After 47 Homegrown Player signings by 17 different clubs, there are some justifiably good feelings about the state of youth development in Major League Soccer. In the span of less than four years, the league has gone from being a virtual non-entity in the world of soccer youth development to arguably the premier developer of young talent in the United States.
Whether that has raised the overall level of quality, remains an open question. MLS is fast approaching a point at which teams are wanting to see some more concrete signs of improvement.
"We’re transitioning from a league where teams were creating these academies and now we’re in Phase 2 where we have academies and teams are making significant investments at the local level," said Todd Durbin, MLS's Executive Vice President of Competition and Player Relations. "Now we are making sure it’s being done in the most efficient and effective way possible.
"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."
So far, examples of more advanced successes are extremely limited.
Andy Najar won the MLS Rookie of the Year award for D.C. United in 2010 and has scored 10 goals in two seasons. Najar's United teammate, Bill Hamid, has already made 36 MLS starts and earned his first United States national team cap as a goalkeeper by the time he's 21. Juan Agudelo has scored six MLS goals and 15 international caps.
Outside of those three, and to a degree even including them, it's still almost all about potential. Just 12 HGPs have made as many as 10 MLS appearances in their careers. D.C. United (117), Toronto FC (34) and the Vancouver Whitecaps (33) are the only three teams to get as many as 30 collective appearances out of their academy products and that's with 15 signings between them.
More bang for buck
More recently, we've seen a growing trend of teams increasing their investment into youth development. Toronto FC is building a nearly $18 million facility for its academy. The New York Red Bulls have begun exploring a full residency program. The Whitecaps and Real Salt Lake already have residency programs. Numerous teams spend upwards of $1 million annually on their academies, most of them in an effort to more closely mimic the way teams around the world train.
Seeing the lack of concrete results and noting the inherent differences between the United States and the world, there remains skeptics about fully embracing this model within MLS. Adrian Hanauer, the general manager and part owner of of the Seattle Sounders, qualifies as one such skeptic.
"We’re spending roughly $1 million on youth development," Hanauer said. "In order to do it really, really right we probably need to spend $3 million a year on youth development. The pure economic argument is, are we developing $3 million of assets every year? My gut tells me no today."
At the root of Hanauer's concern over investing even more money is the idea that MLS teams can do a better job developing players once they reach college age. As it stands now, MLS teams only sign a very small fraction of the players that come through their academies before they go to college, something that remains highly unlikely to change anytime soon. The vast majority of academy products go on to play at least some college soccer, and only a few of those are eventually signed by MLS teams either. The Sounders, for instance, have sent about 30 kids to colleges in the past couple years. Most MLS academies send somewhere between 5-15 in any given year. Hanauer's contention is that MLS has little to gain by cutting out that part of the process.
Hanauer also notes that a players like Tim Ream was produced without spending anytime in a MLS-run academy. Ream was recently sold to the English Premier League's Bolton for a reported transfer fee of more somewhere around $3 million. Would Ream have been worth double that if he had been developed directly by the Red Bulls, instead of merely spending his last two years there?
"The jury is still out on how effective and, at a base level, how we should be developing kids in this country," Hanauer said. "There are those that say that the youth soccer development process doesn’t work and high school soccer is bad and college soccer is bad. I’m not 100 percent convinced of that at this point."
Bridging the gap
In places like Vancouver, the academy has been set up in such a way that their best players are no longer even eligible to play college soccer in the United States. Even for players who aren't yet signed by the senior team, many of them play for the Whitecaps' fully professional U-23 team that competes in the PDL, which has essentially formed a bridge from the academy to MLS.
Even with that bridge, the Whitecaps have experienced mixed results with their HGPs. Of the five they've signed so far, two are no longer with the team after just one season in MLS. In fact, seven of the 47 HGPs signed league-wide are no longer with the teams that signed them. As it turned out, most of them simply weren't able to justify their spots on the 30-player roster despite not counting against the salary cap.
"You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you’re having to play the younger players and in actuality you're stunting their development because they aren’t ready for it," Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi said. "Balancing act is the right word. Figuring out how many players you need on your roster that you need to contribute and how many are left for players you don’t want to lose because you’ve spent time developing them."
Those examples aside, an increased alliance between MLS and the PDL may be a key element of how youth development evolves here. The Portland Timbers and Chicago Fire already have PDL affiliates. The Seattle Sounders recently signed an agreement with an existing team to form a similar partnership. Unlike the Whitecaps, their teams are fully amateur, which allows them compose their rosters mostly out of college players on summer break without endangering anyone's NCAA eligibility.
Durbin said the league is currently exploring a more formalized relationship with the PDL, acknowledging the bridge aspect. He also noted that the MLS Reserve League currently allows for academy players to appear alongside senior team players, something that could become an even bigger aspect of that league if it continues to expand from its current 10-game schedule.
Players currently in college can not play in the reserve league, though, which highlights another benefit to having a fully amateur PDL affiliate. MLS teams are able to keep direct contact with their former academy players while also building up training hours that allow them to remain eligible for a potential HGP contract. The Timbers were able to use their PDL team to help bolster their HGP claim on recently signed Brent Richards, who played three seasons on the U23 side while enrolled at the University of Washington.
The PDL teams also fits nicely into the Timbers' overall strategy, which is to embed themselves in as much of the Portland soccer culture as possible.
"To get fans, you need to instill a love of the game, to instill a love of the game, you need people playing the game, more people being knowledgeable, more people having a positive impact on the game," said Timbers technical director Gavin Wilkinson. Another part of that effort was the Timbers' partnering with several local youth clubs, as opposed to starting their own, and taking over control of Oregon's Olympic Development Program.
It's this kind of hand-in-glove relationship, one that preserves and even enhances colleges' role in the development of soccer talent in the United States, that people like Hanauer are more likely to embrace. At this stage in MLS youth development -- which is still in its relative infancy -- it also appears to be the more likely immediate direction, rather than in one that looks exactly like other parts of the world.
"People often trash the college system," Hanauer said. "I’ve read some my colleagues say it’s not a way to develop soccer players. I will grant that it’s not optimal, but universities in this country are spending hundres of millions of dollars on their soccer programs. Before we decide that we’re going to spend all the money they're spending to do that work, maybe we ought to think about possible ways to partner with universities to help both, to improve the quality and profile of soccer programs and to improve the quality of players going through soccer porgrams. It may be more cost effective to work together than to take it on ourselves."
For Part 1 of SB Nation Soccer's examination of the MLS youth development system, click here.