MLS Spotlight: New investment provides new rewards

Until recently, college was the place MLS clubs looked for domestic talent. That's started to change as they've signed Homegrown players out of their academies. The new frontier: USL second teams. Already 23 USL second-team graduates are signed on the first teams of their MLS clubs for 2017, and that number should grow.

When MLS clubs started their own USL teams, beginning the LA Galaxy in 2014, there were a couple of staffing reasons to go all in:

-- They needed to find a place for regular playing time for players 19-28 -- those not assured of being on the game-day roster each week.

-- There players who were worth giving an extended look but whom MLS clubs weren't yet willing to extend MLS contract offers.

-- Clubs needed to find a place to park young prospects who they felt had a bright future but would lose to other (foreign) clubs if they weren't signed.

But what we're starting to see is some clubs take more aggressive approaches:

-- They're taking flyers on young foreigners. An example would be 19-year-old Cameroonian Nouhou Tolo, touted to make the champion Seattle Sounders' first team in 2017.

-- They're promoting academy players to their USL teams while still in high school or during the summer before college starts (all with NCAA rules). Examples are defenders Auston Trusty (Philadelphia) and Marco Farfan (Portland), both signed to MLS contracts in the second half of 2016.

Here's a look at the 12 MLS that have invested in second teams

Second team: Rio Grande Valley FC (second season in 2017). Head coach: Junior Gonzalez (first season).
Graduates on 2017 first team (1): Kevin Garcia, bounced around clubs in Ireland and Sweden after graduating from Villanova, graduated from RGVFC to the Dynamo in September. He didn't play any games but is on the MLS roster for 2017.
Also of note: Jose Escalante on loan from Olimpia in his native Honduras, played three games for the Dynamo in 2016. He won't return in 2017. Ruben Luna, one of the first FC Dallas HG signings, was the top scorer with seven goals in 2016.
2017 outlook: Rio Grande Valley FC head coach Wilmer Cabrera has been promoted to Dynamo head coach. Former Dynamo academy stars Charly Flores, 19, Christian Lucatero, 19, and Memo Rodriguez, 21, all will begin the year at RGVFC.

Second team: LA Galaxy II (fourth season in 2017). Head coach: TBD.
Graduates on 2017 first team (5): David Romney was the first Los Dos player to earn a first-team contract, graduating in August 2015. Daniel Steres and Frenchman Daniel Steres followed in December 2015 and Ariel Lassiter, son of Roy Lassiter, moved up in April 2016. Steres was a regular on the Galaxy backline, starting 29 games. Jack McBean, still only 22, went down to Galaxy II, where he scored 15 goals in 17 games in 2016 and returned to the first team. He's back after a short loan spell at Coventry City in England.
Also of note: Unable to get much playing time on the first team, Jose Villarreal (24 games), Raul Mendiola (17) and Bradford Jamieson IV (16) all saw plenty of action with Los Dos in 2016.
2017 outlook: Nine of the 10 players on the LA Galaxy II roster are academy products, five of them teenagers: former U.S. U-17s Eric Lopez and Hugo Arellano, Bennett Sneddon, Adrian Vera and Ethan Zubak.

Daniel Steres.

Graduates on 2017 first team (3):
FC Montreal went 6-21-2 and averaged just 243 fans a game in 2016 before folding, but three FC Montreal players made the move to the first team, all with HG status: 19-year-old David Choiniere and 21-year-old Louis Beland-Goyette, both Quebecois, and 17-year-old Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla from Ivory Coast in October.
2017 outlook: The Impact hooked up with the Ottawa Fury as its USL affiliate.

Second team: New York Red Bulls II (third season in 2017). Head coach: John Wolyniec (third season).
Graduates on 2017 first team (1)Tyler Adams signed with NYRB II out of the U.S. U-17 residency program in 2015 but graduated to the Red Bulls in 2016.
Also of note: Aaron Long, the 2016 USL Defender of the Year and Best XI pick, joined the Red Bulls on loan from NYRB II in September. First-team HG rookies Brandon Allen (15 goals in the regular season and three more in the playoffs) and Derrick Etienne (Haiti national team) spent most of the season with NYRB II. Kevin O'Toole, a rising high school senior bound for Princeton, started in the USL championship game. Trinidadian youth international Noah Powder, also 18, made 20 appearances (regular season and playoffs) in 2016. Chris Gloster, who is starting for the current U.S. U-17s at left back, even got a start.
2017 outlook: The Red Bulls II will move to Montclair State, where Montclair resident Don Garber, the MLS commissioner, was the first season-ticket holder. Allen and Etienne, both HG signings, have first-team contracts for 2017, while a pair of Frenchmen -- Florian Valot and Vincent Bezecourt, both U.S. college products -- should get shots at making the jump in preseason.

Tyler Adams.

Second team: Orlando City B (second season in 2017). Head coach: Anthony Pulis.
Graduates on 2017 first team (1): Mikey Ambrose and Tony Rocha, pair of 23-year-old Texans, were promoted from Orlando City B in August. Ambrose, who skipped his senior year at Maryland to sign with the Austin Aztex, played five MLS games and went to Atlanta United in the Expansion Draft. Rocha didn't play but is on the Orlando City MLS roster for 2017.
Also of note: Former U.S. U-17 Pierre Da Silva signed with Orlando B and played 22 games in 2016.
2017 outlook: After playing in nearby Melbourne in Year 1, OCB will move into the new Orlando soccer stadium in 2017. Signings for 2017 include Zach Carroll, who started on NYRB II's championship team, and Ben Polk, a 2016 SuperDraft first-round pick who was waived by Portland.

Tony Rocha.

Second team: Bethlehem Steel (second season in 2017). Head coach: Brendan Burke (second season).
Graduates on 2017 first team (2): Derrick Jones, a midfielder, was promoted from Steel FC to the Union in August, and defender Auston Trusty signed with MLS club shortly before he was supposed to enroll at the North Carolina. Both traveled with the U.S. U-20s to Costa Rica before Christmas.
Also of note: The Union aggressively promoted academy players to the Steel. Justin McMaster (8 appearances), Anthony Fontana (8), Mark McKenzie (2), Matthew Real (2) and Josue Monge (2) are all only 17.
2017 outlook: Of the nine players signed to pro contracts for the 2017 season, Yosef Samuel is the youngest at 19. Samuel, who moved from Atlanta to Philadelphia to join the Union's residency program, spent last winter with the Union first team in preseason.

Second team: Timbers 2 (third season in 2017). Head coach: Andrew Gregor (second season).
Graduates on 2017 first team (1): Marco Farfan, 17, was supposed to begin his first college season last fall at the University of Portland but signed a Homegrown contract with the Timbers after a strong summer with T2. He was the first player to sign an HG contract while still in its academy program. "A seminal moment" is how Timbers coach Caleb Porter described the signing.
Also of note: Villyan Bijev, who was signed by Liverpool out of high school in Fresno, California, but returned home after stints in Germany, Norway and his native Bulgaria, led T2 with eight goals and 10 assists in 2016 and was a USL Best XI pick.
2017 outlook: A trio of teenagers --19-year-old Belgian Dylan Damraoui, 19-year-old Augustine Williams, born in Sierra Leone and a product of California clubs Juventus, Alliance FC and Nomads, and 18-year-old Terrell Lowe, a product of the Timbers' affiliate in Boise, Idaho -- return after each made 10 or more appearances in 2016. T2 will move to the Timbers' Providence Park after playing the first two seasons at UP.

Second team: Real Monarchs (third season in 2017). Head coach: Mike Petke (first season).
Graduates on 2017 first team (2): Chris Schuler is a case of a player who needed to rehab and won back a first-team contract. He spent much of the 2016 season with the Monarchs after having not been re-signed by RSL following a foot injury that limited him to five MLS games in 2015. Ricardo Velazco, 23, became the first player to go from RSL-AZ to the Monarchs and then to RSL after scoring eight goals for the Monarchs in 2016.
Also of note: U.S. U-20 Danilo Acosta, a possible long-term option for Kyle Beckerman, played 18 games for the Monarchs in 2016.
2017 outlook: The Monarchs hired Petke, the former New York Red Bulls head coach, after Freddy Juarez was named an RSL assistant. Recent signings included Sebastian Velasquez, who played for RSL and NYCFC in MLS, Nick Besler, Matt's brother, and 19-year-old Charles Boateng, who played 20 games for West African Football Academy in the 2016 Ghana Premier League.

Chris Schüler.

Second team: Reno 1868 (first season in 2017). Head coach: Ian Russell (first season).
2017 outlook: Like Rio Grande Valley, Reno is independently owned but staffed on the technical side by its MLS partner. Early signings have included a couple of USL Jamaican stars: Dane Kelly (all-time leading scorer with 42 goals) and Brenton Griffiths (second-team all-league in 2015 with Orange County).

Second team: Sounders FC 2 (third season in 2017). Head coach: Ezra Hendrickson (third season).
Graduates on 2017 first team (1): Tyler Miller, Andy Craven and Oalex Anderson were promoted from Sounders FC 2 to the Sounders' first team before the start of the 2016 season though only Miller, a goalie, is currently on the Sounders' first-team roster for 2017. Craven has signed with the USL's FC Cincinnati while Anderson, the young St. Vincent & The Grenadines star, did not have his option exercised.
Also of note: U.S. U-20 Victor Mansaray, who played three MLS games for the Sounders in 2015 but none in 2016, was second on S2 with five goals in 2016. S2 gave out USL minutes to 11 academy players -- including five on this year's conference-leading U-17/18 team. Japanese-born Kei Tomozowa and Jake Morris (no relation to Jordan) were recently called up to the U.S. U-19s.
2017 outlook: Tolo, a 19-year-old Cameroonian from Rainbow Bamenda that has been a feeder club to MLS teams (Ambroise Oyongo, Eric Ayuk, Anatole Abang, Charles Eloundou and Marius Obekop), should get a shot at making the Sounders' first team in 2017 along with Martinique international Jordy Delem, a midfielder.

Second team: Swope Park Rangers (second season in 2017). Head coach: Nikola Popovic (first season).
Graduates on 2017 first team (2): Canadian left back Tyler Pasher and 21-year-old American keeper Adrian Zendejas (mid-season signing from Tijuana) become the first players to sign MLS contracts after helping the Swope Park Rangers reach the USL final in their first season.
Also of note: Amer Didic was named to the USL Best XI. The 22-year-old defender by way of Baker University was called up by Sporting KC for the Concacaf Champions League and played in three CCL games.
2017 outlook: Popovic will take over as coach for Marc Dos Santos, who was named the head coach of the NASL's San Francisco Deltas. The Rangers signed a pair of 18-year-old Tennesseans, Felipe Hernandez and Will Little, to pro contracts. Both players were part of the Rangers’ roster in 2016 on academy contracts. (Another Tennessean with an academy contract in 2016 was Ezra Armstrong, son of Desmond Armstrong.) Swope Park has also signed 2015 USL Rookie of the Year Kharlton Belmar from Timbers 2.

Second team: Toronto FC II (third season in 2017). Head coach: Jason Bent (third season).
Graduates on 2017 first team (1): UAE-born Molham Babouli, a product of the Kia TFC senior academy team, signed with TFC on the eve of the 2016 season after starring for TFC II in 2015. He went on to make 15 MLS appearances.
Also of note: U.S, U-17 sensation Ayo Akinola played 10 games for TFC II and scored two goals in 2016.
2017 outlook: Toronto FC II began the year with 11 players from the 2016 team under contract for 2017, including top scorers Raheem Edwards and 17-year-old Shaan Hundal (six goals apiece). Four other players are teenagers: Aidan Daniels, Malik Johnson, Liam Fraser and Luca Uccello, all midfielders.

Second team: Bethlehem Steel (second season in 2017). Head coach: TBD.
Graduates on 2017 first team (4): Liberian-born Alphonso Davies joined the Whitecaps FC Residency in 2015, moved up to Whitecaps FC II in February 2016 and then the Caps' MLS roster by July as a 15-year-old. Davies played eight MLS games for the 'Caps and had the winning goal that clinched their berth in the CCL quarterfinals. Brett Levis was moved up to the first team in August, while Americans Spencer Richey and Kyle Greig were recently signed to MLS contracts for the 2017 season.
Also of note: WFC2 finished with the best record of the Cascadia 2 teams, finishing in sixth place and reaching the Western Conference final. It beat Energy FC on goals by Whitecaps midfielder Kianz Froese, Greig and Dan Haber, who will play for the Monarchs in 2017.
2017 outlook: Four 18-year-old graduates from Whitecaps FC Residency -- right back Kadin Chung, midfielders Matthew Baldisimo and Thomas Gardner and midfielder/striker Terran Campbell -- are already under contract for 2017. Dutchman Sem De Wit, the 2016 WFC2 Player of the Year, will also be back.

Alphonso Davies.

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