MLS needs Academy Starlets not Euro RetireesMLS still wants older foreign stars, but growing their own stars through academies might be the better play
by Abram Chamberlain | Monday, May 14, 2012
Last week when it came out that Raul was not coming to MLS, there was a whimper not a bang. For more than a year, it has become apparent that the destination league for retiring European stars is not MLS. Perhaps it is the physical nature of MLS that is making stars realize that this might not be their ideal retreat. Anelka didn’t come either, so Raul was not the first former European star to decide that playing in Qatar or China was a better choice for them than MLS.
As much as we want to pretend that everyone wants to play in America for the sake of playing in America, that is not the case. Most stars want to play in Los Angeles or New York and while there are currently three teams in these two locations, four if Don Garber has his way, you are not about to see Didier Drogba suiting up for Chivas USA. Meanwhile, as leagues in Qatar, China and the United Arab Emirates are paying astronomically more than MLS is either willing or able to fork over, these stars will not spend the twilight of their careers in America.
So what is MLS to do? Ideally, the money spent on designated players was to serve two purposes. Firstly, it was supposed to get people in the stands. David Beckham and Cuauhtémoc Blanco were the forbearers of this. Big names, big followings, big ticket items used to fill in empty stadiums not just for home-games but throughout the league. Secondly, these players were supposed to increase the level of play on the field. This has been hit or miss. Sometimes it works other times not so much. There are many problems with the way this rule works. But foremost it puts an impetus on famous players passed their prime.
Yes, the alternation of the “young DP” rule is partially trying to fix that. And yes certain clubs, most notably Columbus, Seattle and Los Angeles, have used it to keep and reward strong play with gigantic raises for players not brought in as DPs (Schelotto, Montero and Donovan). Yet there must be another way to put butts in seats and improve the quality of play in the league.
Feasibly the best way to get stars in MLS is for MLS clubs to create their own stars instead of waiting for aged ones to wash ashore. In recent years, we have seen some of MLS’s academy products breakout to become players on the national team. Juan Agudelo and Bill Hamid are both regular call ups to Jurgen Klinsmann’s national team. But they are not alone. Andy Najar won rookie of the year in 2010 and is becoming a regular on the Honduran National Team. Diego Fagundez is another star in the waiting for New England. So far, 52 MLS academy players have signed on with their MLS senior team. But that is just the start.
As of yet, none of these players has truly transcended into out-and-out superstars. There are some very good ones who look like they could, but the truth is not every player is going to be an Agudelo, a Najar, a Fagundez, or even a Jack McBean or a Zack Pfeffer. Some will ultimately be cut from the team because they could not adjust from youth soccer to the drastically higher level of MLS. Some will go back to school and finish college, others will wash out and end up taking a professional route that doesn’t involve soccer. And some will be like Zack Herivaux and allegedly be influenced to try their luck in Europe before accepting any deal from their MLS academy's senior side.
But within these groups there could be a star, a player who excites the masses and is able to burgeon on the border of the mainstream. In this cluster, there could be the first truly great American discovery. And perhaps found in this collection there will be the first great American draw to MLS, outside of non-academy developed Donovan and the younger Adu. The investment in youth is primary for MLS’s next evolution. The difference between MLS 2.0 and 3.0 could one day be the amount of players teams create from their own academy.
As much as we want to think that within ten years no player worth his salt will go to college, various reasons will probably prevent that from ever being true. But as Chicago Fire grow their academy to cover u-10 and u-18; as FC Dallas develops a true youth residency program; and as most MLS teams initiate free developmental programs, more players will join these academies. And with that will come better coaching and more incentive and notoriety. Technically and tactically talented players could hypothetically be brought up in the same system for years. And while it will be a long, long, long time before any MLS academy is at the level of Ajax or La Masia, it is a start.
And who knows? Maybe in a year, if he’s still in MLS, Juan Agudelo will be one of the biggest draws. Perhaps it will be McBean or Pfeffer. Just maybe it will be someone else who we haven’t even heard of. The goal for MLS should be to stop looking outside at Raul and Anelka and start fertilizing its own stars from within the club academy systems.
Don’t buy decrepit stars, create your own young up-and-coming stars. Locally homegrown stars that can draw in fans, but – more importantly - stars that can eventually fetch a handsome price on the international transfer market. After all, the day that European clubs are vaunting after Andy Najar and Diego Fagundez like they are after Neymar and Ganso is a net-win for MLS.
Imagine a world where MLS stars are bred in academies knowing that someday they will be sold to clubs in England, Spain, Italy or France? That would further the prestige and scope of MLS academies. It would also help to further legitimize the league abroad and domestically for non-MLS soccer fans. It might even grab the attention of casuals.
But ultimately, signing small named foreign players from South and Central America, Africa and Scandinavia will always be part of the game, as well as signing big named stars from Europe. But MLS needs to look at growing its own stars brought up in their own systems from their own brand. And when teams start having rosters loaded with 5, 6, or 7 players that they developed in their own academies we will see the improvement in the play on the pitch, the perception off of it and most importantly in the players the league is producing.