MLS's U22 Initiative, how is it working out?

Just as MLS was coming out of the pandemic in 2021 and on the heels of the renegotiation of its collective bargaining agreement, it introduced yet another twist to its roster rules.

Like other player mechanisms, the U22 Initiative is intended to prioritize how clubs spent their money on players. On top of Designated Player signings and General Allocation Money spending, the U22 Initiative is intended to accommodate the signing of players in a certain category -- young players (mostly South Americans) who are not yet earning big salaries but for whom teams must pay significant acquisition costs. Costs that teams might not be able to otherwise justify as they balance their needs in getting all their expenses (salary charges) within MLS's spending limits.

Bottom line: Becoming a selling league is one of MLS's priorities, and the U22 Initiative allows teams to invest in players who might one day be sold for a profit.

The rules regarding the U22 Initiative are extensive but for simplicity's sake, here are basic principles:

1. The U22 Initiative rules work in tandem with the Designated Player rule. Each MLS team can fill up to three U22 Initiative slots on their senior roster as long as they don't have have three (senior) Designated Players.

2. Unlike the salary charges of other non-DPs, acquisition fees don't have to be accounted for.

3. A player's salary charge can be no more than the maximum salary budget charge in any given year ($612,500 in 2022) but the actual budget charge for the purposes of the salary cap will be $150,000 or $200,000, depending on the player's age.

4. A player must be 22 or younger in the first year he's eligible to play in MLS, but he can hold a U22 Initiative slot through the year in which he turns 25.

As we mentioned, these are the basics -- without all the qualifiers. Most of the players who hold U22 Initiative slots have been imported, but there are rules allowing teams to sign (or re-sign) players who entered MLS with Homegrown contracts or via the SuperDraft.

So far, the U22 Initiative has been hit or miss, which should be expected. Most of the players have unproven track records and are moving to a new country, requiring a period of adjustment on and off the field. Many of the U22 Initiative slot holders are still unknown names around MLS simply because they have gotten little or no playing time. It's already clear some players won't make it, and MLS teams are finding ways to cut their losses. A few players have already been loaned to teams outside of MLS.

The first U22 Initiative player transferred in 2022 was 22-year-old Peruvian Marcos Lopez whom the San Jose Earthquakes sold to Feyenoord of the Dutch Eredivisie for what they described as a "club-record fee."  (Lopez signed with the Quakes before the U22 Initiative launched but was young enough and met the salary requirements to be categorized as a U22 player.)

The next player who could move is Ecuadoran Jose Cifuentes (top photo), who is having an MLS Best XI season for Supporters' Shield leader LAFC, the most aggressive MLS team in terms of signing young South Americans. Like that of Cifuentes, the arrival of fellow Ecuadoran Diego Palacios and Uruguayan Francisco Ginella (recently loaned out) at LAFC predated the U22 Initiative.

First-year success stories in 2022 include Uruguayan Cesar Araujo (photo below, an instant starter in midfield for Orlando City), South African Bongokuhle Hlongwane (who has been starting on the wing for Minnesota United) and Ecuadoran Leo Campana (who has scored eight goals for Inter Miami though only one since May.)

Eastern Conference:
Atlanta United. Santiago Sosa (23, Argentina, 2nd season), Franco Ibarra (21, Argentina, 2nd season)
Charlotte FC. Vinicius Mello (19, Brazil, 1st season), Kerwin Vargas (20, Colombia, 1st season)
Chicago. Jhon Duran (18, Colombia, 1st season), Federico Navarro (22, Colombia, 2nd season).
FC Cincinnati. Issac Atanga (loaned out to Turkey's Goztepe SK through May 2023), Alvaro Barreal (22, Argentina, 3rd season).
Columbus. Alexandru Matan (loaned out to Romania's Rapid Bucureti through end of 2022).
D.C. United. Chris Durkin (22, USA, 3rd season).
Inter Miami. Leo Campana (22, Ecuador, 1st season, on loan from Wolves), Emerson Rodriguez (21, Colombia, 1st season).
CF Montréal. Matko Miljevic (21, USA, 2nd season), Sunusi Ibrahim (19, Nigeria, 2nd season), Robert Thorkelsson (20, Iceland, 2nd season).
New England. Dylan Borrero (20, Colombia, 1st season).
NY Red Bulls. Lucas Monzon (mutually agreed to terminate loan from Danubio), Andres Reyes (22, Colombia, 3rd season), Dru Yearwood (22, England, 3rd season)
NYCFC. Nicolas Acevedo (23, Uruguay, 3rd season), Thiago Andrade (21, Brazil, 2nd season), Gabriel Pereira (21, Brazil, 1st season).
Orlando City. Cesar Araujo (21, Uruguay, 1st season), Andres Perea (21, USA/Colombia, 3rd season), Gaston Gonzalez (placed on season-ending injured list)
Philadelphia. No players.
Toronto FC. Ayo Akinola (22, USA/Canada, 5th season).

Western Conference:
Austin FC, Moussa Djitte (22, Senegal, 2nd season), Zan Kolmanic (22, Slovenia, 2nd season), Rodney Redes (22, Paraguay, 2nd season)
Colorado. Max Alves (21, Brazil, 1st MLS season), Lucas Esteves (22, Brazil, 2nd MLS season), Gustavo Vallecilla (22, Ecuador, 2nd MLS season)
FC Dallas. Szabolcs Schon (21, Hungary, 2nd season), Joshue Quinonez (21, Ecuador, 1st season)
Houston. Thiago Rodrigues (21, Brazil, 1st season, on loan from Flamengo).
LA Galaxy. Dejan Joveljic (23, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2nd season), Efrain Alvarez (21, USA/Mexico, 4th season, Julian Araujo (20, USA/Mexico, 4th season).
LAFC. Jose Cifuentes (23, Ecuador, 3rd season), Diego Palacios (23, Ecuador, 3rd season), Francisco Ginella (loaned out to Uruguay's Nacional through June 2023).
Minnesota United. Bongokuhle Hlongwane (22, South Africa, 1st season).
Nashville SC. no players.
Portland. David Ayala (20, Argentina, 1st season), Santiago Moreno (22, Colombia, 2nd season), Juan Mosquera (19, Colombia, 1st season).
Real Salt Lake. Braian Ojeda (22, Paraguay, 1st season, on loan from Nottingham Forest).
San Jose. Cade Cowell (18, USA, 3rd season), Marcos Lopez (sold to Feyenoord).
Seattle. Leo Chu (22, Brazil, 2nd season),
Sporting KC. Logan Ndenbe (22, Belgium, 1st season), Marinos Tzionis (21, Cyprus, 1st season), Robert Voloder (21, Germany, 1st season).
Vancouver. Caio Alexandre (23, Brazil, 2nd season), Deiber Caicedo (22, Colombia, 2nd season), Pedro Vite (20, Ecuador, 1st season).

Photos: LAFC, Orlando City.

3 comments about "MLS's U22 Initiative, how is it working out?".
  1. humble 1, August 17, 2022 at 10:04 a.m.

    So many South Americans.  Some teams doing better than others.  They are only scratching the surface.  Success rate is far too low.  Tricky market.  Who you
    know and what you know are critical.  Not a fools or
    possers market.  Keep it going!

  2. humble 1 replied, August 17, 2022 at 10:15 a.m.

    Adding one thought.  U22 is late to discover bargains in S.A.  There is a very clear history in
    Uruguay of players debuting at age 17/18 playing a game or two and moving to Europe immediately.  Darwin Nuñez played a couple of games for Peñarol the gone to Europe.  Good business for
    all Peñarol pocketed a check big enough to run their academy a couple of years on his Liverpool xfer. City Group just opened their City Torque Academy in 2021 and that club is their hub for Argentina and for now Brazil. In June I saw three 17 y.o.'s debute
    in Uruguay.  Two for Torque one for Defensor.  The two Torque players where Argentines.  Do your homework.  Keep expectations low for U22 initiative.  Do your homework.  

  3. Ric Fonseca, August 17, 2022 at 2:46 p.m.

    Well pilgrims of soccer, looks like little of nothing hasn't changed in this picture, i.e. the signing of young South American talent, and it seems as if those in MLS are from the old school of thought that you won't tinf any youthful talent, Latino or otherwise, within the geographical confines of the goold ole US of A!!!!  Just a thought and question: is it no wonder that most if not many youth players, Latinos or otherwise, look down and bad mouth their local teams when they're passed over or not even "looked at" by their MLS affiliate?  Oh, and hey, what the heck has happened to that Brad Rothenberg group known as "Sueno?"  What, MLS buy them out?  Anyhow, just sayin'... PLAY ON!!!

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