Last season, if you'll recall, was the first season in the rest of the life of the English youth system. Under the umbrella of EPPP, a brand new Professional Development League (at both U21 and U18 levels) was created to replace the outmoded Reserves League system. The aim, especially with the under-21 league and its allowance for three overage players, was to close the gap in the level of competition between the first teams and the reserves/youths in England's top divisions.
Did it work? Is it working? Those questions aren't ready to be answered yet. But we do know that last season's under-21 league format was confusing mess. Thankfully, steps have been taken to correct that.
Whereas last year the 22 Category 1 academies (with a 23rd, Watford withdrawing) were split into three groups and then reshuffled halfway through only to eventually determine the ultimate winner through a playoff bracket, this year the format is a straight up league, although with teams playing each other just once. After the 21 matches, the top four teams will enter a single-elimination playoff to determine the overall winner. Concurrently, there will be a U21 cup competition as well although the details on that are still a bit fuzzy - most likely it will be analogous to the FA Cup, wherein all academies of all categories can enter. One final change is that teams will now be required to play three home league matches in the club's "big" stadium (e.g. Stamford Bridge) as opposed to just two.
Chelsea U21 ended up playing 24 matches at this level last season, which is slightly more than the 22 guaranteed this time around - although that could potentially rise to 24 or more depending on progress in the Cup. But now we also have the added benefit of getting to test our mettle against every other Category 1 academy in the nation. Combine that with the NextGen Series (now U20, rather than U19) and the UEFA Youth League (U19), and Chelsea's top prospects should have plenty of quality opposition to keep them occupied even if they don't end up getting loaned out.
Chelsea will kick off the U21 Premier League with a home tie against none other than last year's beaten finalist, Tottenham Hotspur. The match will be played on Friday, August 9th - so soon! - at Aldershot Town FC, which alongside Brentford FC's sandy pitch will be the youth's home away from home whenever not playing at the Bridge. Be sure to check out the full schedule at the official site.
The Baby Blues experienced plenty of heartbreak last year. Lackluster league campaigns - interrupted by the constant shuffling of loanees and players sharing time at both U21 and U18 level - were followed by losing efforts in both the NextGen Series and the FA Youth Cup finals. Hopefully any returning players - such as Lewis Baker, John Swift, Islam Feruz, Alex Kiwomya, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek to name the first five names that popped into my head - will drive all the new faces to even greater heights and successes.