Minnesota United announced a rebooted youth development academy structure on Wednesday, Aug. 26, casting a wider net for prospects in the state while tapping Noel Quinn to be its next director.
Manny Lagos, the Loons’ chief soccer officer, pointed to Quinn’s “extensive background in youth development, particularly in Minnesota. He understands the landscape.”
Quinn, a Ireland native, has coached 13 seasons of high school soccer in Minnesota and led teams to the state championship game four years in a row from 2014-17, including a title with St. Thomas Academy boys program in 2016. He also has coached at youth clubs in Edina and Blaine and at high schools in Eden Prairie, Simley and Columbia Heights, and at St. John’s University.
Quinn replaces Tim Carter, the former Shattuck-St. Mary’s leader who was was let go in June after four seasons in charge of MNUFC’s growing youth ranks. Four other members of the academy staff also were cut, and Lagos said they are now “building out” the rest of its staff.
Quinn said in an interview Monday that his development strategy will focus on players’ long-term potential. The primary goal is to build players who can play for the Loons’ MLS team at Allianz Field.
“We kept the players motivated all the time,” Quinn said of his high school coaching. “They always knew that they had to play at their highest level or they would lose their spot. Or the boys that weren’t quite at that level at the moment, we kept driving them forward, so when they were ready, we took advantage of that. That is a huge part to development.”
This spring, United’s youth-level teams — Under-17, U15, U14, U13 — had a handful of players exit the program given uncertainty of a season being played and questions concerning the Loons’ commitment to the players’ development, some of the players’ parents told the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
The Loon’s new structure, within the MLS framework, will focus on U15 and U17 levels and a U23/reserve team. United FC said it will invest with U14 and U10 levels and will give training opportunities for current players graduating to U19.
Lagos said a “large portion” of players already in the academy will remain, while the size of the different age groups will increase from 18 players to 35-40 players.
MLS assumed leadership of the youth systems after the U.S. Development Academy folded during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Development in this space in this country is still in a fledgling state,” Lagos said Monday. “We’re still figuring out what makes sense.”
What MNUFC youth teams will play this year?
“A lot of that just has to do with the national level, unfortunately, with the current situation with COVID,” Lagos said. “… MLS still hasn’t gotten up and running (with its youth programs). They still don’t know when they are going to do the schedule.”
Given the uncertainty this spring, Lagos encouraged kids in the youth program to train with their local clubs or high school teams. The Loons continue to encourage that involvement.
Lagos said after the high school season finishes, United will pick up extra programming for its top youth players. In the meantime, they will train roughly half the week with their high school/youth club and half the week in United’s structure.
How will the club manage potential conflicts?
“That is where you get into the nuts and bolts of a collaboration,” Quinn said. “It’s about communicating well with the clubs and not only ensuring Minnesota United has access to the players, but the clubs (do too). It’s about building those relationships.”
The Loons’ academy will focus primarily on Minnesota prospects.
“We are going to be more intentional about how it improves the level in Minnesota,” Lagos said. “… We’ll certainly still continue to (recruit outside players). I don’t think we will be as aggressive early on.”
What’s the status of starting a reserve team?
Four years into MLS, the Loons still do not have a reserve team playing in the lower levels. The lack of this team can stunt development of young players on the first team. This includes 16-year-old St. Paul goalkeeper Fred Emmings, the Loons’ first academy product. He signed a homegrown pro contract in January but has yet to play a game in 2020.
“We know to have this vision correctly done, it has to connect the pro-player pathway, and our intention is to have a reserve team as part of it as soon as possible,” Lagos said.
This reserve team, which could be up and running this winter, could be in a model provided by MLS or in the National Premier Soccer League or play a separate international schedule. It’s not expected to be in the immediate lower levels in USL.
Will academy kids have to pay in order to play?
Lagos said it will be a “hybrid” to make sure top prospects don’t have to pay, but also not creating a system that is “exclusionary” for others.
Lagos said one of their “biggest challenges” is that an estimated 70 percent of a youth club’s training budget is tied up in securing indoor practice spaces and travel to away games. This is especially true for Minnesota’s distance to other youth development clubs in the U.S.