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Aston Villa NextGen Series Preview: The Road to Hardware

Yesterday I wrote a little bit about the players to watch for as Aston Villa begins to compete in the NextGen Series. I realized that maybe a few readers aren't entirely familiar with what the NextGen Series is, or how it is structured. What should we be looking for? Can we watch any of this stuff? Does the whole thing matter at all? So I've written this as sort of a primer to fans who are looking to follow the Aston Villa youth squad's progress in their quest to get the club a trophy.

What is the NextGen Series? Begun in August 2011, the NextGen Series (yes, I know, the name is kind of annoying) is a sort of Champions League for youth systems across Europe. In its first go-round, there were four groups of four clubs each. This season, there are 24 clubs divided into six groups. Despite the fact that there doesn't seem to be any qualification process for the league (is it alright with everyone if I call it that?), it really does live up to its inspiration. Amongst the clubs represented (all of which are at least decently good) are Barcelona, Juventus, Chelsea, Fenerbahce, and, of course, Aston Villa.

The goal of the NextGen Series is to provide players from youth systems from across Europe a high level of competition. In theory, it's the best simulacrum of top-flight play they'll experience without being a part of their club's first team. Many of the matches (including all of Villa's home matches) will be played at the grounds of the first team.

What is the format? The Series is set up with six groups of four teams each. As with Champions or Europa League play, each team in a group will play the others in a home and away fixture. The top two teams from each group will advance. That only leaves twelve teams, however, and sixteen are needed for proper knockout rounds. The final four teams will be the four third-place teams that have the most points from group play. Group play occurs between now and January 15.

At that point, teams will participate in one-leg knockout matches until only one team remains. Home advantage in the Round of 16 will go to the first-place teams and the top two second place teams. Thereafter it will be decided by a draw. There will be a match for 3rd/4th place. The knockout stages will take place between January 15 and April 15.

Match-day squads are limited to 18 players. At least 15 must have been born after January 1, 1994. A team can also use three players who were born after January 1, 1993 (though it is not required to use three players who fall in the one-year gap). The good news on this front is that a new team can be named before each match. Interestingly, though coaches are only allowed three stoppages per match, they can use those to make up to five substitutions.

What should I be watching for? Well, assuming you're watching Aston Villa, look to see some development. Keep in mind that you'll be seeing players who are far from polished. There will be silly mistakes that can be chalked up to inexperience, but there will also be incredibly exciting plays. Look for players with potential, but don't expect to find a Messi in the bunch. Villa have some excellent prospects, but most are a couple of years away from contributing at anything approaching a first-team level. Except possibly Jack Grealish, the most exciting sixteen-year-old in most of our lives.

Alright, I'm intrigued. How can I watch? Well, there's always AVTV. Sometimes it's a maddening product, and it doesn't always work the way you want, but overall it's a pretty great value. It also happens to be (usually) the only way you can catch any Aston Villa reserve action without being there in person. Also you may be able to watch some of the matches on an honest-to-god TV. You can also find some highlights and interviews here, though it's sometimes hit-or-miss.

Also (and no, I did not mean for this to be an ad for Villa, but this deal is great), you can snag tickets to watch the three group stages matches at Villa Park. You can pick up tickets for individual matches for £4 if you're a season ticket holder and £7 if you aren't (even less if you're U16). But better still, you can get tickets to all three matches for £7 and £10 (for season ticket holders and other, respectively). Sure, it may not be the best football ever, but you've watched Villa for the past two seasons, haven't you? (Jokes!) Realistically, if you're in Birmingham and have two hours free, there's absolutely no reason not to go to all three. For £3.33 (at it's most expensive), you can snag a match and cheer on Villa. Why not?

Is it worth it for Villa participate? Absolutely. Barring injuries, which could occur at any point, there is no downside to the NextGen Series for Villa's players. Rather than playing against Barclays Reserve Super League of Academy Reserves (or whatever it's called this year), a League that Villa have utterly dominated, they get some compeition against some of the finest youth players in Europe. This, in turn, should mean a smoother transition for these players as they make their way to the first team. One of the biggest problems in young players is the nerves that come with appearing on the Villa Park pitch (or any other EPL pitch) for the first time. That has to be intimidating! NextGen action won't be exactly the same, but it should be a closer approximation of that than what players have had before.

All things considered, I think the NextGen Series is a fantastic thing for the club, its players, and its fans. Additionally, it might be a chance for Aston Villa to finally bring home some hardware. It's a bit hard to keep up with, and you can be forgiven for not following every match. We'll try to have reports here as we can get to them, so make sure to keep checking. First match is tomorrow at 1900 GMT. Aston Villa will play host to Sporting Lisbon. Can't wait to see what happens!