The Ignored Youth Movement In MLS

Guest columnist Jay Bell gives up the video editing machine for some word processing.

Geovanni: "San Jose rang...how could I not go?"

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.

The irrepressible Valderrama

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.

Michael Stephens...

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.

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25 responses to this post.

  1. Bill Hamid is back as a regular starter for DCU after Perkins’ latest horror show. And don’t forget Jordan Graye who also was an academy product.

    After Moreno, Talley, and Pena retire at the end of the year, I believe DCU will have the youngest roster in the league. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, but we’ll see. The aging veteran tack doesn’t seem to have worked too well.

    Reply

    • Well I think it depends on how MLS clubs build their team. I think one pattern has been surrounding older playmakers with younger, athletic attackers. Chicago built their attack around Blanco, Columbus built around Schelotto, and now Dallas has done it with Ferreira. I think once upon a time DC surrounded Christian Gomez with talented attackers. Kansas City may be moving in that direction with Omar Bravo next season.

      As far as DCU’s disastrous season, I don’t think the problem is simply having too many older players. Bad personnel moves and untimely injuries have affected them as much as anything. DC’s problem runs deeper.

      Reply

      • Oh I agree that DCU’s problems are definitely not limited to their aging roster. But that particular characteristic has come back to haunt them in the form of injuries. When you’re starting unfit players who are 36 and 33 years old at center back, there’s an issue. No amount of vision and experience can counter having your doors blown off by a fast, aggressive young attacker you can’t stay with.

        Reply

  2. This Ignored Youth Movement also has to do with how the league and networks market everything. Sure Beckham, Henry, Angel, Donovan, et. al. are the marquee players, but there was no love for Holden, Brek Shea, Hamid, etc. on any of the promos. If they got a little more press the general public would realize that the MLS is home to some older, wiser players and lot of young guys.

    I think it’s the way the league will be for at least the next 5-7 years and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Think about all the crafty veteran moves Henry and Angel can impart on a youngster like Mac Kandji. If we had a good CAM prospect for the USMNT, I’d want him learning some tricks from GBS in Columbus.

    Reply

    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/08/25 at 11:57 AM

      And to expand on this Nick, I think a lot of this has to do with how US fans view MLS. I have American friends who’d happily go to the pub with me at the weekend to watch an EPL game but weren’t interested in going to watch a Red Bulls game. Now Henry has signed, there’s a little more responsiveness / willingness to go.

      We know there’s a lot of football fans in the States, but they aren’t necessarily MLS fans. It’s all very well having brand new stadiums, but you have to fill them. It is unfortunate but if DPs help do this in the short term, then so be it.

      Reply

      • Also, MLS has very, very, very poor marketing all around. I don’t expect a casual soccer fan to know who Brek Shea or even Shalrie Joseph is. Remember though, Kljestan isn’t really in that top level either, but he was the “virtuoso” in one of MLS’s few decent commercials and on the cover of FIFA ’10. So what little advertising they do isn’t contained to the marquee guys.

        Like Mr. Cross said, the DPs are what attract soccer fans in the states. A lot of casual soccer fans aren’t going to respect MLS for a long time no matter what is actually changing on the field. Names like Henry and Beckham at least get their attention.

        Unfortunately, I think the criticism of MLS being a “retirement league” really only comes from ignorant foreign observers and actual MLS fans. A casual fan may not know that Trezeguet, Anelka, Del Piero, etc. have been linked with moves to America, but an MLS fan does. And they are the ones making that claim, which is the worst part. If you’re an MLS fan, if you go to the games, if you watch the games, if you come to The Shin Guardian, and if you pay attention then you should know better.

        Reply

        • Agreed on both accounts. MLS needs to do what it can to get butts in the seats and better talent in the league regardless of age – to a point. Hopefully the youth movement continues and we can start attracting younger DPs to the league.

          Reply

        • Posted by cosmosredux on 2010/08/25 at 1:43 PM

          Jay agreed on the advertising, but part of that I think as well is players transferring out to better clubs. Hard to build a marketing campaign around someone if they are going leave the league…which is why the league is really cautious with any Donovan movement.

          The funny thing is that the big name “retirement league”-associated player drive the attendance, perhaps, but if you look at say a cross section of the 30 top offensive players in the league right now only a handful of them are over 30.

          Schelotto – who ages better than Heather Locklear, DeRosario, Angel, Henry, Cunningham and that’s about it.

          Reply

      • Ah, very true. Nothing really to do about that until the league has multiple marketable players on each team.

        Reply

  3. Posted by dth on 2010/08/25 at 12:56 PM

    To continue in the youth movement vein: another homegrown player is signed, Bryan de la Fuente for Chivas USA. He was intriguing as a left back in the Milk Cup, but sadly Chivas USA has listed him as a midfielder. Hopefully they will come to their senses and do what’s best for us and play him at left back.

    http://www.cdchivasusa.com/news/2010/08/chivas-usa-signs-youth-team-product-bryan-de-la-fuente

    Reply

    • Excellent. The academies are so young and the rules about signing “homegrown” players are still pretty new, but its paying plenty of dividends for the league and its teams. If those existing rules are loosened up some more, there is no telling how big the youth movement could grow.

      Reply

  4. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/08/25 at 1:10 PM

    I understand that getting the world’s best players in their prime to play in the MLS is unrealistic (at the moment), but I still think the term “retirement league” is derogatory. Just wish there was something more accurate and suitable.

    Reply

    • “Feeder league” is a bit more accurate and of course it applies to many very good leagues, including the Eredivisie. Sure some leagues like Mexico can hold onto their star players for longer, but most good leagues are still feeding talent to England, Italy, Spain, France, and Germany.

      Having better young players will help MLS improve its feeder league status.

      Reply

  5. Posted by Mike Mc on 2010/08/25 at 8:32 PM

    The return of the reserve league would be huge… but didn’t MLS just recently get rid of it like two seasons ago? I remember thinking how the league was just beginning to really improve and what a step backwards it was.

    Reply

    • Yup, it was definitely a step back, but apparently they’re considering bringing it back. I hope they do.

      Reply

    • I believe it was a financial decision. Most of the leagues in the team had embraced the reserve league. Colorado basically built their team of a bunch of low cost players through development in the reserve league.

      The possibility of a new reserve league giving experience to academy players is very encouraging. That type of experience at an earlier age would do wonders for the younger players in the league. Matt Kassel isn’t seen as great of a prospect as he was 2 years ago, but what if he had gotten competition against MLS players back then? If he didn’t rise to the challenge, we would at least have a better understanding of what level he was playing.

      Reply

  6. Posted by Rob on 2010/08/26 at 5:54 AM

    All of this activity, marketing, getting better players, etc requires one thing that the MLS doesn’t have yet… significant capital/revenue stream. From a business standpoint, there aren’t many profitable teams in MLS… yet, but the youth movement in the MLS is certainly a good sign that the league is headed in the right direction. The MLS is barely 15 years old, and fans and owners alike should be happy with the growth the league has had.

    I feel that the league will continue to improve and may never be up there with EPL, Bundesliga, La Liga, and Seria A. But there’s certainly things we can do as a country to bring the status of the league up. Continue supporting our local teams, buy MLS paraphernalia, tell a friend who might not otherwise follow sports about the MLS.

    I’m sure there are non-MLS fans or folks new to soccer that would consider hearing opinions from MLS fans. Until the voices of the people drown out the media pundits, we won’t be able to conquer the MLS league’s perception. (I feel like I should make T-shirts that say I Support NY Redbulls…)

    Reply

    • Good points Rob, I think after seeing Man City and Real Madrid throw around money like it’s Monopoly, we forget that our nation isn’t sitting so pretty right now economically.

      As for your I Support NYRB t-shirt, and bringing newbies into the game – I know Dan over at The FBM was thinking (sometime in the future) to have FBM T-shirts for every team in the league. If there’s significant demand for something like that right now, we might be able to make it happen sooner and you could have a shirt that supports two great causes.

      Reply

      • Posted by zlionsfan on 2010/08/27 at 2:33 PM

        But even if the US were in great economic times (which isn’t necessarily a requirement for spending billions; England isn’t doing so well either and there are seemingly always one or two EPL clubs whose reach exceeded their cash), there is no financial equivalent to Champions League money over here. European clubs can tie at least some of their spending to the expectations of playing CL matches and reaping the rewards (although again it’s an easy trap to fall into for clubs lurking on the edge of CL competition).

        Not that I’m suggesting that it’s possible to do the same here, even several years down the road, just that it’s something that will probably keep the biggest salaries on the other side of the Atlantic no matter how big MLS grows to be.

        Reply

        • Excellent point about CL money always being used when creating a budget for the next year.

          I will argue that the EPL teams that are spending tons of money are not owned by English bussiness people, and therefore may not be impacted by the downturn in the UK economy. Also, these teams are not really on a normal playing field financially; they’re spending habits are predicated on the fact that they have other sources of income that have lined their coffers with the GDP of all of Central and South America combined.

          Get us a couple of oil barrons for the MLS and you’ll see some ridiculous spending.

          Reply

      • Well the problem with saying that our nation isn’t in a great economic situation is that this is a global recession. We may complain that we are doing really bad right now, but at times I’m tired of hearing that. There are very few nations that are and were never hit by the recession.

        Reply

    • Posted by SuperChivo on 2010/08/26 at 6:23 PM

      That’s why I bought and wear my Marco Pappa Chicago Fire jersey. I see people walk around in Real Madrid, Barca, and shirts from the EPL and Mexican leagues all the time but hardly ever see MLS jerseys. We gotta represent the MLS; especially now that they getting into player development on a more serious level.

      Reply

  7. To continue the theme, RSL has opened up the first residential academy in MLS. That is THE next step in the evolution of academies in MLS. I think the rules have been tweaked because Vancouver insisted on keeping their residential academy when they enter MLS next season. I think FC Dallas was talking about doing something similar.

    Very encouraging moves by MLS and its clubs.

    Reply

    • Posted by Kevin on 2010/08/27 at 7:09 PM

      Residential academy? I may be wrong and please correct me if I am, but I was under the impression that Houston has had that for years.

      Reply

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