By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 2, 2020) US Soccer Players - Something special happened this past weekend in Major League Soccer. Something that points to the progress the league is making on one of its most celebrated fronts. Something that could pay off financially, in terms of real dollars and cents, and in reputation, bringing the league more attention from fans, the media, and soccer interests worldwide.
That something was 15 young American players, meaning players who qualify for the US Olympic U-23 team, scoring goals or assisting on them in league action. MLS itself rightfully trumpeted the stat in its Tuesday morning news roundup, calling it a "banner weekend for the player development system in North America."
A cynical view of MLS-issued news might lead to a more critical take on the "banner weekend." The number of young players getting minutes and contributing to their teams in 2020 is undeniable. Still, it's worth asking whether the league's culture is changing in light of those achievements. Not to mention the need to throw in the usual caveats about sample size.
Goals and assists in a singular weekend don't necessarily mean long term influence on the part of the players. It also doesn't mean that the league's developmental structures are beyond reproach.
First, the circumstances. Major League Soccer's 2020 season, altered dramatically by the COVID-19 pandemic, is a fertile ground for young players for one very specific reason: schedule congestion.
Because MLS missed so much of the spring and early summer while sports around the world shut down, the rush to play a meaningful number of games following the MLS is Back tournament is delivering matches at a rapid clip through August and September. Coaches working to balance the rigors of that schedule, with the extra complication of same-day travel thrown in for visiting teams, are looking deep down their benches.
Despite the league's stated commitment to player development and the attention given to spending on academies over the past decade, MLS has been slow to give real playing time to the academies' products. Conservative coaches, operating in a league where parity reigns and edges in talent are small, were unwilling to trust in the young players coming through the system.
That disconnect not only put to lie some of the rhetoric coming from the league's New York headquarters, but it also slowed the process of MLS joining the global market for players as a seller of talent. Spending on the academies wasn't exactly like flushing money down the toilet, but the league wasn't maximizing the return on that investment.
For those players who did get a chance to thrive at the first-team level, clubs often hesitated to sell or overvalued the player to start, limiting interest. MLS had a right to protect its assets and likely worried about setting the market too low for American talent, but the cumulative effect was to render the league irrelevant to the worldwide market for young talent.
It's worth pointing out that not all of the Olympic team-eligible players who appeared on the stat sheet this weekend were academy products. Some, like 20-year old Orlando rookie Daryl Dike, arrived at MLS from college soccer. The league still has plenty of room for players arriving from the collegiate game and will never cover the whole of a country that still places immense value on the student-athlete experience. If clubs are going to take a more aggressive approach to playing young players, those top-level college signings can benefit as well.
Getting its youngest players on the field and then selling them on to Europe is important for MLS because it proves to the next generation of potential stars that the league provides a pathway to reach their goals. On the occasion of Weston McKennie's stunning move to Juventus, players have reason to scrutinize the options available to them as they consider their first contract.
McKennie famously passed on an FC Dallas offer because he didn't believe he would get the playing time, in his preferred position, to help him develop his game. While not every player attached to an MLS academy will capture the attention of a club in one of the best leagues in the world as McKennie did with Schalke, his example may give some players pause.
"Trust" is the key factor in the equation. McKennie trusted Schalke more than MLS to help him reach his goals.
Step one of cutting against the McKennie path and getting the best talent in the country to commit their immediate futures to MLS is to give them playing time. A handful of teams, chief among them FC Dallas, Philadelphia, and Real Salt Lake, have turned toward their academy products in meaningful ways. A few others, including Sporting Kansas City, the LA Galaxy, and the Seattle Sounders, have pushed select players into their first team rotations.
Step two is selling those players when legitimate offers come in from abroad. The news that Reggie Cannon is completing a move to Europe, confirmed by FC Dallas head coach Luchi Gonzalez on Monday, proves that his club is willing to pull the proverbial trigger on a deal.
"We're not afraid to transfer players," Gonzalez told reporters via video call. Throughout the organization, FC Dallas is consistent with a philosophy focused around developing players and selling them when the time comes. Winning matters, of course. Even a jaundiced eye can see that Dallas walks the walk when it comes to player development.
If FC Dallas stands alone, it hardly matters that the kids are playing across MLS. Philadelphia constantly talks about selling a player to prove the efficacy of its model, but a move has yet to happen. Two of the Union's key pieces, midfielder Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie are the subject of transfer speculation and may soon depart MLS. When that happens, Philadelphia can point to the pathway the club provided to entice other talented players from the Philadelphia region and beyond to join its system.
Not every club can be Philadelphia or Dallas. There are differences in approaches among MLS teams. Some will emphasize development and give consistent minutes to young players emerging from their academies or from college. Others will either ignore their academies or elect to promote a small number of truly elite players.
Regardless, this weekend was encouraging. It stood out mainly for the unique occurrence of so many young players getting on the score sheet with goals or assists. The talent appears to be there, in more than a handful of places, if only clubs and coaches will show their faith.
Turning that into something more than a fluke requires commitment. Trust young players, even when the schedule isn't so congested, and travel isn't so difficult. It's disappointing that it took a pandemic to push MLS to this point. Now that we're here, there should be no turning back.
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- This time last season
- Saint Louis FC's ending
- The Vancouver Whitecaps, Alphonso Davies, and the search for success
- St Louis City begins to build
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