By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 29, 2012) US Soccer Players — The nation’s identification and development structures for elite youth players continue to grow, yet talented young American professionals are falling through the cracks – and no one seems completely sure what to do about it.
The onset of the MLS offseason always brings a spate of waivers, declined contract options and other mechanisms for jettisoning players. This year’s edition featured an unsettling new wrinkle, however, as several clubs cut ties with products from their own youth academies. The bloodletting was particularly noteworthy in Dallas, where Homegrowns Bryan Leyva and Ruben Luna were unceremoniously dropped by coach Schellas Hyndman along with another local boy, Bruno Guarda.
FC Dallas’s youth system is widely regarded as one of the most successful in the US, with many products moving up and joining the senior team. Hyndman’s cuts even drew criticism from Pablo Ricchetti, a former FCD player who is now a youth coach himself.
“FC Dallas has the #1 Academy but academy players have no space on starting 11,” he tweeted this week. “Do they realize the potential and money are losing? “It's frustating [sic] how FC Dallas waste talent just because they don't know how to finish the excellent job Academy coaches are doing.”
In fact, many of the League’s most effective young Americans have seemingly laid the foundation for pro success with a stint in the college ranks – exactly the path that MLS youth academies are supposed to be rendering obsolete.
Call it a “second-generation problem” for MLS and US Soccer: Survival and stability is no longer the issue, pushing a range of more complex challenges to the fore. MLS Commissioner Don Garber provided a lengthy and surprisingly frank response to a question about this topic in Monday’s “State of the League” media conference call.
“Clearly developing young players is one of our top priorities, and we will continue to invest massive amounts of money in our academy programs and our reserve league,” he said. “And that investment has not yet paid off. I’ll give you a round number: it’s probably about $20 million a year league-wide.
“There was a time when our entire salary budget wasn’t $20 million a year. So we are very focused on doing everything we can to build a pyramid and take responsibility for growing the game in this country…We know how important that is to help our country just be better on the national team level.”
In what looks suspiciously like a related topic, US youth national teams remain exasperatingly inconsistent in high-stakes international competitions. The Olympic qualifying failure of the Under-23’s is still fresh in the memory and the U-20 squad missed the last World Cup
“There’s a gap in terms of where we are when our players are 15, 16, 17 years old,” U-20’s National Team coach Tab Ramos told me in September. “I think we stay pretty competitive [to that point]. I think there’s a gap from that age group until the players go into the pros, between the players we have and the players that play overseas with clubs. Players overseas … are going into an environment where they’re training six days a week and they’re playing games. And that continues over the next couple of years.”
So we’re spotting the talent, and grooming it reasonably well enough to a certain point. Yet, the leap from “pro prospect” to “pro performer” remains a dauntingly long one for most, even after multiple seasons of immersion in a professional environment.
In one sense, it’s a reflection of the growing stakes and intensity in MLS. The pressure to garner results drives many coaches towards conservatism both in tactics and in personnel. That means often leaning on veterans – many of them from overseas, with an increasing focus on “value spots” like Honduras and Colombia. Meanwhile, wealthy foreign clubs in England, Germany and especially Mexico have made a habit of plucking – some might call it poaching, as Garber practically did on Monday – some of this country’s most gifted prospects for their own youth programs.
That hefty figure cited by the Commish notwithstanding, MLS’ enduring thriftiness in terms of salaries certainly plays a role here. The Generation adidas program, which subsidizes the wages and salary cap impact of blue-chip youngsters, effectively punishes success by “graduating” those who earn meaningful minutes with the first team, slapping a sudden cap hit on their clubs.
The reserve league, well-intentioned as it is, remains a poor substitute for real match involvement. (And easily marginalized – I’ve lost count of the number of postponed and rescheduled games this season.) In the eyes of a 17-year-old prospect, it surely doesn’t compare well to what college offers: a subsidized education, the traditional campus “life experience”, and meaningful games, many played in lively atmospheres. If they can prove themselves at college level, MLS opportunities remain.
“I think it’s good for kids to go away from home, get in a new environment, establish themselves and still be able to control themselves – I think it tells a lot about their personality and who they are,” one MLS standout with three years of NCAA play on his resume noted to me earlier this year. “[Going pro] is a lot to ask of a 16- or 17-year-old. You’re asking them to grow up really fast.”
Almost everyone I’ve spoken to on this topic underlines the relative youth of the MLS academies and the US Soccer Development Academy as a whole. Other avenues have a substantial head start. With the DA’s impending expansion to U-14 play, the overall picture could look much different by the time the 2000- and 2001-born crops work their way through the system.
MLS might not wait around that long. On Monday Garber revealed that he and his colleagues have pondered Mexico’s “Regla 20/11,” a policy requiring first-division clubs to give players under the age of 21 a minimum number of first-team minutes. It’s worth asking if El Tri’s tide of international success is actually a product of that rule, or are much larger influences at work?
“We’ve done a lot of research on it. We’re certainly mindful of the success that Mexico has had,” Garber said. “We’re not sure that that success is driven by the mandatory rule as much as it’s driven by just a massive commitment by the league, working in partnership with the federation down there.”
So while the list of Homegrowns making regular contributions to MLS teams, much less the National Team, remains depressingly short, there is at least a sense of urgency about the need for change. The powers that be have already invested too much to allow the underwhelming status quo to persist.
More from Charles Boehm: