By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Jan 12, 2018) US Soccer Players - Christian Lucatero was supposed to be the Houston Dynamo academy’s proof-of-concept. By most accounts the best player to ever come out of the club’s nascent developmental system, Lucatero was local, Hispanic, and talented, a trio of traits that would serve the reputation of the system well. When signed to a Homegrown Player contract in 2015, Lucatero carried expectations that he would soon be a key part of the MLS side’s future.
In an era when investment in player development sat at center stage in the league’s plan for franchise growth, convincing a talented player like Lucatero to pass up a chance at a college soccer scholarship to sign with the Dynamo represented a victory. Despite a chance to both get an education and play soccer at Oregon State, the Pasadena, Texas native decided to go pro.
Two-and-a-half years later, Lucatero is no longer a member of the Dynamo. The 20-year old signed with Necaxa of Liga MX this week after turning down a USL contract to play with Houston’s affiliate club Rio Grande Valley. There’s no guarantee that Lucatero will find success in Mexico or that the top flight playing time that eluded him in Houston will materialize south of the border.
However, Lucatero’s departure for the country of his parents in search of a path forward for his career speaks to one of Major League Soccer’s most pressing problems: Finding playing time for its young domestic players.
Lucatero is only mildly unique in that he made zero appearances for the Dynamo since signing in 2015. Most MLS Homegrown signings get a bit more of a chance to prove themselves at first-team level, but not by much. Minutes for domestic players under 22 are effectively nonexistent, and the situation is not getting better. Despite the emphasis on homegrowns as dictated by the league and the salary budget mechanisms that make them attractive as signings, MLS head coaches just aren’t willing to trust them on the field.
There are few notable exceptions to the general rule. It’s fair to say “most” teams don’t play their kids. Still, a handful of MLS clubs have invested enough in the academies and given enough of a chance to the graduates to be reaping some benefit. The New York Red Bulls, FC Dallas, and in recent years Real Salt Lake has shown a willingness to bring through players and play them.
A fair look at the systems employed by MLS teams has to take into account the relatively recent addition of USL “reserve” teams to the process. For some years, MLS teams signed players out of their academies with no bridge between their skills at 17 or 18 and the first team. In a developing league with an established culture of bringing in veteran foreign players and Americans players out of the college ranks at ages 22 and 23, the gap might have been too large. Many teams signed Homegrown Players for the public relations bump it provided, with little regard for what might happen to a teenager suddenly thrust into the first team roster.
A significant question surrounding any push to give playing time to young domestic players is whether it butts up against MLS’s need to improve the overall quality of its product. Let's imagine MLS as a mature competition already assured of its place in the country’s sporting landscape and less concerned with convincing American soccer fans to pay it attention. Then, it might be able to mandate a certain number of minutes for young American and Canadian players like Mexico’s 20/11 rule.
Considering MLS’s push for revalency through better quality, it would be counter-productive to force coaches to give time to players who aren’t among the best options. It’s difficult to know how many coaches are hesitant to give a young player a chance because of age and how many are simply choosing what they believe to be their strongest lineup from week to week. Dictating terms could lead to a step back in the level of play across the league, slowing the progress MLS is clearly making.
It's worth noting that a portion of America’s best young talent is playing abroad. As the interest in American talent from clubs in other parts of the world rises, it naturally means some players who might have ended up in MLS, challenging for minutes as 18-22 year olds, are instead elsewhere. There’s no knowing if they would have gotten a chance had they signed with domestic clubs rather than leaving for more established programs. It’s a factor worth considering when talking about the amount of minutes given to young domestic players.
As long as young Americans are signing Homegrown Player contracts and then departing without getting a chance to prove themselves, the reputation of MLS academies will suffer with local kids. Why join the MLS academy and sign a contract if you’re not going to play?
There’s likely no easy answer, at least in the short term, for the small amount of minutes for young players. Clubs must do the work to improve their academy structures so that players are more ready to step onto the field with the first team earlier. That may require MLS to devise further roster incentives beyond what is currently in place. It’s always easier to bring in a veteran with a proven record than to take a risk on development. Until the balance tilts to make it more worth the while of clubs to give kids a chance, MLS teams will continue to take the path of least resistance.
The USL partnership, and the professional experience MLS reserve teams in that league provide, should help improve the situation over time. It’s early enough in that partnership to be unclear of its ultimate value. Players like Tyler Adams serve as strong examples that playing at the USL level can prepare young players to move into MLS after a season or two.
Christian Lucatero’s USL experience didn’t earn him enough credit with the Dynamo to merit an MLS contract offer. From the outside, it's tough to know if it's the player or the club. Either way, for Houston’s most celebrated academy product to leave for Mexico is an indictment of MLS’s approach to its youngest professional players.
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