academy staff. This includes any other leagues, high school season, tournaments, State Cup competitions, ODP or All-Star events. There are two potential exceptions to this rule, provided they are approved by Development Academy staff:

  1. Domestic and international tournaments: Domestic & international tournaments may be permitted if they meet Academy’s technical standards of one game per day and elite competition. Examples of permitted events include the Dallas Cup, Surf Cup, Disney Showcase, and other International events
  2. Possibility for friendly games: Academy clubs can schedule friendly games to provide players with a heightened development experience. The games must not be part of an organized competition (i.e. tournament, league or camp) as defined in the non-participation regulations, and all competitions must adhere to all Academy standards and guidelines.


Can Academy players participate with non-Academy teams during the season? Full-time Academy players are only permitted to participate on their Academy team, and National Team duty.

Which teams participate in 10-month programming and do not allow high school participation? The entire Academy program does not participate in high school programming.

Author: James

Lifelong player and student of the beautiful game in Germany, England, and USA. Volunteer futsal coach and USSF referee.

9 thoughts on “Clarifying rules for development academy players (boys and girls)”

  1. How does MLS DA compare to non-MLS?? I feel the training does not compare. Non-MLS does not have the same amount of training. Plus player/parent is fully paying for non-MLS DA. How and why would a player not want to get more training/experience outside of DA if in non-MLS??


    1. Those are good questions, Margarita. Btw, I’m assuming you’re talking about the boys because the girls have to pay fully even at the MLS academies. The DA intentionally restricts the amount of training and games compared to non-DA clubs based on the believe that too much burns the kids out. So while it might be tempting to do more when the kids are younger (and they seem fine at first), it tends to lead to burn out a couple years later. So the DA is looking more at longer term player development and focuses on quality of the practices and games over quantity. So your son (or daughter) should be getting better quality player development even at non-MLS DA academies compared to non-DA clubs/teams. Also keep in mind that, in general, the better boys are at the DA so your son should be surrounded by better team mates compared to non-DA clubs/teams. Anyway, there might be some unique circumstances for you, but I hope the above general thoughts help.


  2. The highest-performing kids we know from the 02’s and 03’s punted on the DA system because their parents weren’t convinced the local DA had the best coach(es). This situation has been magnified now by the school district, which says you can no longer play club and school soccer concurrently. The high school coaches in our area are pathetic–27 games in 10 weeks, pushing weekend practices and zero cross-training. There seem to be no enlightened coaches at all. In the mean time, more and more kids get injuries/growth-related conditions. I wish we could put all these kids in a pool one day per week–they could certainly use the stretching and alternate muscle exercise.


    1. My impression is that the quality of high school soccer coaching is not nearly good enough for the better players in competitive soccer clubs. I very much doubt they focus on player development at high schools, for example. It’s about winning and the standard of play is too low. My impression is also that there are more injury risks, partly because many high school players simply use athleticism and physicality to compete instead of soccer IQ and technical skills. My daughter isn’t playing high school soccer because of this – it’s club soccer all the way. It would have been nice for her to do high school soccer for social reasons, but it’s not worth the risks and stopping club soccer for so many months.


  3. Here’s my main issue with these rules.

    They assume that DA coaches and staff have the requisite training, credentials, and experience to know what is best for their athletes (and be able to train them in) across all sports disciplines. Strength, power, speed, endurance, flexibility, nutrition, psychological, etc.

    From what I have seen this is far from the case, and given the expense of hiring these sorts of skills will never happen given the current fiscal model of US soccer.


    1. If you cross reference DA coaches (non MLS clubs), then you see clubs just recycle top team coaches in their DA teams.
      And DA coaches still coach other non-DA teams.

      DA in Norcal just seems separate league for top performing teams. And kids lose ability to play other sports and tournaments.
      Not sure how many 05 and 06 kids will want to do that.


      1. That is a good observation. This goes to the question of how much differentiated value a DA club/team is delivering if the coaches and curriculum are basically the same as those for a non-DA top team at the same club. So are the restrictions worth it? I don’t know the answer to that, but you make a valid point. The DA program still has quite a way to go to truly deliver a world-class and truly distinct player development experience. But US Soccer has to start somewhere and then keep improving over the years.


    2. You raise an important point, Andrew. It is probably fair to say that the DA currently doesn’t offer a world-class holistic player development program. And the variability from one DA club/team to the next is probably significant. It will take time for this to improve and will probably need more resources as you say.


  4. First, the confusing part is the age group difference between DA and Norcal.

    DA uses
    1. U## – ## is player’s age or younger at the start of the season.
    2. they don’t change U## during the season.

    For 2016-2017, 04 boys are U12.

    Norcal uses
    1. U## – ## is player’s age or younger at the end of the season.

    For 2016-2016, 04 boys are U13.

    I believe DA is planning to follow the Norcal/USYSA/US Club Soccer system in 2017.

    Does this mean there will be another expansion into younger age in 2017?

    U12 – 2004
    U13 – 2003
    U-14- 2002
    U15/16 – 2000/2001
    U17/18 – 1998/1999

    U12 – 2006
    U13 – 2005
    U14 – 2004
    U15/U16 – 2002/2003
    U17/18 – 2000/2001

    I don’t like the idea of restricting 11 year old boys (06B in 2017-2018 season) to soccer only and no outside training.
    Maybe there should be lesser restriction for younger kids and more for the older ones.


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