Earlier this month, Manchester City opened their new City Football Academy (CFA): a sprawling 200 Million pound sterling academy a stones throw from the Etihad Stadium. The ground is set up as a direct rebuke to critics who correctly point out City's horrific record of never starting a homegrown English player since Sheikh Mansour's take over. Sports psychologists on staff, sleeping quarters with leisure inducing wall-paper, a blue field: Man City's ownership scoured the earth to learn and take away as much as they could to make this a palace of player production. If there was ever an academy too big to fail, this might be it (although their reported visit to learn from the Knicks is disconcerting. Stay away, James Dolan).
So (again): what does this mean for NYCFC? Given MLS' salary cap, it is impossible for the nefarious duo of Man City and the Yankees to simply come in and build a Bronx Galacticos in year one (or two, or three). In truth, this is for the better. New York might love a "winner", but it also loathes plastic achievements, titles and accolades purchased instantly instead of earned. The Yankees might outspend everyone, but they've also proven they can build a dynasty around an in-house developed players such as Derek Jeter. When they chose to give Jeter $800k as a draft pick in 1992 it was a risk. Needless to say the Yankees got return on their investment.
Could Man City's massive investment in their own player development system mean a similar commitment here in New York?
Where does the NYCFC Academy currently stand?
To date, NYCFC has formal "affiliations" with 8 New York City based youth soccer clubs, many of whom who compete in the US Soccer development academy leagues against MLS academies. However, NYCFC has no academy team of their own yet. It remains to be seen what the relationship will be between these affiliate clubs and NYCFC when, theoretically, NYCFC fields its own academy teams at the U14 through U18 levels. With a Sporting Director like Claudio Reyna, formerly Youth Technical Director for US Soccer at large, one would assume youth development will be a top priority at NYCFC. Though NYCFC have appointed Paul Jeffries as Director of Community Outreach (which is a good thing!) they still do not have a Patrick Vieira-type head of youth development (not so good).
Though other MLS clubs have similar affiliate programs with local youth soccer teams, all MLS teams also operate their own in-house development academies. Clubs such as New York Red Bulls now field teams at the Under 13, U14, U15, U16, U18, and U23 level. They have produced valuable homegrown talent such as Juan Agudelo, and numerous other players that have graduated from the academy to the Red Bull's first team.
Operational costs of the academies, with U14, U16, and U18 teams are reported to be an average of one million a year. Many cover the complete costs of training, travel, and other expenses that have created barriers in the past for players of lower economic backgrounds to pursuing soccer at a high level. Yet, one million dollars is not a lot compared to the over 7 million a year a club such as Ajax Amsterdam spend on their world renowned academy.
Thus, with no apparent cap on academy spending, it is in player development where NYCFC could wisely flex their financial muscle. Obviously, NYCFC will not be building a 315 Million dollar academy here in the US. But it is not unrealistic to imagine the club outspending other MLS clubs in the field of youth development. It would be a no-brainer for NYCFC's academies to cover all player costs, as New York Red Bulls do. Beyond this, building up the facilities of both the club and community would be a solid investment. Providing free youth soccer for various neighborhoods would go a long way in not only building allegiance and a following for the club, but in increasing the player pool for potential academy players across socioeconomic lines. This means more than just building a few turf fields and hosting a couple clinics.
A strong academy means a strong team, strong brand, and profitable transfers. Investing heavily in NYCFC's academy makes as much business sense for Sheikh Mansour and friends as it makes everyone feel warm and fuzzy about providing free soccer for the children of New York.
In the end, US Soccer as a whole will benefit from a program such as this. USSF and MLS have made massive strides in recent years in revolutionizing the structure of elite youth player development. They have gone from a system of regional all star teams that met mostly for games, to establishing a system that values tactics, coaching, and practice over the temporary glory of youth championships. Bringing in more investment in facilities, player training, and possibly most important: training of coaches and managers, will lift all ships in the vast ocean that is US Soccer.
There are a lot of reasons to NOT like NYCFC: They are rich, they can't figure out if they are their own team or a sub-affiliate of Manchester City, and they (will) play in a baseball stadium.
Investing in New York's youth soccer development could be a great reason to love them.