By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 19, 2022) US Soccer Players – It’s the season of signings in Major League Soccer. On Tuesday, Houston set a club record in a deal for 23-year-old Libertad forward Sebastian Ferreira. He arrives as a proven goalscorer in the Paraguayan Primera Division with the appropriate transfer fee. He’s the latest in a series of moves where MLS clubs pay for the present with hopes for the future. The other part of the league’s transfer business focuses on internal player development.
It’s a busy time for MLS academies. MLS clubs can sign rising professionals at any point during the calendar year. Right now, it seems like the winter of 2022 is delivering a new Homegrown signing every day.
Just this week, Real Salt Lake, New England, and Atlanta all announced contracts for teenage players emerging from their respective academies. The latest of RSL’s spate of academy signings is 14-year old forward Axel Kai. With the move to the first team, Kei became the youngest player to ever sign an MLS contract, beating out Freddy Adu by 153 days.
The future for these new signings is uncertain, but the effectiveness of promoting players from the youth ranks to the first team is well proven. It works both as a means to winning games and as a driver of revenue through transfers, a host of MLS clubs are reaping the rewards of investing in development.
It’s worth pointing out that MLS’s rules around Homegrown contracts are notoriously liberal. Players with just a single year of experience in a club’s academy can join as Homegrown Players despite most of their soccer education coming outside of the MLS system.
Players also retain their Homegrown status up to a certain age even if they’re traded. That means even clubs with little to show for their academy efforts can benefit from the league’s rules regarding the budget status of Homegrown Players. The league incentivizes clubs to make academy signings by zeroing out their salary charge if those players fill supplemental roster slots. MLS also makes additional funds available beyond the senior salary budget for Homegrown Players.
Fourteen years after its creation, the rule is old enough that MLS can boast of producing players with long, successful careers and international profiles. Each new wave proves to be ever more capable of starring in MLS and earning multi-million dollar transfers abroad.
The type of player signed under the Homegrown Player rule has evolved over 14 years. The investment in academies is orders of magnitude higher now than when the first players joined MLS teams in the infancy of the rule, accounting for the volume of youngsters making their way into both Major League Soccer’s senior ranks and national team programs.
The Homegrown rule’s impact is easy to see in the current USMNT player pool. During World Cup qualifying for Qatar 2022, USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter has relied heavily on players developed in MLS environments and signed through the Homegrown program.
The league’s most recent high-profile transfer, forward Ricardo Pepi, signed with FC Dallas as a 16-year-old in 2019. The early start to his professional career helped him ascend to both MLS stardom and the US Men’s National Team well ahead of the curve for previous generations.
Pepi is surrounded by other Homegrowns in the national team setup. Forward Brenden Aaronson joined the Philadelphia Union as a Homegrown signing in 2018 before the club sold him to Red Bull Salzburg in Austria. Aaronson’s teammate Mark McKenzie is a part of Berhalter’s corps of center backs, also rising through the ranks as a Homegrown in Philadelphia.
George Bello, Joe Scally, Jordan Morris, Gyasi Zardes, Kellyn Acosta, and DeAndre Yedlin all joined MLS clubs as Homegrowns. Acosta and Yedlin stand out from that list because of how long ago their signings happened. Yedlin signed with the Sounders in 2012, while Acosta inked his first contract with FC Dallas as a 17-year-old that same year.
MLS clubs don’t always strike gold with Homegrown signings. There’s at least some reason to worry that occasionally clubs make decisions that are more in the best interest of the club than the player. If your view is that MLS clubs should get some benefit out of the investment they put into a player and can’t risk losing control of a player even if he’s not truly ready to be a professional, then that approach makes sense.
The saving grace is that the modern Homegrown signing can grow as a player under the tutelage of the club after signing a professional contract. The league’s partnership with the USL and new professional league MLS Next Pro represent attempts to address those pitfalls that faced previous generations of Homegrown signings.
Players in need of legitimate competition get the chance to develop their skills against fellow professionals. At the same time, clubs have the freedom to elevate them to the first them when they’re ready.
As the Homegrown program and the MLS academy players it pushes into the league increase, it’s easy to forget the early days of Major League Soccer’s attempts to convince clubs to develop young players and give them a chance. In 2022, signing Homegrown Players is part of running a smart MLS organization. Do the work, and the kids will shine.
More From Jason Davis:
- What the transfer market may mean for the USL Championship
- Jordan Morris and Aaron Long’s return to the USMNT
- Houston’s rebuild starts with the decision makers
- FC Dallas and Orlando City after major transfers
Photo by Imago via ZUMA Press – ISIPhotos.com