By: Bridget McDowell // @BCMcDowell
On June 24, The Athletic first reported that Minnesota United FC had cut a number of full-time employees in the wake of the pandemic-shortened MLS season. The following day, the outlet revealed that the cuts were not limited to operations or back-office staff– Five full-time Academy staff members had been let go. With no coaches, no director, and no answers from MNUFC Sporting Director Manny Lagos, players and parents were left to question their future.
Much has been made of the lack of information provided by the club, with parents having no insight into Lagos’ vague hints that some sort of academy program will continue (per league by-law) and the lone remaining leader, Academy Manager Joe Dettlaff, is left to field questions from the parents that he has no answers to. Whatever the future/post-pandemic plans for the Academy, the most important question right now is, ‘where will these kids go now?’
One parent, who shared their perspective with Switch the Pitch on the condition of anonymity, said that MNUFC Academy was full of promise. When the program began, they were told it would be, “a state of the art academy program, one that would eventually start as young as U8 and go all the way to U19. The original slides at the very first informational meeting had plans for an extensive academy and a commitment to the soccer players of Minnesota.”
Those plans were practiced initially: “The first year of the Academy, U13 through U17 age groups operated exactly on the way we were told. There was also a pre-DA [Development Academy] program for the 2007 birth year. They met weekly and the top players were selected to travel to the Generation Adidas Cup in Atlanta. The cost was approximately $500-$600 if you could afford it, but support was available if you couldn’t. The players traveled together as a team and parents did not have to go.”
Then it unravelled.
“By the time 2019 rolled around the incoming U13’s DA kids would have to pay $4000 which was up from $2000 from the previous year. The 2008 age group which was now in the pre-DA had to pay for their entire trip to the GA cup. Additionally, they had to travel independently, there was no team flight/trip. Due to the cost, MNUFC did not field the best team that Minnesota had to offer. Merely fielding two teams of whoever could pay to play. Both teams dropped all matches.”
And so began the questions. “There were rumors pre-COVID that the U13, U14, and possibly the U15 groups would be cut for the fall of 2020. So many rumors in fact that almost every player on the U13 team asked the coach that same question during evaluations in January. The response was the same as it is now, they didn’t know. No communication and no commitment.”
It is easy, especially for those with no direct connection, to look back on such a situation and pick out the signs that things were not so rosy. Rumors circulating within a program are one thing. Statements by club officials are another.
The parent wrote that “as MNUFC Academy began to take shape, instead of collaborating and/or absorbing a youth club (Minnesota Thunder Academy for starters, Coerver [Performance Academy], as well), the Club went back to US Soccer and shared that there wasn’t enough talent for two DA clubs and just like that, MTA Boy’s DA lost their DA status.” No longer a US Soccer DA affiliate, MTA’s boys’ program joined Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) in 2019.
Are there enough youth players in Minnesota for multiple academies to field competitive teams? When FiftyFive-One interviewed Academy Director Tim Carter in 2016, shortly after he was hired to run the program for MNUFC, he cited the other area programs (MTA, St Croix Academy and Shattuck-St Mary’s, the nationally renowned high school program which he helped build) stating that the MLS-affiliated program should be collaborative: “We don’t want to be a competitor in the market.” Carter also stressed the importance of setting the tone and identity of the Academy early.
Fast forward to January of 2020. MNUFC owner Dr. Bill McGuire spoke with the same outlet on a podcast looking back at the 2019 opening of Allianz Field and outlining future plans. How did the Academy fit in?
McGuire responded: “How do we, in fact, make the opportunity to train, with our staff – not just academy staff, but the first-team staff, reserve team staff, the first team support staff of nutritionists, all these people – how do we create that opportunity, regardless of your age, if you’re really good?[…] We have some very talented kids in the area; we’re excited about some of them. The question really is if we can bring other resources to all the other programs that are already out there.”
Other resources. Other programs. A collaboration. Great… Right?
In the same interview, McGuire also made it clear that the Academy, while required by the league, was not a priority. “Instead of saying ‘ Let’s just plop down like everyone else is doing and act like we’re going to be the zenith’. Against New York? Dallas? Los Angeles? Miami? Atlanta? This is a small market,” he said. “So we need more attention and focus and energy in figuring out how to be really good at those things, as well as just running our organization well.”
We could segway into an exploration of how Atlanta United came to be cited as so far ahead in the evolution of its Development Academy, despite having had less time to develop it before entering MLS in the same year as Minnesota. We won’t. Let’s focus on that market instead.
Teal Bunbury, forward for the New England Revolution, came up through Carter’s program at Shattuck. He played a few college seasons before being drafted by the Kansas City Wizards – just before the rebrand – and made appearances with both the Canadian and US National Teams. But Teal is tangential to this particular story.
Alex Bunbury, Teal’s father, played professionally for 15 years. His career included stops with the Kansas City Wizards, West Ham United, and 65 appearances for the Canadian National Team. Bunbury is best known for his stint with Portugal’s Primeira Liga side, CS Marítimo, where he became the all-time leading scorer with 59 goals. He remains the only North American professional to have earned that title with a European club.
Bunbury’s youngest son Mataeo was affected by the MNUFC Academy changes and as a coach himself (including four years with MTA), he had some thoughts on the latest developments. He shared his unique perspective on a phone call with Switch the Pitch last week.
“It is absolutely disastrous for these young people. And that’s what I want to touch on. How it affects our communities in a positive light to have these young men (and young women) involved in a high-level training environment,” Bunbury explained. “It teaches you about commitment, tolerance, sacrifice, things that are essential not only in how you perform on the field but also most importantly in the game of life off the field. So I’m a big proponent of that kind of environment and it’s very disheartening when we get into a situation where people are making decisions that have such a negative impact on young people.”
Bunbury saw some signs, as had so many other parents, that the Academy may have been an afterthought, player development not a priority.
“I mean, my son [Mataeo] was at that academy. I coached my son, I developed my son, as I did with my older son, Teal, who plays for the New England Revolution and he came from my program. So I’ve done programs independently over the years because I did not want to get involved in the politics of soccer in Minnesota and what have you so I tried to be a little bit independent. Not that I think I know it all, but because I saw things I didn’t appreciate and I thought, you know I’ve been there, I’m going to go out there and teach young people the importance of confidence, the importance of believing in oneself, to not be told that you have to be a good team player. That comes naturally eventually, but you have to be an outstanding individual player because soccer is about individual brilliance, it’s individuals who score goals, it’s individuals who win the ball it’s individuals who give assists, it’s individuals who make great saves or make a great defensive play. And then collectively you become a team.
“So what I’ve seen over the years is that the game has been played on a team perspective– there’s nothing wrong with that, it is a team sport but it’s a team sport that needs individual brilliance. And I feel like we don’t do that enough. We don’t give young talented players enough credit, or freedom, I should say, to be creative or innovative and problem solvers. We’re producing very good solid players. So that theory has been going on for many, many years.
“Then you get the unique excitement of having Minnesota United playing in the MLS, and bringing a huge development, the academy here, so of course these kids who are playing the game at a record number and love the beautiful game, they’re excited. Now they’re a part of that. And for three years they’ve been a part of this[…] And when you dismantle an entire academy or you’re put in a position where you’re saying, ‘Well because of a pandemic we have to move a certain direction.’ Which I understand. We all know the pandemic has a disaster for so many people, but I have to be totally honest with you — I think at this moment, at this time, this is where we need our young people to feel like they’re going to be taken care of, you know what I’m saying? We’ve got their backs. This is not a moment, or time, for us to walk away and take a time out from our young people.
“And I felt – I feel – like that’s been the case in this situation and it’s unfortunate. And so for me, it was coming. Because the vibe that I got was that this was a long time coming. And the youth, the academy, was not a priority and I could be wrong but that’s what I was hearing from time to time. Now, my son, I consider him very talented and I know he needs to be in an environment where he’s challenged, he’s with players that are just as good or better than he is and of course being in an environment where you have high-level coaches, and a professional environment only makes you want it more. So when that goes away, every single parent — every single parent — what are they going to do?”
‘If you build it’… They are already here
While MNUFC Academy players and families look into their prospects at other development academies around the nation, two new programs are rallying. While both have been in development for quite some time, with intentions of filling the gaps left by an operating MLS academy, their timing could not have been better.
Alex Bunbury has been working quietly to set up his own academy. It just so happens that his son, and many others, are in need of a new home just as it comes to fruition. “I can announce today [June 2] that Lifetime is partnering with me so we’re going to have the Alex Bunbury Soccer Academy launched in August,” he told us.
“We have a facility, we have a home now, where these kids can get their development, in one of the best state of the art facilities in Eden Prairie, the old [NFL] Vikings training ground. We have a fixed structure, we have outdoor fields, we have state of the art locker rooms, training rooms, lounge, you name it. So it’s something I’ve been working on for a while but we finally got this thing sorted out so as we speak we’re putting the teams together.”
Tryouts for the Alex Bunbury Soccer Academy will begin mid-July, beginning with U13, 15 and 17, and expanding to U11 and 12 in the near future. They hope to also add a girls’ program.
“When one door closes, another door opens and in my case, I think it’s very important that we have options for these young men that really love the game and want to develop and want to — They have aspirations, I should say, to be professionals. And that’s what we should give them. We should give them the platform and the environment to reach their goals and their dreams and at the Alex Bunbury Soccer Academy, that’s our mission.”
Also looking to provide a professional environment to younger players is NPSL side Minneapolis City SC. The recently announced Minneapolis Futures is a program that was voted on by members (season ticket holders and donors) in late-2018, joining a first and second team that have earned international attention for their endeavors on and off the pitch. However, Futures is not a third team; it is a training program that leverages the benefits of a professional club environment and structures already existing in the community.
“MPLS City was created to fill a gap in soccer development in Minnesota. We did this really well with Minneapolis City and Minneapolis City 2,” said Technical Director Adam Pribyl. “However, we continued to notice that we had younger, talented players that were trying out that were not quite ready to become a full-time City player, but would really benefit from our environment.”
Pribyl outlined their mission: “A huge part of who we are [as a club] is making soccer more accessible to everyone in Minnesota. So we are very intentional about reaching out to various communities within the Twin Cities to make everyone aware of the program. This program is not just for the players that have the privilege and ability to play for competitive youth clubs. Certainly, many of our players will come from those elite youth clubs, because frankly, those youth clubs are very good at what they do.
“However, I truly believe there is an astounding amount of talent in the Twin Cities, that simply isn’t afforded access and visibility to the identification channels that US Soccer has outlined. We are going to work our tails off to find that talent, and we are going to be very sure that money is not an obstacle to play.”
Even with a limited operating budget (and staffed entirely by volunteers), Minneapolis City will still offer scholarships, funded in part by member donations, and will keep their doors open to anyone. Why?
“I think it would be easy for us to roll out our NPSL team and call it a day,” reflected Pribyl. “However, I believe that we are being woven into the fabric of Minnesota soccer, and have an obligation and duty to make sure we are adapting to the Minnesota soccer community and providing programming that will benefit players, families, and fans.”
The two new programs will ensure that Minnesota’s youth retain visibility in the US Soccer landscape and that every talent is given the opportunity to grow. They will also be given the freedom to move on to other opportunities. Neither Bunbury nor City will claim rights to players in their programs.
With players, parents, and fans left in the dark, all eyes are watching MNUFC ownership, awaiting their next move. The only thing certain is that too many kids are still tied to the scuttled program, which may or may not make a return.
When asked how Minnesota United FC could make things right with the families left behind by the Academy cuts, the parent’s answer was simple: “They can release any claim on territory rights for the kids who have other opportunities.”
Don’t claim kids you won’t train. A reasonable ask from families in an impossible situation.
Featured image: MNUFC
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