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Flint City Bucks link up with Liverpool FC Michigan to launch academy team

Larry O'Connor
The Detroit News

In an effort to cast a wider net for budding soccer talent, USL League 2’s Flint City Bucks have joined forces with the Pontiac-based Liverpool Football Club International Michigan to form an academy team that will begin play in 2021.

Elite players drawn from under-16 to under-19 age groups will compete in the new six-team USL Academy League East Central Division, which includes representatives from Grand Rapids, Louisville, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Cleveland. 

Flint City Bucks coach Andy Wagstaff is also president and owner of Pontiac-based Liverpool Football Club International Michigan.

Grand Rapids FC is debuting in USL 2 in 2021 after playing several years in the National Premier Soccer League. Other East Central Division clubs share USL affiliations, including Louisville City FC, Indy Eleven and Pittsburgh Riverhounds who all play in the USL Championship.    

Flint City Bucks academy side will be akin to “a high school all-star team,” drawing the best players from around the state, said Andy Wagstaff, Bucks coach.

“They would get to play at a high level and be in the USL feeder system, and you know the USL feeder system leads to MLS (Major League Soccer),” said Wagstaff, who is also president and owner of Liverpool Football Club International Michigan. “It really is just a streamlined pathway now, and it’s regionalized.

“You get good games with elite-level players that will be had within the region opposed to having to travel all over the country.”

A 45-team nationwide academy system is a comprehensive player development initiative launched by Tampa, Fla.-based United Soccer League, an organization that runs second- (USL Championship) and third-division (USL 1), and pro-am (USL 2) leagues.

The first-division MLS also has academies and this year launched MLS Next, which is a network of 489 affiliated youth teams (Grand Rapids’ Midwest FC, Rochester Hills’ Vardar, Novi’s Michigan Jaguars and Livonia’s Michigan Wolves are members) to serve as a development catchment.

USL Academy League's East-Central Division

MLS Next replaced US Soccer’s development academy, which the national organization disbanded. USL’s effort is intended to drill down further.

“The other big (thing) is we want to keep things local,” said Liam O’Connell, USL senior director of Youth Development. “Right now, based on the MLS model, if a kid pops up in Grand Rapids or Detroit, the message is pretty much, ‘You need to leave home’ or, ‘Your family needs to relocate and you need to get to the nearest MLS academy,’ and that’s not realistic for every player.

“That is the right move for some but not for all.”

Players, and parents, who see college as the optimum route are not forsaken amid the push to nurture pros, Wagstaff said.

USL 2 is a development league and is largely comprised of top collegiate players who hone their games during the summer. Some academy players could see playing time on the Flint City Bucks' senior team.

“I think the philosophy behind this is what it has been in the past,” said Wagstaff, who served as head coach for four years at Division II Saginaw Valley State University. “We know there might be a small percentage of players that might make it to the pros, but a majority of players we are dealing with are trying to make it as college players.”

An international search is underway for an academy coach, Wagstaff said. The new team will be a completely separate entity from Flint City Bucks in terms of branding due to the Michigan youth club’s ties with Liverpool Football Club.

However, doubleheaders featuring the upstarts and senior Bucks are likely in the cards for next season at Atwood Stadium. Due to COVID, a soft opening with a nine-game schedule is likely, Wagstaff said.

The academy club will be seeking sponsorships to offset costs for players. 

“It’s a natural fit for our two organizations and we’re excited to see this academy opportunity come to life,” said Costa Papista, president of Flint City Bucks, in a statement.

loconnor@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @larryo1961