The Sweeper: Home Grown Profit In MLS

US Soccer Development Academy

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On Saturday at Toyota Park, I watched parts of a game between the Chicago Fire Academy and the US Youth National U-17 Team, a game won by the Fire 4-0. To be fair, many of the Fire’s players were a year older than their opponents (though the Fire were also missing a couple of their best players, Technical Director Frank Klopas mentioned to me), but it was still an impressive showing.

Remember the name Victor Pineda (who also plays for the USYNT), Fire fans: the talented 17 year-old looked awfully good in the glimpses I saw, and MLS rule changes announced last week make it much more likely a player like him could be signed to the first team squad sooner rather than later.

MLS roster sizes were increased from 24 to 26, with two more slots added solely for homegrown players from their youth academies. Clubs now receive three-quarters of the transfer fee for a homegrown player who goes abroad, an increase from two-thirds, and something that will, for example, be welcomed by a club like Vancouver who are about to join MLS with one of the continent’s leading youth academies.

The changes to the homegrown players rule considerably grows the incentives for clubs to invest in their development academies, building on MLS’ Home Grown Player Initiative founded in 2007, which now means every single club has an Academy team in US Soccer’s Development Academy, itself also founded in 2007 with a significant financial investment by US Soccer. The Development academy requires the participating clubs, 77 in total in 2009-10, to hold three training sessions per week, and limits the number of games the teams can play, to encourage a focus on the improvement of skills rather than maximising game play.

The Fire now have a free Academy that means kids from poorer backgrounds can get top-level training without having to pay the enormous fees typical of elite clubs in the United States in the past. They have a youth system that runs all the way from U-6 to the first team. And they have a very talented crop of players from a diverse variety of backgrounds.

The Fire are not doing this solely out of the goodness of their hearts. It is an investment in developing local talent that will not only improve the first team, but will eventually — they hope — make the club money through the transfer fees received in the future. MLS is going the right way in rewarding clubs for their substantial investments in youth development both on the field and off it. That’s the only way it can work.

Some don’t believe there is a need for this structure at all, as one of Paul Gardner’s rambling recent essays demonstrated (he’s not calling for ‘anarchy’…but it’s not at all clear what he is calling for).  But for me, watching local kids of all backgrounds from all parts of the Chicagoland area wearing the Fire badge beating the US Youth National Team on the main field at Toyota Park suggests to me a bright future for youth development in this country and its necessary connection to the elite professional league here.

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