Guest columnist Jay Bell gives up the video editing machine for some word processing.
MLS recently closed out a glorious transfer window with Geovanni signing with the San Jose Earthquakes. Geovanni was the latest player brought into MLS under the “Designated Player” rule allowing teams to sign players for more than the maximum salary without costing more than the max. Certain teams were aggressive in using the rule even before its limitations were expanded upon earlier this year. With each team now able to have up to 3 “DPs,” the league was able to bring in Geovanni, Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, Omar Bravo, Branko Boskovic, Mista, Blaise Nkufo, Alvaro Fernandez, Nery Castillo, and keep Freddie Ljungberg.
With the exceptions of Castillo and Fernandez, all of those new DP’s are 30 years or older. With each new signing of an “aging veteran,” some complain about signing these 30+ internationals. That just ignores the fact that the league’s leading scorer will be 30 next season, the second highest scorer is almost 35, the 5th highest scorer is 32, and the driving engine for the Columbus Crew is still 37-year-old Schelotto.
MLS has historically looked to older attacking players.
Piotr Nowak began playing for the eventual MLS Cup Champions Chicago Fire at 33, Preki was 32, and Carlos Valderrama was 34. Those three players were named to MLS’s historical “All-Time Best XI” in 2005 after ten years of play. Some other examples include Hristo Stoichkov (34), John Spencer (30), Lothar Matthäus (39), and Youri Djorkaeff (37). Even though the league had always done this, the sentiment of it being a “retirement league” grew with the “Beckham Rule” in 2007. Some fans only look at this rule as a way to sign 30-something stars who had faded in Europe. They claim that MLS should stop signing these “over the hill” players looking to wind down their careers (other than guys with knee problems, who is retiring at 32 anyway?) and focus on developing players. Except, that is what the league is doing.
The 2010 official Generation Adidas class was the largest group yet and was as big as the biggest Project-40 classes. Generation Adidas is much more lucrative now though. Danny Mwanga and his predecessor, Steve Zakuani, each signed the most expensive GA contracts up to that point in time. Who knows what kind of money may be waiting for the likes of Dominick Sarle and Emerson Hyndman. Other than the 2008 dud, the last two GA classes have been full of MLS-ready players at younger ages. Teams have been able to identify players who are ready sooner because of better scouting. The trend looks to continue in the future as the college ranks and national youth teams continue to develop players.
The way Generation Adidas works is that a team has to want a non-college senior for the league to try to sign them to a GA contract. The expansion of the league means that there will be more GA signings. There will be more front offices and more scouts to be interested in more players in the growing talent pool. The league percentage may stay the same, but signing more and more of these young players is only good for MLS. MLS also signed Omar Salgado to a GA contract. He’s already going to be headlining a strong 2011 class.
The improved scouting of MLS has shown in the SuperDraft also. Even when Generation Adidas brings a talented player into the league, teams have to find the right fit for them. Even on the best team in the league, Bruce Arena has been giving plenty of playing time to a candidate for the Galaxy’s third consecutive Rookie of the Year, Michael Stephens. Some of 2010 seniors include Zack Schilawski, Zach Lloyd, and the ever-popular Tim Ream. As NCAA Soccer and the SuperDraft continue to grow, teams are devoting more resources to scouting these youth ranks.
Most important is MLS’s emphasis on development academies and the signing of “homegrown” players. Chicago has an annual budget of $500,000 for their academy. On top of the standard 24 roster spots for each team there are now 2 additional spots for players that teams developed in their own academy. Even though the academy program is still in its infancy, the league has already seen results. The Galaxy led the way by signing the Tristan Bowen at the end of 2008. 2010 has been the year for extended results though.
Chicago and Colorado both recently signed their first homegrown players. FC Dallas signed three more to add to their original homegrown player, Brian Leyva.
Francisco Navas Cobo became the Houston Dynamo’s second academy signing.
The New York Red Bulls made their long-awaited first signing with Giorgi Chirgadze and snatched up Juan Agudelo instead of running the risk of him signing abroad. D.C. United has made the most noise though. Bill Hamid signed in 2009 and looked to have earned the starting spot from Troy Perkins during the summer, but an injury took that opportunity away. They signed budding superstar Andy Najar to the team and would not have much positive this season without him. To follow up, they have now signed Conor Shanosky who played very well for the US Under-20 team at the Milk Cup. MLS is demonstrating their investment in these players with some of them even signing GA contracts.
A couple of weeks ago the Washington Examiner revealed that rule changes were coming that would allow more freedom for playing experience for teams’ youth players. The return of the reserve league and playing experience for young players is exactly what the league needs. They are loosening up restrictions on signing “homegrown players” which is a step in the right direction too. The ultimate goal should be identifying and investing in youth players and youth programs as much as possible. MLS is moving in that direction.
The characterization of Major League Soccer as a “retirement” league is ridiculous. Designated Players only account for about 3% of the league, and several of those DPs are 28 or younger. There have been just as many academy signings this season as DPs. Every time that a team brings in a veteran player for the good of their team and the league, people come out of the woodwork to make unbiased criticisms of the league spending too much money on older players at the expense of younger ones. If you only look at headlines then maybe you would think that.
Tobias Lopez of Sports Illustrated tried to say that MLS was making the same mistakes as the NASL in regards to talent imbalance. His point was that some teams were able to stock up on talent with more Designated Players. One of the many, many differences between MLS and the NASL is the new investment in youth made by MLS. FC Dallas only has 7 players 30 or older, and two of those are goalkeepers. They also have 14 players 23 or younger and an average age of 25.5 (they’ll be adding 3 more 18-year-olds to next year’s roster as well).
FC Dallas, who supposedly has a competitive disadvantage by not having Designated Players, is unbeaten in 11 matches and only 6 points behind the Galaxy with a game in hand. Looks like that investment in youth is paying off for Dallas. It’s also paying off for the league and it will only increase with time.