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How a new rule in the USL Championship & League One is changing the game for young talent

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 03/27/24, 8:35AM EDT


Starting this season, home clubs can expand gameday rosters to provide U-18 players opportunity to experience First Team gameday, make senior debut

The Tampa Bay Rowdies have made four USL Academy signings so far this season including Cristian Ortiz and Nicholas Skubis, both of whom were in the gameday squad for the club's home opener. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies

If you’ve been paying close attention over the first two weeks of the 2024 USL Championship and League One seasons, you’ll have seen some changes in the number of players suited up for home teams across both leagues.

The reason? A new league-wide initiative that will offer more opportunities for young professionals and USL Academy signings to be available for selection – and potentially make their First Team debuts – over the course of the 2024 season.

Passed this offseason by the USL’s competition committee, the new initiative allows clubs to include two players under the age of 18 in their gameday roster, above the standard 18-man squad that has been used in previous seasons.

“These two roster spots will allow for further development of youth players by providing the uncompromised opportunity to play them in a competitive match and ultimately increase their value,” said Oliver Wyss, USL Head of Global Football Development & Sporting Director.

It’s a move that is already drawing positive reviews within the league.

“I think it’s a fantastic idea,” said Tampa Bay Rowdies Head Coach Robbie Neilson at the USL Academy Cup ahead of the club’s home opener against San Antonio FC. “On Saturday we’re going to have two young guys who are going to get opportunities on the bench and potentially get on the pitch that they probably wouldn’t have had if we didn’t have this rule. I think it’s a great one. We’ve spoke about having pathways and opportunities for these young guys is really important, and the rule the USL has brought in is going to allow teams to do that.”

Oakland Roots SC's Ilya Alekseev is among the USL Academy signings who have made an impact in the USL Championship early in the 2024 season, scoring his first league goal against the Charleston Battery. | Photo courtesy Oakland Roots SC

Since the inception of the USL Championship more than a decade ago, the league has consistently tried to find ways to innovate and create pathways for young players. In 2013, the league introduced the USL Academy signing program, which allowed players to join First Team squads and compete in league play and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup while retaining their NCAA eligibility.

That model has now been adopted as standard by other professional domestic leagues in the United States, and some of those whose debuts in the USL Championship – like current call-ups Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie – came as USL Academy signings and have gone on to represent the United States at the senior international level.

The expansion of the Championship and League One gameday rosters takes that a step further, incentivizing clubs to add top young players either from their own academy or in the case of the Rowdies from club affiliates without having to sacrifice a regular First Team selection in the squad.

The impact can be seen at a club like Louisville City FC, which has already signed six players to professional deals from its own Academy program, but this week also added 16-year-old defender Hayden Stamps as a USL Academy signing with the new initiative in mind.

“We are excited to be able to sign Hayden to a USL Academy contract,” said LouCity Head Coach Danny Cruz in the club’s announcement. “This is another important step in his development, as he is now training with us every day.

“We also believe the new initiative from the league is going to allow our young academy players another opportunity for growth by experiencing everything that goes into a gameday.”

Current Louisville City FC players Ray Serrano and Elijah Wynder both began their careers in the USL Championship as USL Academy signings before graduating to professional contracts as teenagers. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC

While the new initiative is aimed at offering opportunity, the league and clubs have also factored in safeguarding elements that can make it a long-term success. With only home teams allowed to add two young players to their gameday group and road squads competing with a standard 18-player roster, the aim is to ensure a proper environment for the first experiences a player receives in First Team soccer.

“Player safety is always top of mind when integrating young players into the First Team,” said Wyss, “so the decision to limit the exception to home clubs was made to ensure a safe and invaluable experience as they take their first steps into a matchday environment.”

Players making those first steps have already been in evidence in the first two weeks of this season, however. Players such as North Carolina FC’s Adrian Pelayo and Julian Placias, Oakland Roots SC’s Ilya Alekseev, Orange County SC’s Ben Barjolo and Sacramento Republic FC’s Blake Willey have made their USL Championship debuts, while Tampa Bay’s roster in its season opener against San Antonio FC featured USL Academy signings Nick Skubis and Cristian Ortiz.

With three-quarters of the clubs in the USL Championship and half of the clubs in League One currently featuring USL Academy signings – and the potential for more to come – the pathway to First Team soccer in the USL’s professional ranks has become even clearer.

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