By Mike Woitalla
In 2007, Major League Soccer created the Youth Development Initiative, requiring its clubs to field youth teams.
Five years later, Commissioner Don Garber says that the league-wide investment in youth development is about $20 million a year.
“There was a time when our entire salary budget wasn’t $20 million a year,” Garber said. “Clearly developing young players is one of our top priorities.”
The Commissioner added that the investment has not paid off yet, but that the league is determined to forge ahead on the youth front.
“We will continue to invest massive amounts of money in our academy programs and our reserve league,” Garber said during his State of the League press conference on Monday. “We are very focused on doing everything we can to build a pyramid and take responsibility for growing the game in this country. We benefit by that obviously with access to young players, but probably as important, the league continues to want to take a leadership position in growing the game overall. … We know how important that is to help our country be better on the national team level.
“We’ve got a great partner in adidas that supports this effort. Those Generation adidas players in essence are an incentive for our clubs to have on their rosters in that they don’t count against the cap.”
Six MLS clubs -- D.C. United, New York, Columbus, Chicago, Chivas USA and Colorado -- fielded teams in the inaugural 2007-08 season of the U.S. Development Academy in its U-15/16 and U-17/18 leagues. This season, 17 of MLS’s 19 clubs field teams in the Development Academy, which in 2013 is expanding to U-13/14. (Toronto does not take part; the Philadelphia Union affiliates with PDA, FC Delco and PA Classics.)
A big benefit of MLS’s expansion into the youth game has been providing cost-free soccer to elite players. But five years since the Youth Development Initiative, we’ve yet to a significant impact of homegrown players with their MLS clubs’ first teams.
Of the 57 players MLS clubs have signed to homegrown contracts, only 29 played in the 2012 season. Of those 29, only six could be classified as regulars: Chivas USA's Juan Agudelo, D.C. United's Bill Hamid and Andy Najar, New York's Connor Lade and Toronto FC's Ashtone Morgan and Doneil Henry.
One solution would be to force clubs to give a minimum of playing time to homegrown players. UEFA requires teams to include a minimum of eight homegrown players in their 25-man squads to be eligible for its competitions.
The Mexican league, in 2005, introduced the rule known as Regla 20/11, which required first division teams to give at least 1,000 minutes of action to players under the age of 20 years-11 months during a season or be penalized with points subtractions. Mexico dropped the Regla 20/11 in 2011 because it was no deemed longer necessary.
Garber says MLS has contemplated such a rule.
“We have we have spent a lot of time, as recently as two-three weeks ago, when we had a competition and technical meeting, talking about the concept of mandatory play for young players,” Garber said. “We’ve done a lot of research on it. We’re certainly mindful of the success Mexico has had. We’re not sure if that success was driven by the mandatory rule as much as it’s driven by just a massive commitment by the league working in partnership with the federation down there.
“It’s hard to argue that they haven’t been incredibly successful.”
For their part, MLS clubs have increasingly looked to imported foreign talent. Coaches, whose tenures end quickly if the results aren’t good, can be reluctant to give youngsters a chance. Perhaps they should be forced to place faith in what their clubs are doing at the youth level.
And mandating a reasonable amount of playing time to homegrown players would end up rewarding the clubs that have invested well in player development.
Wouldn’t that be the obvious final piece in the puzzle of MLS’s quest to improve American soccer?