By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Oct 22, 2018) US Soccer Players – For a league always in search of new talent, Designated Players have been the way for MLS to attract marquee foreigners of all ages and nationalities since the league put the rule in place in 2007. The other area teams have dedicated resources to is in the development of youth players. It was ten years ago that the league created the concept of the Homegrown Player to develop talent across North America.
A decade later, the Homegrown Player rule has had some mixed results. While it has been able to produce several star players and helped jumpstart a US youth movement, there have been many players who’ve struggled to get playing time. In other cases, some players have made an enormous impact in games that matter.
Last Thursday night was a prime example. Real Salt Lake defeated the New England Revolution 4-1 as it continues to keep its playoff hopes alive. Despite missing five starters, RSL got three of its goals from Homegrown Players Sebastian Saucedo, Corey Baird, and Nick Besler.
It came as no surprise. RSL has been one of a group that also includes the New York Red Bulls, FC Dallas, and the Philadelphia Union that have been developing players through their academy system for the past few years. In the case of FC Dallas, the team has been able to recruit and develop talent, particularly among the underrepresented Hispanic demographic, that would have otherwise gone ignored or siphoned off by Mexican clubs.
“Part of the reason I took this job was because I had to develop players, I had to have young players,” RSL coach Mike Petke told reporters after the game. “I had the option to have young players from an academy that are here, it intrigued me, and it was something I was extremely excited about.”
The US National Team has also been a good barometer to test the impact of Homegrown Players. Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, and Tim Weah get most of the attention as the future of the USMNT. All three play in Europe, not MLS. McKennie turned down a Homegrown Player contract with FC Dallas, where he spent his youth career. Still, MLS Homegrown Players like defender Tyler Adams, midfielder Kellyn Acosta, and Wil Trapp have all made the most of their opportunity with the USMNT.
MLS clubs signed 73 players in the offseason and teams have trended younger. Those players were 24 years old on average. The nine designated players who entered MLS were even younger at 22½. At the same time, ESPN reported that the league spent $40 million during both the 2016 and ’17 seasons on youth development and upgrading training facilities.
ESPN's Noah Davis relayed league numbers in a February, 2018 column. There's an obvious contrast between 2017 and 2014, with more starts and more opportunities but it's still well short of providing ample playing time for young North American players. In August, ESPN looked at playing time this season and found that 19 homegrown players had played more than 1,000 minutes. Only two were forwards: Gyasi Zardes and Corey Baird. That's an issue for the league and the national team program.
There are also issues when looking at percentages. Players who are under the age of 22 (counting both US and Canadian players) played just 2% of available minutes during the 2017 season, according to analyst Alex Olshansky. That figure, for example, is well below Europe’s most-established leagues. World Cup champion France, who had the second-youngest team at this summer’s tournament, had the highest average at 9.5%.
Like in Europe, the influx of foreign players - and younger ones at that – are cutting into playing time. The most-stark statistic revealed that seven Homegrown Players on MLS first-team rosters made the USMNT U-17 World Cup squad in 2017. That cohort played a total of just 23 minutes combined during the MLS regular season.
England’s Premier League is suffering from a similar situation when it comes to playing young English players. The Bosman ruling of the 1990s that ended quotas for European players and opened the door for fewer spots for English-born players has had a deep impact on development. England’s 4th-place finish at the World Cup notwithstanding, the league has adopted a similar Homegrown Player system as MLS.
In both leagues, it's too early to draw hard conclusions. It may take a few more years to get a fuller picture of the impact these players have had on the league. Whether or not it will help bolster the US National Team’s success as it tries to qualify for the 2022 World Cup is the bigger question.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- Soccer History: Chicago Sting
- What kind of a league is MLS?
- Q&A with Gyasi Zardes: "We have to just keep progressing as a team"
- The Concacaf Champions League and Toronto FC
Photo by Andrew Katsampes - ISIPhotos.com