Limited MLS minutes mean American forwards will look to Europe
As news of Alphonso Davies’ eight-figure transfer to Bundesliga giant Bayern Munich made the rounds, Major League Soccer was rightly proud of the message the deal sent: An MLS academy can produce a player on whom foreign clubs are willing to spend big. The league’s USL affiliation can aid in a player’s development and MLS is willing to sell that player rather than hang on to him at all costs.
It was the latest sign that the league was willing to engage the world market to a greater degree but, beneath that headline, the reality of what is taking place in terms of MLS youth products and their pathway to the pros isn’t as rosy, especially as it relates to attacking players.
ESPN FC has confirmed a Goal.com report that New York City FC youth product Giovanni Reyna, son of the club’s sporting director Claudio, will move to Borussia Dortmund’s youth ranks when he turns 16. The younger Reyna’s decision is by no means a one-off: Five other MLS academy products have moved to German teams after turning 18 this summer alone, and a sixth — FC Dallas’ Chris Richards — was loaned out to Bayern Munich.
A U.S. Soccer spokesperson said that it is tracking 30 to 40 U.S.-eligible players with overseas clubs between the ages of 15 and 20, although it doesn’t break down in what country each started his development.
Reyna’s choice cuts especially deep given his father’s position with NYCFC. But one cannot fault the decision, given the opportunity being presented, as well as what is transpiring in MLS: Opportunities for North American attacking players are becoming more difficult to come by.
Inside the numbers
A look at the goal and assist charts heading into last weekend’s slate of games shows a decline in contribution. In 2018, there are eight U.S. or Canadian players among the top 50 goal scorers. In the completed 2016 season there was more than double that number. In terms of assists, just five North Americans make the top 50, less than half the number from the 2017 campaign.
Of the 28 players named to the all-star roster to play Juventus earlier this month, eight were North American, but only one could be loosely classified as playing an attacking position. That was Davies and he spent part of the game at outside-back. The rest were goalkeepers, defenders or holding midfielders.
“I know the All-Star Game is a show and MLS has done well putting those games together, but in reality it does create a question of what is going on with our kids in this country, the ones that are staying in MLS, signing homegrown contracts and all of that,” former U.S. international Hugo Perez told ESPN FC by telephone. “Is it because they are not good enough? Or is it because they are not getting adequate time? Something has to change because it is going to affect our national team progress.”
In many ways it already has. When U.S. caretaker manager Dave Sarachan called up Josh Sargent for a set of friendlies just over two months ago, he was questioned for selecting a player yet to play a professional game for his club side, Werder Bremen. But Sarachan defended his decision by noting how thin the U.S. depth chart is at forward. Put in that context, it was hard to argue with his logic.
As for what is taking place in MLS, the de facto increase in salary cap through additional targeted allocation money has made acquiring attacking talent from abroad easier than ever, at least on a relative basis. The ease with which green cards are obtained means they count as domestic players in a relatively short amount of time. MLS is by no means the only league in the world that imports the bulk of its attacking players, but that can create a ceiling for domestic talent.
MLS continues to tout the positives of its homegrown signings and that number continues to increase: 116 at last count compared to 102 a year ago. However, that seems more a function of swapping one pipeline (the MLS SuperDraft) for another (homegrown players).
More compelling is that the percentage of minutes for homegrown players under the age of 23 has gone up to 10.6 percent from 5.6 percent in 2017. Moreover, goals and assists are also on the rise: Goals are at 7.74 percent and assists at 9.92 percent, compared to 6.42 percent and 4.82 percent respectively in 2016.
But MLS doesn’t break down those numbers by position. ESPN FC examined the playing time for 2018 and found that heading into last weekend’s slate of games, 19 homegrown players had played more than 1,000 minutes this season. Only two were forwards, the Columbus Crew’s Gyasi Zardes (aged 26) and Real Salt Lake’s Corey Baird (22). Another five were midfielders with significant attacking responsibilities.
“People continue to focus on numbers. How many guys do you have playing?” MLS vice president for player relations and competition Todd Durbin told ESPN FC. “My response is: It’s not about numbers, it’s about quality. The only way that you’re going to get quality is by putting players in an environment where they have to reach a certain level of quality in order to play.
“I don’t accept this, but while there may be a short-term decline in terms of you don’t see that many [attackers] playing on the field, one of two things is going to happen. Either A, the players and the development system is going to adjust and adapt to that, which is what I believe, which means in three to four years you will have higher quality of players. Or B, you’re in a place where you don’t elevate the quality of the league and the players are playing but they’re not any better than they were five or six years ago. I don’t see how that helps the national team.”
The lure of Europe
Yet it does feel like more of a middle ground can be achieved in terms of numbers versus quality, especially since those breaking through tend to be on the defensive side of the ball. That way, a season-ending injury like the one sustained by Seattle Sounders forward Jordan Morris doesn’t cut as deep.
And while the evidence might be anecdotal, there do appear to be more American attackers breaking through overseas even beyond Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic. Tim Weah is making progress at Paris Saint-Germain, Jonathan Amon is getting minutes with Danish side Nordsjaelland, while Emmanuel Sabbi has scored four goals in six games with another Danish side, Hobro IK.
All things being equal, a player is going to pick the route that is best for his development, including getting playing time. For Real Salt Lake GM Craig Waibel, who just saw one of his academy products, forward Sebastian Soto, sign with German side Hannover 96, there is an emotional component as well that often overshadows practical aspects.
“When you turn on a TV on a Saturday morning, you’re watching the best soccer in the world, in England and Germany and Spain,” he said. “The end goal for a lot of these kids is to go experience that environment. Any time a player opts to go somewhere else, we’re disappointed, but you can’t be disappointed in the person. They’re humans. They have emotions, they have desires, they have dreams.”
And when it comes to the motivations of MLS teams and their overseas counterparts, the difference is stark.
“Everyone [in MLS] is trying to chase a championship, and if you look at almost every team we have, they go buy the best attacking players, whether it’s world-class players like a David Villa or if you’re Atlanta and you’re chasing a [Miguel] Almiron and a [Josef] Martinez,” said John Hackworth, who recently left his post as manager of the U.S. U-17 national team to take up the reins at USL side Louisville City FC. “MLS clubs are not invested in young attacking players and that’s because their value in our market doesn’t make sense. The other part is that overseas clubs see our young attacking players as a great place to go shop and the only way they make their return on them is if they play them.”
Granted, MLS teams are under no obligation to think of the broader national-team consequences, and in some quarters what is taking place now is viewed as a necessary step toward producing better players, attackers included.
“This is all part of growing up,” said Seattle Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey. “The salary cap has doubled in 18 months. We’re bringing in a new class of player. That creates new challenges as to how to coach that player because their technical and tactical instruction has been at a much higher level throughout their development. That puts pressure on us to develop better academy players and then figure out how to integrate all these guys.”
Progress hindered by infrastructure
Yet the academy / USL pipeline in terms of attacking players has struggled to keep pace with the increase in competition, even in the wake of the Davies deal. While the tap at some teams like FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake and the New York Red Bulls has been open, that hasn’t been the case in other organizations. The system overall has some maturing to do.
Lagerwey touts the fact that the Sounders have a clear pathway from U-15 all the way through the USL and then to the first team: “I can look any parent in the eye and every kid in the eye and say: ‘You’re going to get an opportunity at our club.'”
However, Lagerwey concedes that the state of the Sounders’ pipeline is such that the attacking talent coming through is three years away from having a real impact and there are other obstacles, including the limitations of the USL season. Teams that don’t make the playoffs are done by mid-October and will not play again until March. MLS isn’t much better. So while the structure mirrors what is offered overseas, the volume does not.
“I don’t think that equals the type of development you want for a young player,” U.S. U-20 manager Tab Ramos said about the USL season. “If I could be the commissioner for one day, it would be young players get four weeks off the whole year, max. The rest of the time you need to be playing games. We’re so far from that. We’re really far from that.”
Hackworth noted that following last year’s U-17 World Cup, England’s Phil Foden went back to Manchester City and got some time with the first team, including minutes in a Champions League match. Weah went back to training with PSG and getting games with its reserve team. With Atlanta United’s USL team not up and running at the time, Andrew Carleton went to the Development Academy Winter Showcase.
“That’s a ridiculous option in terms of pathway,” said Hackworth about Carleton’s options. “Is it getting better? Absolutely. I think Atlanta has done a great job, and put Atlanta United 2 in place just for that reason. It’s just a different pathway than what a normal 17- or 18-year-old with options has if they live in Europe or South America. We have to understand the challenges and accept responsibility for how we make up for those things.”
And so for the moment, the vicious cycle continues. For most MLS teams, American attackers are deemed not good enough compared with what can be had on the open market. As a result, those who are signed seldom see the field in MLS. Academy prospects with overseas options see this and begin to look abroad. The fact that there is no cost to the foreign club involved to acquire many of these players — due to the fact that training compensation and solidarity fees aren’t enforced in the U.S. — eases the pathway further.
Of course, not every player has overseas options. For now, most will have to make do in the system that exists. For those who go the college route — and yes, that is still an option for some — that means piecing together playing opportunities through their college team, their youth club and a team in the Premier Development League during the summer.
There are issues throughout the development pipeline and there have been for a long time; Waibel correctly points out that the U.S. as a country has struggled to produce attacking players on a consistent basis.
“Are we developing good attacking players in America by and large? No. I’m pretty sure there are arguments that we never have other than the occasional one-off,” he said. “It’s just not something we’ve figured out. Maybe it’s the way the game is played here in America. Maybe it’s that the academies have only been around for a decade or so. Maybe that’s just not enough time.
“But American athletes by and large are lateral athletes. You break it down and we can move laterally on a basketball court. Does that make a good striker? I think there’s a good argument to say, ‘Not yet.’ Clint Dempsey wasn’t a great athlete, but he was a great striker. I think there is a big development piece missing.”
What are the solutions?
Could MLS copy what Liga MX has done and mandate a minimum number of minutes be allocated to younger players? The rule, which is new for the 2018 Apertura, requires each Liga MX team to give a total of 765 minutes to players born in or after 1997. A similar rule was in place from 2005-11 and is credited with aiding the development of players like Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Andres Guardado.
Dennis te Kloese, director of national teams for the Mexico Football Federation, is taking a wait-and-see approach in terms of this iteration of the rule. He felt the first attempt was “positive,” and is cautiously optimistic this time around given that the playing calendar is fuller with the advent of Copa MX and the CONCACAF Champions League.
“I do think the rule makes teams think a little bit more about the players they sign and the position they play,” he told ESPN FC via telephone.
But Te Kloese did add that the rule has limitations that will sound familiar to followers of MLS. He doesn’t consider a 20- or 21-year-old to be that young and noted that some clubs are meeting the requirement by simply playing players at defensive positions like outside-back. There is also the risk of forcing players onto the field before they are ready. And while some teams like Chivas and Pachuca have long emphasized development, others don’t.
“If a club does it just to comply with the minutes, and not out of a real idea to develop players, it’s debatable [how well it will work],” he said. “Some teams have already complied with the rule. Now it will be interesting to see if the same players will play this weekend. And are they really going to play them in the playoffs? That’s going to be an interesting question.”
Durbin said that MLS looked at instituting a mandate, but instead is in the process of providing greater financial incentives to those teams that develop homegrown players.
“As we have increased investment in the first team, we recognize that we also need to ensure that we continue to provide opportunities for young domestic talent,” he said. “So we are looking at a framework that would reward teams for playing young players.”
A few MLS youngsters are beginning to get first-team minutes. Sixteen-year-old Gianluca Busio recently made his debut for Sporting Kansas City. Carleton, 18, has made five first-team appearances this season for the Five Stripes, including one start.
Sticking in the starting lineup might inspire others to stay in MLS, but the allure of playing abroad is as enticing as ever.
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