Darius Tahir bookends John Parker’s piece on youth development with a closer look at the present-day state of the Homegrown Player program in MLS.
For the data review in Darius’s piece, please see this Google Spreadsheet.
After the Brazil loss we were told—as previous TSG writer Joshua Wells noted—that unless we found such results “unacceptable” the team would never become an elite one. Wells focused on the emotional response, but what about the strategy? Will loud, angry declarations actually work to improve a team’s performance over the long term?
The writer of the tweet, Michael Davies, comes from a nation—England—that’s a master of such angry declarations. Tournament after tournament, England have made loud declarations, taken umbrage, spewed bile, deployed sarcasm, black humor, rage, anger, derision, and resignation, as recommended. The results of this strategy are clear as England moves into Euro 2012, justly regarded as one of the top 16 favorites to win the entire tournament.
At best, anger is incidental to the ultimate fate of a national team. What really matters, of course, is youth development, and the problem with youth development is that you never see results until years later. The lackluster team against Antigua and Barbuda wasn’t the fault of youth development policies of 2012; it was the fault of youth development policies from roughly 2000-2005 or 6 or so. In other words anger might be counterproductive in sabotaging nascent policies.
For the U.S. it’s the move by the federation and MLS to improve youth development, specifically by signing players out of an academy. The hope is that more players will get better, pro-oriented training, which will either eliminate or reduce the need for college. The program has gotten quite a bit of hype since its inception in 2008, with, for example, writer Leander Schaerlaeckens musing that college soccer might become “largely irrelevant” in the production of MLS or national team players.
But how true is it now? Assessing the homegrown program at this moment is a difficult thing; instead of pinning a dead butterfly, you’re trying to pin a live one—it’s moving, fluttering away in a state of motion. Teams are expanding their programs, hiring new coaches, etc. Nevertheless we can make some conclusions.
While there hasn’t been an official list of “most valued young players,” one imagines homegrown players like Andy Najar, Juan Agudelo, and Bill Hamid are near the top of the list.
However, that’s a very partial way of assessing the program. I’ve put together some relevant stats for every homegrown player ever. With the recent signing of Karl Ouimette, there are 56 of them. What can we conclude?
The Pace of the Program
Ajax, according to the New York Times Magazine article everyone consumed back during World Cup time, tries to graduate an average of a player and a half per year. How do MLS academy programs compare? Back-of-the-envelope calculations indicate a total of just around half that, with .74 players per team per year. (Expansion distorts the number a bit, so the “true” number is higher. Nevertheless MLS programs are not graduating players as quickly as Ajax.)
How many don’t make it?
So far about 16% of signed homegrown players have been cut. This does not seem like an outlandish percentage.
How many are important players?
In some ways this statistic will be a bit deceptive, but only three homegrown players have played more than half of available MLS minutes. Bill Hamid and Andy Najar, however, don’t make it because of Olympic qualifying and/or injury.
On the other hand, 56% of homegrown players haven’t played a single minute this season.
Is that because they’re young?
Average age is 20.25 years in FIFA time.* So…maybe?
* (defined thusly: you’re whatever age you turn during the year. So…if you were born November 1992, you’re 20 for the purposes of this exercise.)
How big a break is the age thing from the past?
Well, 25% of homegrown players (roughly) have played at least one year in college. So it’s probably best not to view the homegrown pool as a complete break from the MLS Draft college pool but as both as compliments.
In some ways that’s not a bad thing. If MLS academies were good enough at their job to, say, cut a year on average off of their top player’s college careers, that might well be a significant boon.
How do homegrown players perform in comparison to MLS drafted players?
It’s an unfair comparison in many ways. The MLS drafted players are on average about a year and a half older than homegrown players. That’s quite significant at a young age, obviously.
With that noted, the answer is that of the college players in the league who were drafted, they are much more significant favors for their team. 18.6% of drafted young (which we’ll define as Olympic-eligible, i.e. u-23) players who currently in the league are playing more than 50 percent of their team’s minutes so far.
But the youth issue is pretty important—instead of playing occasionally in college they’re practicing every day and playing with the reserves? That’s surely a better experience.
Here are the significant issues with the homegrown program—the reserve league currently is nowhere near adequate for the purposes of educating players.
There are 10 reserve league games per season in the U.S. Teams often schedule ad hoc games to supplement that total, but it’s hard to get to a really high total. That’s a big program. Homegrown players, so far this year through June 2, have averaged about 241 minutes and 65% of total minutes (counting official and unofficial reserve games.) On average, then, teams have played a little over 4 reserve games each this season. Let’s assume each team plays twelve per year and triple the numbers for the average player, meaning the average player will hypothetically play about 720 minutes or so. If a player isn’t a regular for his club, that’s nowhere near adequate.
Compare that total to what some European teams do. English reserve teams play 19 games a year and that’s considered inadequate. Dutch teams play 27 games per year. Spanish and German teams play full schedules against men—so they play 38 games a year. Take one of the latest batch of Barcelona, Tello. He played 39 games over a year and a half. It’d take three or four to match that total in MLS.
MLS coaches are likely in agreement. Both Jason Kreis and Bruce Arena have been scathing in their disapproval of the current structure. Kreis has called the schedule “ridiculous,” with the reserve league schedule often taking reserve teams far away from their managers, meaning that managers can’t easily watch what’s happening in the second team. “How’s that professional?” Kreis asks.
Kreis wants MLS reserve teams entered into other, lower-division leagues in MLS, in imitation of the German or Spanish systems.
Bruce Arena mostly agrees, and has even mused that “Right now, the kids would be better off going to college.”
Why don’t teams loan players?
Don’t know. This isn’t a comprehensive solution, to be sure, but it would seem like more loans could be made. Currently there are two MLS homegrown players on loan—DC United’s Conor Shanosky and Houston’s Josue Soto. Both have gotten minutes. Shanosky has only missed 23 minutes for Fort Lauderdale Strikers; Soto’s been less successful at earning minutes but has still played more than 300 minutes so far this season.
Are any teams particularly bad at getting their players reserve minutes or other opportunities?
Yeah, probably LA Galaxy and Chicago Fire. Both teams have two homegrown players each. LA’s Jack McBean has gotten just over a quarter of possible reserve league minutes while Jose Villarreal has gotten just under. Chicago’s Victor Pineda has played 27% of possible minutes, while Kellen Gulley has gotten 10% of possible minutes. This is dramatically worse than the average percentage for homegrowns. All four are U.S. youth internationals.
Both teams are deeply mediocre, and so they are choosing to give minutes to mediocre veterans over promising young players. Both teams are sitting on some of the best youth hotbeds in the country; in this, Chicago comes out looking worse. Gulley is actually from Mississippi, meaning the team has somehow contrived to have all of one Chicago-based player graduate to the first team. Consider, however, the soccer history of Chicago. The Chicagoland area has produced, in recent years, Brian McBride, Michael Bradley, Eric Lichaj, Brad Guzan and Jonathan Spector. None of these players, to my knowledge, have a Latin background; Chicago is one of the most immigrant-heavy cities in the country. That means there’s a Basically, Chicago is failing.
Where are the defenders?
Ready to bring up a bad memory? Of course you aren’t, but think of the Olympic qualifying fail. Caleb Porter came in for many a criticism, many of those quite justified. But Porter was unlucky in several important respects—neither Bill Hamid nor Sean Johnson have had such poor games before that nor since that—and, most importantly, his defenders. In central defense Porter was forced to rely on a once-promising player whose career had been derailed by constant injuries (Opara, who was once regarded as a similar prospect to Omar Gonzalez) and a converted defensive midfielder (Perry Kitchen). What’s worse is that these were likely Porter’s best options among eligible, healthy players.
The blame here quite likely lies with MLS. The league rarely signs defenders in Generation adidas, and even more rarely signs them as academy players. Of the 56 homegrown players signed since 2008, only four of them have been centerbacks. Unfortunately for Caleb Porter and the U.S., half of those centerbacks are Canadian. (Though Toronto’s Doneil Henry is a very good prospect and will likely be sold for quite a bit of money at some point.) Also unfortunately for Porter, both of the other centerbacks went to multiple years of college and the one that played significant minutes in 2011—Ethan White—was injured during qualifying time.
That’s the short term blow-by-blow, but the trend will surely extend forward. Either MLS academy programs are not producing particularly good defenders or MLS teams don’t take the opportunity to sign them early. Either possibility is not exactly encouraging.
(By the way, the picture for fullbacks is scarcely better. 6 fullbacks have been signed, of which one—Ashtone Morgan, Toronto’s very good left back—is Canadian and three spent time in college.)
How does MLS compare to other leagues?
I looked up Australia’s A-League to compare the minutes given to young players. In some ways, this is a very fitting comparison—both leagues are young ones, set in wealthy countries in which soccer isn’t the number one sport. On the other hand, the A-League’s financial issues make Rangers look like a well-managed model of fiscal probity. There are only 9 A-League teams at the moment.
Whatever the financial issues, the A-League is on average better than MLS at granting minutes to young players. On average, each A-League team had 2 players under 23 getting more than 50 percent of minutes in its most recent season. MLS teams are currently just over 1 per team. It’s possible that the A-League is just concentrating all the best young players in a way that MLS can’t, but it’s certainly not encouraging for MLS.
So what’s your assessment?
Work in progress.