There are plenty of metrics by which one can measure the success of MLS Academies. But by at least some of those measures, D.C. United has the most successful academy so far: Andy Najar has been lighting up the Belgian league and may be moving to a higher league this window, and Bill Hamid is the best goalkeeper in MLS and is starting to get traction within the national team setup. But in addition to being one of the most successful academies in MLS, United have another, more dubious distinction: the most expensive non-residency academy in MLS, by far.
The traditional MLS Academy model should be familiar to most people: selected players from within each team's territory travel to the training complex to practice five or so times a week. Throughout the ten month season, the teams travel to play other MLS Academies and unaffiliated youth teams, and the players are unable to play for their high school teams. This move to the ten month season was announced by US Soccer, who manages the league in which these teams play, in February 2012 and was effective as of the 2012-2013 season. Toronto FC is the only MLS team whose academy does not play in the US Soccer Development Academy league, but their structure and operations are otherwise similar.
The vast majority of traditional MLS Academies are completely cost free: that means that uniforms, travel, and lodging while traveling are taken care of by the team. The only expenses borne by the players and their families is the cost of getting to and from practices. There are only two teams with any sort of fees for their traditional academies: the Portland Timbers and D.C. United. Portland advertised a $500 fee on their 2015 tryout information sheet, which has since been removed from their website.
D.C. United, on the other hand, has a $2,500 per year fee for their U-14 team and a $1,500 per year fee for their U-16 and U-18 teams. In 2014, every player who applied for financial aid received at least some help, but those fees are still a significant practical and mental barrier to entry for many people throughout the greater D.C. area.
The new trend for MLS academies is the residency academy, a trend upon which D.C. United has jumped on early. Real Salt Lake was unwilling to split out numbers, but the total cost for their Arizona academy is around $28,000 per year. However, that includes school, room, and board as well as the academy training, so a comparison between that program and non-residency programs is complicated at best. Something with which it can be compared, however, is the Philadelphia Union's YSC Academy. Their tuition is $19,500 per year, but an unknown amount of scholarships and financial aid are available both there and at Real Salt Lake's academy.
FC Dallas has a hybrid option, the Soccer Intensive Academic Curriculum operated in partnership with the Frisco Independent School District: it combines the modified school day common to residency academies, but the players still live at home.
D.C. United's new residency academy is a partnership with the Calverton School, whose regular tuition for grades 9 through 12 is $20,250. As of this writing, I have been unable to find out what the cost is for the D.C. United program associated with the school, but I would assume that it is in the same general ballpark. The residency academy model, while beneficial for those who can afford it, seems only to be available to those who would already be able to pay to play. We reached out to United for comment about the cost of the academy, but as of this hour have not heard back.
All of this is colored by the fact that, according to Charles Boehm, D.C. United is about to reduce the amount of investment that they put into their academy.
This seems to indicate that, while the rest of the league has moved away from pay to play, D.C. United will not be doing so any time soon. Their academy signings since Hamid and Najar have not had the same level of MLS readiness, and it is somewhat unfair to compare the rest to two of the best MLS Homegrown signings ever. But academy signings are the future for MLS teams, especially ones that cannot or do not sign multi-million dollar players. D.C. United may be hurting its main chance of keeping up with the rest of the league as it continues to evolve.