MLS NEXT Technical Director Fred Lipka Discusses The League’s First Season And MLS Talent In The Gold Cup

For years, Major League Soccer had the reputation of being a place where older, well-traveled European players go to retire. It wasn’t always a fair one, but with the league’s most prominent non-American names frequently being older players in large markets — think David Beckham in Los Angeles or David Villa in New York City — the “retirement league” tag followed MLS around.

But in recent years, there have been concerted efforts to change this. Teams have invested more and more into their youth academies, and whether that’s led to young standouts showing what they can do in MLS or European clubs identifying up American teenagers to be part of their long-term vision, there’s more young American talent than ever being cultivated and getting the chance to play professional soccer.

Last year, Major League Soccer expanded on all of this by launching MLS NEXT, a collection of youth soccer leagues across the United States that gives its players access to high-level coaching, competition, and development. And last week, the league capped off its inaugural season by heading to Dallas for a tournament to crown champions at the U15, U16, U17, and U19 levels. The winners at each level, respectively, were Real Salt Lake Academy, Weston FC, Orlando City SC Academy, and Chicago Fire FC Academy.

In celebration of the season coming to an end, Uproxx Sports caught up with Fred Lipka, the technical director of MLS NEXT, to discuss the tournament, the season as a whole, the program, and the number of MLS-developed players who will participate in CONCACAF’s top continental tournament, the Gold Cup, this month.

Can you take me through the general idea behind having this tournament?

The playoff and the showcase were the final step of our year-long season. We started last year in the regions where we could play, so it’s a kind of like we are in MLS, the pinnacle of our competition, with each other. It was the best of the season, plus all the club which played the showcase. So it’s kind of celebration of the season, but also, to crown a champion for specific ages, to celebrate the game and our platform.

Was the idea of ending the first season with a tournament something that you guys always thought was going to happen or was it something that just kind of popped up as you guys spoke through everything and eventually decided was a good idea?

It’s usually the case in every single competition across the world. You always have a climax to the final moments. It was existing with the former iteration of the Development Academy, which was a platform which was run by U.S. Soccer. Basically, we took over the platform and we added some pieces. So it’s a classic advance in the U.S. soccer landscape, but we added more layers to have more games, streamed to give a look, which gives an experience which is unique for each player and clubs. It is a professional environment here in Dallas, on MLS facilities, the sort of thing which is difficult to produce in every single market. It’s something that clubs and players expect, it’s more of a way to do it, which was a bit different with NEXT.

And you’ve mentioned the professional environment. What have your conversations with teams been like about the importance of having this kind of showcase — it’s in that kind of professional environment, you’re not playing training games, you’re playing really competitive games for a trophy against other teams on your level?

Professional means to try to, for example, be close to the first team — the first team stadium, to the first team training pitch, to be able to have more pressure and more stakes when the kids play, and not only playing to play. And the drama around the games increased, and it’s good. It’s good for development, and it’s good also to build players with more resilience, which also take more ownership of the game.

Professional means also being able to offer a pro pathway. So, being able to offer, for those kids, the capacity to sign in MLS, to join MLS, but also, for the club to offer options for the players to go into the pathway, but also, to join the best colleges around the country. We had 400 college coaches with a presence to scout all players.

It tries to create a symbiotic environment with two objectives, because sometimes the objective can be different. I think this event and this platform, you can deliver for every single club, player, and family.

Where have you been happy with what you’ve seen and where do you see some things that you might want to change the next time this rolls around?

We’re happy, because the objective was to celebrate the platform and to finish the season with something fresh, something which projects us into next season. And not to finish the season like we started with things in limbo because of the COVID crisis, so it wasn’t about MLS, it wasn’t about who is going to win, it’s more give the opportunity for teams, clubs, parents to be able to achieve their objective, individual and collective. It was all about celebrating a community of clubs which are now, we are quite sure, a part of something new, which looks like what the Development Academy was, but with a huge difference in the future, and to its approach to the competition in the future, around the competition. So we were very happy.

Next year it will be better, next year we will have more programs around it to serve the players, and our clubs, so we have to reflect about what went well and what can be improved. Overall, the feedback that I’ve received is very, very positive.

I want to ask about the role that MLS NEXT plays in the league as a whole. Because it seems like a really smart thing to have around as teams, from my perspective, are placing more of an emphasis on homegrown, young talent and having them be the players who eventually make up their senior rosters.

Yeah, that’s exactly the objective. And then NEXT has been created for the pathway to flow that way, and NEXT is our way to go pro or to go to the best college program, so it’s exactly the strategy is to create the right competition, the right environment, to develop more homegrown players and better homegrown players, because competition is very important to develop homegrown players, and NEXT is a strategic investment to be more efficient in our endeavor to develop homegrown.

We’re coming off of the Nation’s League, we have the Gold Cup roster, and a bunch of those guys came through the MLS pipeline. It feels like, and correct me if I’m wrong, there’s increasingly a pathway and there’s an emphasis on creating that pathway for young players to use those lower levels of MLS as a springboard to an MLS team, and to the national team, and maybe even to one of the top leagues in Europe, is that fair?

Yes, you’re right. I think you want to become an international player, to play with the national team. The best way to do it is to go through the MLS pipeline and then to sign an MLS contract, and then to play in the national team. And then also, because it’s a logical objective for a young player to dream about Europe for now, because Europe is the best competition in the world. It’s logical for some of them, maybe not all of them to go overseas and to challenge themselves, like Bryan Reynolds, Brenden Aaronson. And now, we all know that MLS is the best way to do — it isn’t the only way, but I would say it’s a less risky way to do it.

I mentioned the Nation’s League and the Gold Cup a second ago and the guys who came through MLS to make up those rosters. You just mentioned Brenden, he’s a great example, who are the guys that make up those teams that came through MLS that you have the most fun watching?

There are a lot. We have young players — 19, 20 years old — which play at the level of a [designated player], who are what we call an impact player. He cannot play, but he’s a young kid who plays at Red Bulls, he won’t make the Gold Cup because he’s injured, Caden Clark. You have Daryl Dike, which, by the way, he came from the college pathway, which is very exciting and college can also develop players, we all know. It was the case before, and with MLS now, we have found a way to develop more efficiently and more importantly regularly the players. You have James Sands in New York City, which now, he should have played more than enough games in MLS, and he’s only 20 years old. We have Sam Vines, Colorado, which is a young left fullback. Cole Bassett, the same way in Colorado. You have all the young players with quality and will certainly catch the eyes of bigger clubs.

This interview has been edited for clarity.