D.C. United’s training facility near RFK Stadium Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Youth soccer in the United States can be extremely expensive. The so-called “pay-to-play” model has been criticized as exclusionary, though many youth clubs insist they simply couldn’t exist without charging annual dues.

But Major League Soccer academies operate differently. As they look to produce players who can join their parent teams without a cost of acquisition, most MLS teams have eliminated their academy fees.

D.C. United is not one of those teams. 

Unlike 22 of the 24 MLS franchises, D.C. United charges its players an annual fee—between $1,500 and $2,500, depending on the age group—to be part of its youth academy. Minnesota United requires a similar fee.

That cost has opened United up to criticism that it’s behind the times, more concerned with generating revenue than developing talent, and potentially excluding low-income players. 

“The vast majority of our clubs are free for our academy programs,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said before United’s home opener on March 3. “I have not spoken to [Jason Levien, D.C. United’s chief executive] lately to get a sense of what his plans are, but I do think the future for our country, if we want to develop players effectively, is to have access for as many kids as possible.”

A team spokesperson says the organization still loses money from its academy and that despite having barriers to entry that other MLS teams don’t, it manages to produce a healthy number of quality prospects. The club offers scholarships to those who have financial hardships.

The reason, in part, why the academy charges a fee goes back to the team’s old home. For years, D.C. United has been in financial chaos, losing money in an unfriendly lease at decrepit RFK Stadium. Both the team and the academy suffered. 

“I just don’t think we could ever get away from charging the $2,500 for the younger [teams] because we were just losing so much money at RFK,” former United academy coach Tom Torres tells City Paper.

But over the past year, United has seen a new dawn arrive. The club moved into brand new Audi Field last summer, transforming the club from tenants into landlords who control the financial destiny of their home stadium. Attendance is up, and club ownership has promised new and better sponsors.

Meanwhile, the club is moving most of its offices and training facilities to Loudoun County, Virginia, where a new team—Loudoun United FC—will begin play this season in the second-tier USL Championship and serve as a feeder club to its bigger sibling. 

United’s academy is also slated to move to Loudoun County, likely in 2020. 

“I think the sense everyone has is just like the first team’s transition to the stadium was a kind of reboot or rebrand, I think that’s almost the same thing for the academy,” says Cyrus Ramsey, the father of a D.C. United academy player.

Though the franchise is in the midst of a massive overhaul, it hasn’t completely left the past behind. Club ownership has said it spent $250 million of its own money on Audi Field, and the Loudoun County facility will cost the team at least $15 million, per terms of its agreement with the county. Those investments may pay off in the long term, but right now the team needs to recoup money. 

Spread between seven teams, United has 156 players in its academy. By comparison, the Alexandria Soccer Association has more than 1,000 kids in its academy program.

And while $1,500 to $2,500 per year is no pittance, that fee pales in comparison to other clubs in the area, which often charge several times that amount. It’s part of the reason why United says that despite the fees they charge, its academy still operates at a loss.

Another reason is that not every academy player is paying those fees.

“We offer close to $90,000 in scholarship money for academy players and we’ve never turned away anybody for a financial reason,” D.C. United academy director Ryan Martin says.

Players like Bill Hamid and Andy Najar, who was transferred to Belgian team Anderlecht for $3 million in 2013, have been among the many players who have participated in United’s academy free of charge.

“If D.C. United identifies a kid as a top pro player, they’ll get him in,” says Thomas Park, a former United academy coach who is now the executive director of the Alexandria Soccer Association.

“When you start doing the math and you know some aren’t paying, it’s really not that much money they’re collecting,” Park adds. “There’s got to be a philosophical reason why they’re hanging onto it. Could they afford to move away from it? Yeah.”

Martin, who says the money the academy collects mostly goes toward funding travel, did offer a hint into that philosophical reasoning. 

“From our standpoint, there’s also a little bit of accountability from the kids where if they have to pay $1,000 or $500 it makes them that much more bought in,” the academy director says. 

Past and present coaches say the club has been working on ways to make the academy free.

“There wasn’t a year that every single staff member wasn’t in a room saying, ‘How do we make this free?’” says Torres, the former academy coach. 

Asked if United had a goal for when it would make its academy free, though, Martin wouldn’t commit to a timeframe, only saying, “I think down the road that will come.”

One way for United to get closer to that goal could be to eliminate some younger age groups, since many local clubs do a successful job developing young talent.

United has been working for years to create affiliate relationships with local clubs that can incubate players and send them United’s way if they are showing pro potential by age 15, when MLS academy schedules becomes more intense and professional.  

“What we were trying to accomplish as a club was trying to create an environment where we didn’t have to have Arlington’s best players at 13 and 14,” Torres says. “We didn’t feel the need because ultimately we weren’t going to sign them to a pro contract at that age, so we tried to create a bunch of affiliate relationships.”

Strengthening those relationships could be a factor in eventually making United’s academy free of charge. 

“If Ryan Martin only has to run three teams as opposed to seven or eight, they’re really getting the top experience, and from a financial standpoint, they can make it free,” Park says. 

A smaller academy would enable the club to concentrate on players who are closer to being ready for the professional team. With multiple U.S. youth internationals currently in the pipeline, it could even help United be better positioned to make real money from its academy. 

In January, the Vancouver Whitecaps completed the transfer of 18-year-old Alphonso Davies to German power Bayern Munich for a fee that could reach as high as $22 million. Davies was developed in Vancouver’s academy. 

United has plenty of exciting talent in its system. If it can eventually sell a few of those players for big money, its academy will have generated more revenue than a decade’s worth of player fees ever could.