By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 15, 2021) US Soccer Players – A little over two years ago, the New York Times profiled Dutch club Ajax and the particularly talented group of homegrown talent that spearheaded their deep run in the 2018-19 UEFA Champions League. The club’s prolific academy is well-known. Members of that season’s group would move to some of the world’s biggest sides for substantial transfer fees. One quote from former goalkeeper turned club executive Edwin van der Sar aptly summed up their ethos for why such turnover was not only acceptable but necessary.
“We have to give the path to the next one,” he told the Times’ Rory Smith. “If players stay too long, the next one cannot play. The whole thing chokes.”
I was reminded of those words while watching the first round of the 2021 Concacaf Champions League over the past two weeks.
An injury-hit Toronto FC upset reigning Liga MX champions Club Leon 3-2 on aggregate via heady performances from a mix of veterans and teenage homegrowns. Then the Philadelphia Union made light work of their first-ever CCL experience, downing perennial Costa Rican contenders Saprissa 5-0 on aggregate with two performances that showed few signs of the usual preseason rust.
As different as Toronto and Philly are, both share a particular focus on their respective academy systems. By now, the Union’s approach, which has been compared to Ajax’s more than a few times, will be familiar to most readers. The club’s leaders long ago resolved to build a player development pipeline that could eventually enable them to punch above their financial weight in MLS, and fuel the US national teams in the process. That undertaking bore fruit with the capture of last year’s Supporters’ Shield. Selling standouts Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie to European clubs for seven-figure transfer fees over the winter marked another breakthrough and a new phase of the project.
Meanwhile, Toronto has been one of the league’s biggest spenders for more than half a decade. They’ve brought in a long list of Designated Players, reaping the rewards with three trips to the MLS Cup final and a treble in 2017. The Canadians also simultaneously constructed an ambitious academy and second team of their own. While the big-ticket signings continue, they now aim to refresh their experienced squad with their biggest and brightest talent crop to date.
The usual caveats about sample size apply here. These are only four matches in a campaign that could run well past 40 for each of these teams between now and year’s end. Still, the rigors of the Champions League present worthy data points in terms of these teams’ prospects for proving that an Ajax-type model might actually work here.
Philadelphia looked like their usual well-oiled selves against Saprissa. Working out of their 4-4-2 diamond formation, Jim Curtin’s squad executed patterns of play and positional responsibilities with levels of fluidity that few MLS teams possess at this time of year. Aaronson’s nominal successor Anthony Fontana scored a goal in the second-leg. New starting right back Olivier Mbaizo served up the game-winning assist in leg one, suggesting that they’re ready to pick up where their former teammates left off.
Toronto was facing stiffer opposition, and their victory had a more resourceful flavor to it. DPs Jozy Altidore and Alejandro Pozuelo were among several out injured for most of the series. Coach Chris Armas entrusted several newly-promoted prospects like Noble Okello, Luke Singh who signed two short-term contracts just to take part, and Ralph Priso. He asked Michael Bradley and Omar Gonzalez to shepherd the young group. All repaid that faith with gutsy, resilient displays that provide an invaluable lift at the start of Armas’s tenure.
It’s a fairly obvious piece of conventional wisdom that losing players weaken teams. Even if the full picture is more complicated in world soccer, that assumption holds in MLS, too, for most of the league’s existence. Even commissioner Don Garber, who a few years ago began publicly proclaiming the need to become a “selling league,” admitted that he didn’t understand or accept the idea of selling off talented players in his early years on the job.
Philly sold McKenzie and Aaronson and filled their slots with homegrowns from within. Toronto promoted their own youngsters rather than make splashy signings from abroad. That normally would trigger a natural tendency to downgrade their championship credentials. Whether or not that still holds is certainly worth asking after the successful conclusion of the Champions League round of 16.
“The players and this club does what it’s always does – have belief in ourselves in all situations to go out and really go for the game and push for wins each night out, no matter the circumstance,” Toronto’s Patrick Mullins said postgame. “It’s something that this club has been about and we’re showing how we’ve reignited that mentality in continuing on to the start of this season and the Champions League campaign.”
The methodical pathway these clubs now have means preparing players for opportunities. It hints at a North American riff on that powerful Ajax concept of ever-advancing replacement level players. That would be quite the paradigm shift for Major League Soccer.
More from Charles Boehm:
- DC United step onto the scales as new era unfolds
- A new project in San Francisco, US pro soccer’s most elusive frontier
- Four talking points following the USMNT’s win over Jamaica
- The complexities and opportunities of a European USMNT window
Photo by Bruno Fahy – Belga via ZUMA Press – ISIPhotos.com