REMINDER: Chelsea U21 begin league play later today, facing Manchester City U21 at 19.05 BST (live on Chelsea TV).
Both the U21 and the U18 Chelsea sides brought home silverware last season, the older boys winning the U21 Premier League, the younger ones putting their names on the FA Youth Cup as is tradition. The U19 side had a very good start in Europe as well before a shock defeat in the UEFA Youth League knockout round.
Some players have moved on, some players have moved up, and many more new faces have arrived. (Here's a breakdown of how things might shake out at the various age levels from the ever excellent TheChels.net.) And we'll have plenty of opportunities to get to know them all, as there will now be five (5) competitions to challenge all the academy boys.
U21 PREMIER LEAGUE
The defending U21 Premier League champions -- we beat Manchester United in the playoff final, choosing to play it at Old Trafford just for added fun -- begin life in Division 1 of the once again reshaped Professional Development League. This will the third season of the PDL's existence and each season has brought a new format with it so far. Hopefully we've now settled on this one: 24 Category One academies divided into two division of 12, with promotion/relegation for the top/bottom two. The seedings were determined by how the teams finished last season, which, quite hilariously, puts Arsenal U21 into Division 2.
The revamped format promises home-and-away ties against each team for a total of 22 games. No playoffs or any such post-season shenanigans this year; the table toppers at the end of the season will be the champions. As before, teams can field three overage players (and one overage goalkeeper) to compensate for the lack of a true Reserves team.
U21 PREMIER LEAGUE CUP
Chelsea will be looking to better their quarter final exit from last season's inaugural cup competition, especially since it came against the Arsenal team that we just made fun of not too long ago. Participants in the League Cup include all Category One, all Category Three, and a few lower category academies as well. Chelsea's first match should be some time around late November, early December. A total of 52 academies played last year; Reading beat Manchester City in the two-legged final.
U21 INTERNATIONAL CUP
This is a brand new competition for this year and details are sketchy at best. At some point however, we will be involved in a 16-team competition that will pit 8 English sides against 8 others from the rest of the world. The Daily Mail claim that the English representatives will be Chelsea, Manchesters City and United, Fulham, Leicester City, Southampton, Sunderland, and West Ham United, while the rest of the world will be represented by Celtic, Benfica, Porto, Athletic Bilbao, Villareal, Gladbach, Schalke 04, and PSV Eindhoven. Four groups of four will feed into a knockout stage, so this should guarantee another six matches at least for the youth (assuming home-and-away format for the group games).
UEFA YOUTH LEAGUE (U19)
No changes for the second season of UEFA's killer answer to the NextGen Series (R.I.P.). Chelsea will once again compete alongside the senior team, shadowing them in the Champions League group stages, hoping to also qualify for the knockout round. Which, as we saw last season, can bring plenty of surprises. We did have a rather fun time in the six group games however. Barcelona are the defending champions.
U18 PREMIER LEAGUE
Despite successes elsewhere, Chelsea have not had the best showings in the U18 Premier League in its two previous years of existence, usually deprioritizing it in favor of the FA Youth Cup and U21/U19 competitions. This season may be no different as the league moves back to geographical divisions like in 2012/13. Just like at the U21 level, the 24 Category One academies will be divided into two groups of 12, with teams playing each other within their divisions both home and away. After the 22 matches, the top four in each division will qualify for the eight-team Elite Group to determine the overall winner, while the rest break off into similar groups to determine final positions (though they will only play each team just once, the higher seeds based on the initial league table getting the extra home games).
Chelsea's first game will be Saturday (tomorrow), at home (Cobham) against Southampton.
FA YOUTH CUP (U18)
Also known as the Chelsea Cup as we'll be looking for our fourth straight appearance in the final and the fourth FA Youth Cup trophy in six seasons. No pressure!
So, if you're counting, that's a guaranteed minimum of 29 games for the U21 side and a minimum of 30 games for the U18 side, alongside a minimum of six games in the UEFA Youth League. Certainly plenty of development minutes to go around, even if the general quality of opposition still probably won't match what could be possible with a B-Team system.
Best of luck to us though and don't forget to tune in later today for the U21 league kickoff against Manchester City