Youth Development in MLS: The Promise and the Problems

The vastly developed high school and college sports programs in the United States have been a tremendously organised pipeline of talent to the major leagues in American football, basketball, and baseball for some time now. In its first decade, MLS largely relied on the same system, with talented players often not turning professional until they had graduated from college and been selected in the SuperDraft at the age of 22 or 23 (of course, there have been exceptions such as Adu, Mapp or Altidore).

In soccer, that’s too late to start competing against professionals and expect to develop into world class talent. As we all know, talent in the rest of the world is now being snapped up and developed by clubs before young boys have even reached an age in double figures.

That’s why it is heartening to report that Major League Soccer has recently taken significant steps to improve player development and directly funnel it to the clubs, rather than mandating all talent be drafted centrally. Unfortunately, there are still significant problems in the MLS rulebook blocking the full realisation of the clubs youth academies.

Jozy AltidoreThe Promise

MLS has long relied on what was initially Nike’s Project-40 and is now Generation Adidas to ensure elite American talent signs with MLS. This allows clubs to obtain via the SuperDraft (for far more than the minimum developmental salary, and not counting against the Senior Roster limit of 18 players) a Mapp or an Altidore, rather than seeing them go abroad in search of more money.

But these players did not come through the clubs youth systems, and frankly, with expansion in MLS we need far more Altidores and Adus to maintain and improve the quality of MLS soccer. Thankfully, a major rule change in MLS now gives clubs a greater incentive to spot and develop talent at an even earlier age that ought to lead to this improvement: the Home Grown talent rule instituted in late 2006 mandates that every club sets-up an amateur youth program, and allows teams to sign up to two players from that pool (as long as they’ve been in it for 24 months) each year, bypassing the central draft.

Each club has a “home territory” from which it can draw players, somewhere in the region of 75-100 miles from their stadium. Teams can reap the benefits both in the short term by these players enhancing their first teams, players connected to their home regions who fans ought to be particularly fond of, but also in the long-term as many will be transferred abroad eventually, bringing in valuable allocations and transfer revenues to the clubs.

I’ve been following closely the Chicago Fire’s program this season. They were the second club after DC United to make their youth Academy fully free, an important step towards — if you’ll pardon the word — democratising youth soccer development in this country. Before a recent Fire Academy game, I spoke to a father of one of the Fire’s U-16 players, a very talented Mexican-American boy. He told me that he could not have afforded the fees to send his child to one of the elite youth clubs in the Chicago area, and even considered returning to Mexico to give his kid an opportunity before the Fire solved his problem.

The Fire’s U-16 team is stocked with talent from the Hispanic community, a demographic that, as Paul Gardner never tires of telling us, American soccer needs to draw on more. The Fire’s U-16 team recently more than held its own against a U.S. National U-17 team at Toyota Park, and Academy Director Louis Mateus expects to sign one or two players directly to the Fire’s Senior team by next season. US youth international Victor Pineda is perhaps the hottest prospect, a composed and gifted attacker.

Matt KasselThe Problems

That’s the good news. As you might expect in MLS, there are still glaring issues that need to be resolved before these programs can reach the world class level they need to be to compete with Europe. After all, almost two years in, no MLS club has yet signed a player from their academy directly to their first team.

The first problem is that only a few MLS teams have committed sufficient resources to their youth academies. One senior MLS executive told me that only DC, Chicago, New York and Chivas USA have significant programs and the rest of MLS was “piggybacking” of their work, as most players still end up going through the central draft anyway.

Therefore, whilst the Home Grown talent rule gives teams some incentive to develop their own talent, this needs to be expanded further.

The reason for this can be seen in the troubling case of the New York Red Bulls Matt Kassel. A U-18 American international who has been with the Red Bulls youth program for some time, Kassel was expected in many quarters to be signed to the Red Bulls Senior Roster this season. Whilst perhaps not ready to play immediately, such a move would have him committed to the Red Bulls for the future, and allow him to develop alongside the likes of Angel, Altidore and Reyna. Instead, after New York decided not to offer him a Generation adidas contract or a Senior Roster spot, feeling he was not yet ready to contribute significantly on the field (Kassel had no interest in a low-paid developmental contract), he is headed to the University of Maryland.

There are contrasting perspectives on the meaning of this. Metrofanatic believes this is a serious blow to Academy development, revealing it as essentially a “road to nowhere”:

The bottom line is that the club doesn’t get it. Not surprising if you have followed Metro for all these years. What was heralded as perhaps the greatest faction of the franchise, the youth academy, has now been reduced to a joke. Come witness the best youth program in MLS and their quest to get all their graduates into the NCAA where the only way you are going to break into the first team is if you are an uber-star at 18 and can contribute immediately. But to Red Bull this is an acceptable path to follow, they are quick to point out how wonderful playing for Maryland will be; effectively saying that they think the NCAA is a more effective training environment than their own; that is quite a damning self admission. To make matters worse, a quote from Jeff Agoos about Kassel yesterday revealed his ignorance, “My hope at some point is that we can sign him,” Agoos said, “whether it’s next year or a few years down the road. That’s up to Matt.” Earth to Agoos, you could have signed him yesterday, paid for by MLS and cap exempt.

It’s possible that Kassel could be lost to the Red Bulls, though it is equally possible he’ll sign with the Red Bulls next season in any case. Either way, this is something MLS needs to fix so that clubs don’t face such difficult decisions about whether to sign very talented young players. One way would be to expand the Senior Roster, so that clubs can feel more comfortable signing young players at the age of 18 even before they’re ready to start in MLS: the rosters are too tight as they stand.

Another route would be to get rid of the frankly ridiculous rule that MLS teams can only use one Generation adidas deal in a three-year period on an Academy product. This particular rule is the epitomy of MLS bureaucratic heads-in-the-sand insanity. (Edit: and just to confuse things further, I’ve now discovered that teams could graduate a player from Generation adidas earlier than three years — by adding them to their Senior or Developmental Roster — and then sign another GA player from the Academy. Confused yet?)

A further positive move would be to raise the Developmental Roster salary so that good prospects will have a financial incentive to sign on with MLS rather than head to college, even if they’re not worth a Generation adidas deal.

The new MLS rules and the programs instituted by several MLS clubs (as well as US Soccer’s own development academy) bode well for the pipeline of American soccer talent. But there must be further changes that facilitate that pipeline actually directing talent early enough to MLS teams for the good of the players and the clubs that have invested money, and to encourage the rest of MLS to follow suit. The future of American soccer depends upon it.


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