[MLS SPOTLIGHT]The Columbus Crew announced the signing of the 2011 Soccer America College Player of the Year Ben Speas as a home-grown signing out of NCAA champion North Carolina. Speas, who also won a NCAA title the year before with Akron, is the latest college star to leave early and circumvent the MLS SuperDraft. As more and more homegrown signings are made, they reduce the significance of the SuperDraft, whose 2012 edition will be held Friday in Kansas City (TV: ESPN2, ESPN3.com, noon ET).
Speas, a member of the Crew's under-19 team that won the 2010 McGuire Cup, is the fifth homegrown player signed since the end of the 2011 MLS season and the fourth college player.
Ohio State's Matt Lampson also signed with the Crew. Connor Lade joined the New York Red Bulls, while Jimmy McLaughlin turned pro with the Philadelphia Union after one semester at Colgate, where he was the Patriot League Rookie of the Year. Jose Villarreal, 18, signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Speas is the 47th homegrown signing since MLS launched its player development initiative in 2008 to encourage MLS clubs to develop young players.
The most successful homegrown players to date are the D.C. United pair of Andy Najarand Bill Hamid. Najar has represented Honduras, and Hamid is training with the U.S. national team.
MLS academies have been around long enough that clubs are calling in their chips on players several years into or at the end of their college careers.
Matt Kassel, who signed with the Red Bulls last season out of Maryland, would have been one of the top picks in this year's SuperDraft but for the homegrown route available to him and the Bulls.
Other signings -- notably Diego Fagundez (New England) andZach Pfeffer (Philadelphia) -- were still in high school when they debuted to rave reviews last season in MLS.
According to MLS rules, a club may sign a player to a home-grown contract without going through the SuperDraft if the player "has trained for at least one year in the club’s youth development program and has met League criteria." The program took off when MLS eliminated the restrictions on the number of players a team could sign. FC Dallas leads all MLS clubs with six home-grown players.
The success of the program has clubs testing the boundaries of just what is the definition of "trained for at least one year in the club’s youth development program."
The Union doesn't have an academy program in the Development Academy league but was allowed to sign Pfeffer and McLaughlin. The Galaxy, who made Tristan Bowen the first home-grown signing in 2008, has one of the best academy programs, but only recently did Villarreal join its academy program.