Sometime this season, Major League Soccer will pass a not-so-insignificant milestone when a team makes the 50th signing since implementation of the Homegrown Player Initiative. In all likelihood, this milestone will occur with little fanfare. The reason? The signing of players produced by MLS-run or -affiliated youth development programs has become so commonplace that they rarely merit mention outside of the team's closest observers.
Since Tristan Bowen became the first player officially signed under the Homegrown Player rule on Nov. 12, 2008, there have been a total of 47 players signed by 17 different clubs under the rule. To date, the Seattle Sounders and Montreal Impact (who only joined MLS this offseason) are the only teams not to utilize the signing mechanism. The pace has only quickened over time, with 28 occurring since the end of the 2010 season when the rule was expanded to allow a virtually unlimited number of these players to be signed by each team.
The reasons for all these signings are relatively straight-forward. Homegrown Players do not have to go through the SuperDraft or any other allocation mechanism, do not count against the salary cap, don't have to be protected during any expansion drafts and, perhaps most importantly, teams are allowed to keep 75 percent of any transfer fee those players may draw from international clubs. The standard team cut of transfer fees is two-thirds, although it can be even lower in some instances.
The rules governing these signings have evolved a bit over the years, but the focus has remained the same: To improve MLS teams' ability to produce talent and better compete in a global marketplace. To that aim, MLS made attempted to craft rules that would ensure teams were developing talent, not just identifying players they liked. To qualify as a HGP, players must have been involved with the youth development program for at least a year and logged at least 80 training sessions. If the player goes to college before signing, he needs to continue to log at least 30 training sessions a year with the MLS team every year to remain eligible.
"Youth development is an ongoing and evolving process," Todd Durbin, MLS Executive Vice President of Competition and Player relations, told SB Nation Soccer. "We weren’t in the youth development space when we started the league.
"What we wanted to do is foster and create an environment where teams were encouraged to be entrepenural and innovative. There is no best way in terms of youth development."
19 teams, 19 philosophies
While MLS and its teams may all agree that some form of youth development is key to making the league a major player in the world soccer market, how exactly they go about doing that is very much an open question. A quick scan around the league reveals that no two teams are running their youth development exactly alike.
The most expansive is probably FC Dallas, which has a player pool of roughly 1,800 boys and girls involved in their youth development program all the way from 6-7-year-olds to U-19's. Chris Hayden, who carries the title of FC Dallas Youth Vice President, oversees 140 teams in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
"Our model is a lot different than other MLS clubs," Hayden said. "We have critical mass, kids developing at all ages.
"We’re hopeful that the vast majority of the players that we’re signing to the professional team are kids who have been in the program for six, eight, 10 years. Instead of identifying them at 15-16, we’ve really been able to groom them and be proactive in their development. We can get them at a very young age and have an emotional attachment to the club, as well as being very talented."
Unsurprisingly, FC Dallas has been among the most aggressive teams when it comes to signing HGPs. Only Toronto FC has signed as many as FC Dallas' six, all of whom spent several years in the team's youth development program before signing. So far, those players have not played a huge role in the first team, collectively making 21 MLS appearances. But there's reasons to think that will change. Ruben Luna is coming off a season in which he played 15 MLS games, scored three goals in all cup competitions and led the Reserve League in scoring with 10 goals in nine matches.
"Our owners have gone on record as saying that they won’t be satisified until a signifiant portion of our team is homegrown talent," Hayden said.
As expansive as FC Dallas' program may already seem, they have recently taken the next step and started to dabble in residency. Not only has the team worked with a local school district to allow players to practice from 8-10 a.m. and go through accelerated schooling, some out-of-area players even live with host families.
The Vancouver Whitecaps and Real Salt Lake are already running full-blown residency programs. At the top level of both teams' programs, 16-18-year-olds live with host families or in dormitories and have their days largely built around practicing and playing soccer.
"If it’s good enough for the rest of the world, why wouldn’t we start that process?" Whitecaps President Bob Lenarduzzi said, noting that Vancouver actually started its residency four years ago, well ahead of their joining MLS. "It’s a program that has evolved over the years. It’s a program that we’re still committed to, but we’re assessing on a annual basis to get the best value for the money we’re spending. We’re still trying to determine how to accomplish that."
The Whitecaps have signed five HGPs, including Philippe Davies before the team had played its first MLS match, and have three more academy products training with the first team in an attempt to make the 2012 roster. They've also already parted ways with two of their HGP signings, including Davies. Lenarduzzi acknowledged that finding players for the Whitecaps is just one of the team's goals, though. He noted that Crewe Alexandra, a League Two team in England, has managed to carve out an existence by developing players and then selling them to bigger clubs.
"Crewe have an unbelievable model," he said. "They produce and move them on. That’s how they fund the club."
RSL's decision to go the residency route was born out of a different kind of necessity. They felt they needed a residency program just to compete in the longterm. With so few soccer players in Utah, RSL was allowed to establish their residency in Casa Grande, Ariz. where players live in dorms and are given the choice of attending private or public school.
"I think if you’re a small market, it’s essential to your survival," said RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey, who has signed two HGPs since starting the program 18 months ago. "There’s no way we’re ever going to be able to spend dollar-for-dollar with LA, Seattle or even Portland or Vancouver, for that matter. If we want to compete, the only way to do that is to develop talent from within."
There are many mechanisms within MLS that are designed to promote parity. Lagerwey pointed out that youth development programs are a significant outlier in that sense. Teams are free to spend as much as they deem reasonable and could, at least theoretically, build rosters relatively protected from outside influences.
Various teams have looked to exploit those advantages to varying degrees of success. RSL tried to get recent SuperDraft picks Nick DeLeon and Tony Cascio qualified as HGPs, but their time in Casa Grande was deemed too limited. The LA Galaxy, however, were able to get Jose Villareal signed to a HGP contract, despite the fact that he had only spent six months with their academy and had played with a youth national team prior to joining the Galaxy's program. Similarly, the Portland Timbers were allowed to sign Brent Richards even though his ties were somewhat tenuous as well.
Durbin suggested the decisions in each of those situations were more straight-forward than it may have looked from the outside. DeLeon and Cascio had not met minimum training standards; Richards was among a group of players grandfathered into the Timbers' HGP pool; and the Galaxy were allowed to sign Villareal because the league believed he might sign overseas otherwise. Villareal also won't be allowed to play for the Galaxy until he has met the minimum training requirements.
All these decisions, Durbin said, were made with the best interests of the league at heart. The end goal is making sure that the best players remain here, something that was accomplished in each situation, he said.
At this stage, it's still hard to say just how effective all this effort has been. The 47 HGPs have made just about 300 MLS appearances, just six have played at least 20 games (the same number of HGPs who are no longer with the team that signed them) and the real success stories can still be counted on one hand. Of course, the vast majority of them are also too young to even buy alcohol, let alone rent a car.
"We’ve done a great job in a short time," Durbin said. "The next phase is to ensure that we really are getting the most amount out of this investement. We want to make good on this committment to be among best developers of soccer talent in the world. That’s our goal, to be among the best."
Look for Part 2 of SB Nation's examination of youth development in MLS where we took a closer look at where this is all heading.