In 2007, the same year that MLS bet on David Beckham and Cuauhtemoc Blanco, it also mandated that its clubs field youth teams.
Beckham and Blanco were safe bets: A pair of players with legions of fans in the USA and a history of giving 100 percent every time they stepped on the field. As expected, both boosted attendance, sparked replica jersey sales, and attracted sponsors for the league and their clubs.
But signing superstars is less complicated than venturing into youth development. There's no proven formula for turning young players into pros, no guarantee that investing in development programs will yield a return.
MLS's Youth Development Initiative required each of its clubs to field at least two youth teams, in the U-16 and U-18 age groups. MLS made few other stipulations, leaving lots of questions unanswered.
The biggest concern was that MLS clubs would simply replicate the pay-to-play model of the existing elite youth clubs. MLS player programs director Alfonso Mondelo calls the high cost American youth soccer's "first and foremost problem."
For MLS clubs to make a difference they would have to take off the price tag that shuts out talented players without the financial means. But even fielding just two teams without charging players requires $300,000 to $500,000, says Mondelo.
MLS clubs, which are run on tight budgets, get American players for free through the MLS draft. Could one really expect them to make a substantial investment in youth players?
"I think the reason teams are investing in it, for example making it free, is because of the carrot we used, not any stick," says MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis. "The carrot being that they can develop these players and take them straight on to their rosters, as opposed to having them go through the draft."
So far, nine of MLS's 14 clubs aren't charging the players on its academy teams, and others are expected to follow.
"It's been quite striking," says Gazidis, "that all of the teams believe they can do a good job of youth development and all the teams believe they'll benefit from this investment."
MLS clubs seem confident that they can produce better American players for a league that is increasingly relying on foreign imports to raise its level.
"I think the gap between the college player coming out of the draft and the MLS player has become greater every year," says Mondelo. "The college game is not preparing the players to play. You cannot go from a three-month season and expect to be ready to be a professional.
"The idea is the clubs begin to develop players who have the professionalism instilled in them from a younger age and that helps them develop the technical and tactical development of the game.
"They have a vested interest in their business to improve the quality of what's out there. The better the quality, the more fans will come."
But clubs are risking developing players only to see them forego MLS for a foreign offer. MLS clubs won't receive transfer fees for youth players who go abroad.
"For us," Mondelo says, "the big challenge is a big foreign club can come in and offer one of our players a lot more money than we offer him, and we can lose that player because we don't own the rights [internationally] because of our system."
Gazidis says, "I do believe that we'll be able to produce more better players and that ultimately, one way or another, although we may lose some of them, MLS will benefit."
MLS clubs would get a return on their youth investment by selling a player to a foreign club after he's signed a pro contract with them.
"We think MLS is a pretty good place to develop," says Gazidis, citing the example of Clint Dempsey, who signed for Fulham on a $4 million transfer fee at age 24 after three MLS seasons. "You're probably not going to get a European club paying big money for him when he's 18 years old. The MLS club might decide this is a player worth investing some money in and [who will] stay with us rather than go to college."
MLS has set up its youth programs so that players maintain NCAA eligibility. And if a player with MLS potential does choose college, the MLS club he spent his youth ball with could still acquire him instead of losing him to the draft.
"The clubs can still hold the rights to that player if they have contact with him during the summer months," says Mondelo. "He can come back and play for the U-20 or U-23 team and meet the minimum requirements."
Other factors have convinced MLS clubs to take youth development seriously. For one, there's the proliferation of foreign clubs scouting young American talent and setting up academies in the USA.
"They're here and they make their presence felt," says Mondelo. "They see this is a fertile ground for talent."
It would be embarrassing if MLS allowed foreign clubs to snatch young American talent without a fight. Moreover, Gazidis believes creating youth programs brings other benefits.
"They connect MLS teams with their local community more effectively by becoming the aspirational focus of young players in local markets," he says, "and by having local products playing for the first team.
"They connect the team with the grassroots of the game, because for every kid who's playing for FC Dallas U-15, we hope there are a hundred kids who want to play for FC Dallas."
A greater grassroots connection also serves as a selling point to sponsors.
"[But] it's not a purely economic analysis that we're engaged in," Gazidis says. "It's like a lot of the things we're doing right now, which is to build the game in the U.S."
MLS's arrival on the youth scene also adds credibility to the U.S. Soccer Development Academy league, for U-16 and U-18 teams. Six MLS teams - D.C. United, New York, Columbus, Chicago, Chivas USA and Colorado - joined the league for the inaugural season of 2007-08.
FC Dallas, New England Revolution and Los Angeles Galaxy are joining in 2008-09, when membership increases to 74 clubs, plus the U-17 U.S. national team program. The Kansas City Wizards will field teams in 2009-10.
Mondelo and Gazidis agree that MLS teams will have to expand to younger age levels to increase the chances of producing top-level players.
"A lot of the influential years are before the age of U-15 or U-16," Gazidis says. "To have a really full youth development program, we need to see age group teams all way to U-12, and even U-11, and see these players go all the way through the system and come out the other end."
Besides providing opportunities for low-income players who can't afford the costs of traditional American youth soccer, Mondelo points to another advantage of the youth environment a pro club could provide.
"The coaches or directors of youth development with pro clubs aren't going to be measured on the trophies they win, but on how many players they put into the first team," he says. "The problem in the USA is they start travel soccer at too early an age. That's totally detrimental. It becomes more about winning and about collecting hardware than about having the kids play and learning from playing."
MLS youth guidelines also allow for teams to create satellite clubs outside their markets to extend their reach.
"We're some way away from seeing the full benefits of the youth development system," Gazidis says. "I expect that we will have made a difference already in a year or two. But I don't think you're going to see any dramatic results for probably five or six years."
(This article originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)