Senior Editor, Soccer America Magazine
By forming a provision by which ''homegrown'' players can sign pro contracts and bypass the leagueÆs distribution procedures, MLS has provided incentive for teams to get serious about finding and developing talent.
Argentinos Juniors isnÆt the equal of glamorous Buenos Aires neighbors River Plate and Boca Juniors, yet it was the first professional club to sign Diego Maradona, who debuted for the club at age 16.
Visit the clubÆs youth facility, and you wonÆt see any trophies or championship banners. What you will see, on a free-standing white wall, painted in red, are the names of every Argentinos Juniors product who has played in the Argentine First Division. Maradona's name is at the top. Current internationals Juan Roman Riquelme, Esteban Cambiasso and Juan Pablo Sorin are there, too.
The unearthing and honing of talent is of paramount importance to clubs. By taking the first steps in forming a youth development program, MLS has pushed its teams along the path followed by those all over the world.
Starting next season, MLS teams will have greater incentive to find and develop players as the league institutes a ''homegrown players'' policy by which products can be signed to professional contracts without being subject to the SuperDraft. The program supplements the league's Generation adidas program that encourages teams to add as many as 10 developmental players to the regular 18-man roster.
''While I think Generation adidas is a successful program, it really represents the tip of an iceberg and we have not, as a professional league, involved ourselves as much as we're ultimately going to need to in the rest of that iceberg,'' said MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis. ''These are all incremental steps to get us more deeply involved so thereÆs more competition.''
While some of the parameters and guidelines have been set (see box), many details -- such as how to satisfy college and high school eligibility restrictions on affiliations with professional clubs -- must be finalized. The players will not sign professional contracts and instead will be registered as would any amateur player competing for a club team. Thus, MLS teams would still have to sign a player to a standard or developmental contract to retain his rights.
Several MLS teams, including D.C. United, Red Bull New York and Chivas USA, have already formed tiers of youth teams, and by next season, every MLS team will be obligated to field teams: in the U-15 and U-17/18 age groups.
The league has set out a plan by which six developmental teams, ranging in age from U-14 to U-25, will be run by each MLS team at its own cost. Also left to the teams is deciding on whether or not the players pay to play.
''If you make it so the kids and families donÆt have to pay, thatÆs an ideal world,'' says John Harkes, who oversaw four youth teams as D.C. United director of youth development before rejoining head coach Bruce Arena as assistant coach at Red Bull New York.
''I was over at Nottingham Forest two years ago and their club alone puts 1.5 million pounds [$3.2 million] into the youth development process. ThereÆs money being spent and the owners know they have to do that to protect their future. TheyÆve got to invest in the youth and protect those guys coming through so they can identify and grow these kids to be part of not only their club but also their community.''
GLUTTED HODGEPODGE. Potential conflicts and confusions abound, aside from running afoul of the colleges and high schools. Powerful youth clubs, which in some cases require parents to pay thousands of dollars per year in fees and expenses, may not welcome intrusions on what they see as their turf. Already there is such a glutted hodgepodge of clubs, competitions, tournaments, clinics, academies and camps û including those run by MLS teams û and delineating the boundaries and differences will be daunting. And how the MLS programs will mesh with those already in place, such as the Olympic Development Program (ODP), and not breach NCAA regulations, won't be known for some time.
''ItÆs not going to be a simple landscape in the United States,'' said Gazidis. ''It's not going to be today, it's not going to be tomorrow. Our individual teams will find their own solutions in their local markets. I think if we think thereÆs going to be a simple player development system in the United States, weÆre deluding ourselves. It's always going to be a complex tapestry.''
Chivas USA began play in MLS just 18 months ago, but has already begun construction of an academy. Last year it formed an under-19 team from which three players have joined the regular roster as developmental players. One of its first moves after joining MLS was to bring aboard Dennis te Kloese, who had been working as Guadalajara's director of youth development.
''I can understand why a lot of MLS clubs are still a little bit hesitant to really invest or see what the possibilities are, but for the development of soccer in the United States it's so very important to get it going,'' says te Kloese, who was brought to Guadalajara and then to Chivas USA by technical director and former head coach Hans Westerhof.
''If you have a good structure and a good way of developing your own players, the United States will get a little more of an identity. A lot of people involved in the league are aware of that and with time it develops into something that works out, because it's obviously a big opportunity to have a league here that grows with so many talented players.''
Gazidis freely admits MLS teams have had little incentive to scout and develop players with no payoff at the end. He believes teams that don't implement programs will soon fall behind their counterparts and that loss of a competitive advantage, along with the homegrown player parameters, will spur teams to invest the money and resources required.
''These players want to develop to their full potential and theyÆre only going to sign with us if weÆre able to do that,'' he says ''Ultimately, an elite young player and his parents are primarily focused, as they should be, on which program is going to best develop that child's potential. Unless we do that, weÆre not going to be successful.''
HOMEGROWN PLAYER RULES
Homegrown players are eligible to be added to a team's regular MLS roster without being subject to the leagueÆs drafts or other distribution procedures.
Players must have lived in the area (with their parents, if appropriate) for one year prior to their placement on a list as a homegrown player.
Each team can list up to 18 homegrown players on each of its developmental teams.
A player is eligible for an MLS roster two years after his name is submitted to MLS on a team's homegrown list.
Players in U.S. youth national team pools cannot be included on a teamÆs homegrown list unless they joined the MLS team prior to being summoned for a national camp.