For years, I’ve ranted and raved at every opportunity at the youth development policy (or lack thereof) of Major League Soccer. I’ve always felt that youth academies should have been one of Major League Soccer’s first priorities. If anyone has ever read the Q Report, they’ll know that was also the opinion of Carlos Quieroz. Sure, building a great academy is expensive, but so are scouts and transfer fees. The eventual payoff of developing your own talent in-house is undeniable. Whether the leadership of MLS learned that recently or they just found a $20 bill in their old jeans and decided to use it on developing young players, the recent results of their new policies have been fantastic.
As of April 17, 2007, 13 home grown players had been signed to professional contracts by MLS clubs. Of those players, Carlos Borja, Bryan Leyva, Bill Hamid, Andy Najar and Francisco Navas Cobo were new for 2010. Since then, Ruben Luna, Victor Ulloa, and Moises Fernandez of Dallas, Conor Shanosky of D.C. United, Victor Pineda of Chicago, Davy Armstrong of Colorado, Bryan de la Fuente and Cesar Zamora of Chivas USA, Doneil Henry of Toronto FC, and Jon Kempin of Kansas City Wizards have signed as home grown. When you add together the 11 players from the MLSsoccer.com article that are still with their clubs and the 10 players who have since signed as home grown players, there are 21 players currently in MLS who have signed under the home grown rule. 15 of those players have signed in 2010.
Last year, right before the Gold Cup, I wrote an article for Match Fit USA about how our squad for the Gold Cup should have been comprised of almost exclusively youth players. The basis for my argument was that MLS youth academies were not developing players and that there were not great opportunities for younger players to improve in the United States, so the only way for them to become quality internationals is to build up international experience at a very young age. What a difference a year makes. Only a year ago, it appeared to outsiders that developing youth players was not a priority for MLS. Now, there is a massive influx of home grown players. The only club in North America with a full residency academy, Vancouver Whitecaps, is joining MLS next season. Real Salt Lake are currently working on a residency academy in Arizona where they hope to eventually give scholarships to allow less fortunate players to attend their academy and receive world class instruction, as well as a good education and room and board for little to no cost. The landscape of American soccer is changing.
When Bob Bradley had his contract renewed as the coach of the United States men’s national team, there were obvious mixed reactions and various debates. One argument that was made by a large number of people was that the United States’ shortcomings are more due to player development and the administrative arm of U.S. Soccer than Bob Bradley. My first instinct was to agree with that argument, but it seems like U.S. Soccer and MLS have a desire to change. For the first time in their history, MLS is taking player development seriously. Carlos Quieroz said in the Q Report that for the United States to become a world power in soccer, MLS clubs were going to have to lead the way in developing youth academies and young players. Finally, 10 years later, they are listening.
It remains to be seen whether or not any of the 21 home grown players will go on to become great professionals and represent their national teams, but that doesn’t matter at this point. We have to walk before we can run. In 2006, there were precisely zero players in Major League Soccer that teams had signed directly from their own youth academies. In 2010, there are 21 and there have been 23 total in the history of the league. With the Whitecaps joining next season and the youth programs of Red Bull New York, D.C. United, F.C. Dallas, Chicago Fire, Real Salt Lake, and others improving by the day, expect that number to double in only the next couple of years. Add this to the influx of young African players in Major League Soccer and it appears that Major League Soccer is slowly becoming a league that cares about and is getting very good at developing good young talent.
If anyone had told me that there would be as many quality young players as their are in MLS right now only a year and a half ago, at the start of the 2009 season, I would have laughed at them. The progress that has been made in a short period of time is pretty astonishing. Of course, MLS has a long way to go. Until a player who was brought up through the home grown rule either appears in the World Cup or is sold to one of the biggest clubs in Europe, it will be a stretch to say that the United States and Major League Soccer have truly “made it” and achieved what they should be achieving with their youth development policies. That day could come within the next couple of years. Maybe it will take four years. Maybe longer. Regardless of your opinion of the talent Major League Soccer is producing right now, it’s hard to argue that they aren’t headed in the right direction or that they haven’t improved leaps and bounds since the home grown rule was implemented in 2007. America may not have a Boca Juniors or Ajax yet, but that goal no longer seems completely out of reach.