By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON DC (Dec 22, 2016) US Soccer Players – Credit MLS for coming up with the Homegrown Player system. It’s helped a league with a checkered history of player development build valuable pipelines for talent. In most cases, it’s also fostering bonds with clubs and their local communities.
Then again, this is MLS. The Homegrown policy isn’t the exception when it comes to the league’s murky internal politics. MLS was and is an organization that remains stubbornly suspicious of transparency and simplicity.
This week, FC Dallas signed freshman UCLA fullback Reggie Cannon. He’s the club’s 18th Homegrown player, a number unprecedented in MLS. It’s import to note that many of those kids didn’t blossom into standout professionals. Yet FCD’s youth-centric model is clear, well-established, and increasingly effective. The club won the US Open Cup and the Supporters’ Shield this season.
One day before Cannon’s announcement, reports broke about another US teenage talent’s MLS destiny. In news originally reported by Ives Galarcep and confirmed with club officials by TheBlueTestament.com, Sporting KC have claimed the Homegrown rights to Josh Sargent. He’s a breakout star from the USMNT U-17s dominant displays at the Nike Friendlies earlier this month.
What Sargent isn’t is a Kansas City resident. Other than a two-week training stint over the summer, he also has no strong connection to Sporting KC.
Sargent is from St. Louis, some 250 miles across Missouri from Sporting’s headquarters. He’s currently in US Soccer’s Bradenton Residency program. At club level, he’s another product of Scott Gallagher. That’s the respected St. Louis-area club known for producing players like Mike Sorber, Steve Ralston, and Taylor Twellman.
Taking a page from other pro sports, MLS plays wide with home territories. Sporting Kansas City gets has the entirety of Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. It appears that “small-market” clubs like SKC get bigger areas. It’s a way to help them compete with larger metro areas. Those big city teams only get a 75-mile radius surrounding their home stadium.
We now know that it’s not straightforward for Sporting KC. They’ll have to put Sargent in their academy or USL team for a season before he’s MLS eligible. In effect, Sporting have laid claim to a player first, on the promise of actually doing the developmental work on him later.
Sargent grew up in a century-old local soccer culture quite distinct from KC’s. His youth experience had nothing to do with MLS. His youth club has ties to the USL’s Saint Louis FC. By the time Sargent sees MLS minutes, his home city might have an MLS team. In the meantime, it appears that the team to the west can plunder St. Louis talent as it sees fit.
Other MLS clubs that can formally contest SKC’s claim to Sargent have apparently elected not to. This is amusing, given that Sporting manager Peter Vermes reportedly did exactly that. Sporting KC successfully contested Philadelphia signing Keegan Rosenberry as a Homegrown. The Union had to burn a draft pick on him despite Rosenberry’s extensive time in their youth system.
It’s important to note that Sargent still has choices here. His future MLS career is in SKC’s hands. He could still go to college, or sign with a club abroad. Sporting have exploited an internal system in which his home address alone gives them preferential access. Little wonder that an MLS source told me on Wednesday that league officials may discuss adjusting the name of the Homegrown program when they gather in Los Angeles next month. Situations like Sargent’s make the term look misleading, if not outright comical.
Sporting have learned the system’s intricacies and are using them to their advantage. In an intra-league context, such savvy is laudable. FC Dallas – who currently have “Homegrowns” from as far afield as Virginia and El Paso – do much the same. However, there’s a clear difference between clubs that provide their kids with a holistic environment for development and those that focus on “calling dibs.”
All this provides another stark example of the dangers posed by MLS’s insistence on sealing itself in a bubble. In that vacuum, huge swaths of the American soccer landscape exist for the league’s use. They’re not treated like living, breathing people and organizations with their own motivations and plans. Instead, it’s what they can do for the big league that may or may not be doing anything for them.
Sporting KC have invested little in Sargent. Not the ample time, money, or the precious faith of coaches and clubs that nurtures raw teenagers into promising prospects. Both SKC and MLS risk stoking real resentment at the grassroots level with such a colonialist mentality. Young players and their families get wise to all this very quickly. Just take a glance at the southwest borderlands, where US clubs and US Soccer regularly lose out on Mexican-American dual nationals who see better prospects south of the border.
The value of MLS taking an interest in domestic talent and working to keep it on these shores is enormous. The devil is the details, however, when it comes to how that process unfolds. If the league is serious about leading the way for a “true soccer nation,” it should treat non-MLS players, clubs, and communities as partners, not raw materials for extraction.
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