We all know that D.C. United is among the leaders in MLS when it comes to youth development. The U-16 and U-18 teams are perennially at or near the top of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy system, both in yearly rankings and in domestic and international tournament performance. And, of course, no team in MLS has received more first team contributions from its academy products, and no other MLS team has a homegrown player on trial with a UEFA Champions League side.
All that said, there are some holes in United's youth setup, like the one Manassas, Va. native CJ Sapong fell through. This is true for almost all MLS academies, which are by definition relatively new and operated with somewhat limited resources. Some MLS teams compensated for their newness by utilizing long-established youth clubs as affiliate academy programs; the Philadelphia Union (who I believe don't have a stand-alone academy of their own) come to mind as using such a system.
D.C. United has now taken the first step toward combining its own in-house academy system with the huge and fantastic series of youth clubs the Mid-Atlantic has to offer. Thanks in some part to the support of adidas, United announced yesterday that they have entered into their first ever affiliate agreement with Freestate Soccer Alliance, the Bowie, Md.-based club system that has produced no fewer than seven players already in the D.C. United Academy. According to the team's announcement:
Freestate will be one of D.C. United's primary sources in identifying and developing the top youth talent in Maryland. United will share its coaching resources and will work with Freestate to follow its training curriculum and system of play. Top players in the Freestate system, identified by both D.C. United and Freestate, will have the opportunity to join the D.C. United Academy teams, with a strong priority being placed on the Under-14, Under-16 and Under-18 age groups.
This could be huge, particularly if United builds on the Freestate partnership by entering into similar arrangements with other Maryland and Virginia clubs. Luckily, it sounds from United Senior VP of Marketing Communications Doug Hicks that we won't have to wait long to see further movement on this front: "We're excited about the future of this relationship, as well as connecting with several other local clubs, through similar agreements, in advance of the 2013 MLS campaign."
This sort of network would go a long way toward ensuring that fewer local prospects slip through the United Academy cracks and, with former Ajax man Sonny Silooy heading up the program, will also ensure that more of the area's best youth players are training and playing in the same system and against the best competition the country has to offer.
My only thoughts boil down to this: Great news, both for D.C. United and for American and Mid-Atlantic youth development generally.