[MLS SPOTLIGHT]Jose Villarreal's assist on the Los Angeles Galaxy's winning goal against FC Dallas in Sunday's nationally televised match highlighted the benefits of MLS's homegrown program. In his first year with the Galaxy, the 18-year-old Villarreal is little by little receiving increased playing time on an established MLS team. But Villarreal is just one seven homegrown players to debut this season from a program that is still in its infancy and at its worst has been derided as a "black hole."
Galaxy coach Bruce Arenapraised Villarreal, who stripped the ball from FC Dallas defender Matt Hedges and fed Brazilian Juninho with a perfectly placed pass to break a scoreless tie just seven minutes after he entered the game.
“I thought Jose was outstanding," Arena said. "A really alert play to help set up the first goal and really just a solid 30 minutes. He did quite well.”
Villarreal's development is what you'd expect from a top young prospect: increasing minutes, increasing involvement in critical moments of games and flashes of brilliance. (His first MLS goal in June earned him Goal of the Week.)
“There’s no secret," the 18-year-old midfielder says. "Just working hard every day in practice and when Bruce gives me a chance to play just do my thing and try to help out as much as possible.”
But most homegrown players aren't getting the same chance.
Of the 57 players MLS clubs have signed to homegrown contracts, only 22 have played this season. Of those 22, only six could be classified as regulars.
And just one of them, Connor Lade, is in his first season in MLS. Lade is unusual in that he completed his collegiate eligibility at St. John's and bypassed the MLS SuperDraft as a former Red Bulls academy member.
The other five regulars, all in their second or third MLS seasons, have debuted for their respective national teams: Chivas USA's Juan Agudelo (USA), D.C. United's Bill Hamid (USA) and Andy Najar (Honduras) and Toronto FC's Ashtone Morgan and Doneil Henry (Canada).
Of the rest, 26 have not seen any playing time yet this season. And nine others are already out of MLS.
The MLS Reserve League was launched to give playing time to players not in the first team, though it plays an abbreviated schedule. A half a dozen homegrown players were loaned to clubs in the NASL, USL PRO or overseas.
More players will be signed to homegrown contracts as clubs pick up the rights of collegians whom they have had in their academy programs.
But each year, as many or more young Americans forgo college to sign with clubs overseas, mostly Mexico and Germany, as sign with MLS clubs.
Getting more playing time for young Americans is an obvious concern to U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
“I know that an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old is not at the same level as an experienced player and a proven player," Klinsmann said recently, "But we’ve got to make sure that they get the chance to break through and get their minutes in.”
The lack of playing time for young domestic players is not a problem unique to the United States.
Indeed, most clubs would take the current MLS success rate of 1 in 10.
What has been missing, though, is a structure for young pros to get regular playing time against seasoned pros, the kind that English players get in the reserve team system, German players get in the 3. Liga or Regionalliga and French players get in the CFA or CFA2.
Of the five players the Red Bulls signed as homegrown players, only Lade is still with the club. Sacir Hotand Matt Kassel, both signed out of college, were released this spring as the New York staff basically gave up on them.
The Red Bulls won the 2012 U-15/16 Development Academy national championship and have more players in U-17 residency that another club, but how they handle young players coming through their system remains to be seen.
Ever blunt, Arena told the Washington Post's Paul Tenorio in June the post-academy system was "a black hole" and players were better off going to college -- the route that MLS clubs were trying to avoid in the first place.