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How They Rank: The best MLS academies

Article Written by Will Parchman
Published: January 20, 2017

It’s been nearly 10 calendar years since the Development Academy kicked its first collective ball back in late summer 2007. At least in terms of the professional academy system, the moment represented a tangible reboot of the youth system in the U.S. at the highest level. On a darker timeline, it was a tacit admission that the previous system was too fragmented, too unreliable and too unpredictable to undergird anything approaching a globally elite system of youth production.

And so the league changed. U.S. Soccer changed. Now, a decade later, are things any better? Is such a sentiment even possible to reduce into anything approaching a gradable score?

In a broad sense, no. The system is far too broad, complex and frankly underdeveloped to truly start handing out grades. But we can certainly analyze the job done by individual academies.

This list more or less serves as a heat check, a plunging thermometer into each MLS team’s academy system to gauge the vitality of its lifeblood. It should be taken as an objective measure of each academy’s collective coaching acumen, the technical level of its players and its connection to the first team. Those three facets - player ability, coaching ability and matriculation ability - are the guide posts for any successful academy. And as of the turn of 2017, some are doing a notably better job than others. Of course we’re also missing Minnesota United, which has yet to fire up its academy. Unfortunately.

As background, those three were my lodestones for evaluation. Each academy was put through a grading process that primarily accounts for those three criteria, mashes them together and spits out an aggregate score. It’s about as scientific as an unscientific field gets (which is to say, not particularly scientific at all).

A final note. The criteria on my top player product is merely that the player moved to bigger things and is no longer an active part of the academy. As for my current top player, you’ll note a few of them have already signed contracts with the first team. So long as they’re still primarily playing in the academy (as in the case of FCD’s Jesus Ferreira, for instance), I made allowances for that.

The Importance of Being Idle

21. NYCFC
Top product: N/A
Top current player: M Giovanni Reyna

It’s unconscionable NYCFC’s brass (aka MCFG) didn’t do more prep work with its academy before the franchise joined MLS in 2015. The academy basically started the same time the senior team did, with zero roots in the ground in one of the most fertile landscapes in the country. NYCFC has done fine since then, gradually adding U12 and U14 teams before putting U16 and U18 teams in the ground later. And its younger teams play some generally pleasing soccer. Giovanni Reyna, son of Claudio, is one of the better prospects anywhere in the country, and defender James Sands is getting U17 MNT looks. But in a saturated market filled to the brim with DA clubs, NYCFC more or less took Atlanta United’s approach and did the exact opposite. As a result, that might’ve cost them a span of years before their academy cranks up to a volume approaching the Red Bulls’ well-greased pipeline across town.

20. Houston Dynamo
Top product: M Christian Lucatero
Top current player: F Marcelo Palomino

For whatever reason, Houston has largely failed to plumb the depths of the prodigious Houston youth scene. Houston, the fourth-largest metropolis in the nation, supports an enormous base of players with a wide array of talents without another pro option within five hours. By and large, the Dynamo have either failed to incorporate them into their academy setup in the first place, allowed them to languish in the Rio Grande Valley or simply shifted their purchasing ethos away from them entirely. The Owen Coyle era was not good for Houston in a variety of ways, and Houston did almost nothing with its academy kids in the Dom Kinnear era. There have already been a few encouraging blips on the radar under Wilmer Cabrera. One hopes he takes an approach far more closely aligned to his former mentor Oscar Pareja, because Houston needs an academy refresh.

Mucky Fingers

19. Colorado Rapids
Top product: D Shane O’Neill
Top current player: M Jayson Baca

Quality academies tend to grow by the potted soil put into place by the senior team. One reason the best academies thrive is because there’s ample, barbed competition on the rope ladder up to the senior team. If the ladder is frayed and crumbling from disuse, the academy languishes. That’s what happened to the Rapids, who’ve made little secret their lack of patience with the few Homegrowns they’ve signed. As for the academy itself, the technical skill leaves something to be desired. There’s a surplus of defenders, defensive midfielders and keepers, which isn’t a bad thing necessarily. Some will make good pros. But it’s a sign the player pool isn’t filling needs for the senior team, which is a crippling problem along the supply chain. Until the academy diversifies, it’ll continue to lack representation on the first team. And so the cycle continues. Perhaps the signings of Kortne Ford and Ricardo Perez augur a move in a positive direction.

18. Portland Timbers
Top product: D Marco Farfan
Top current player: F Lucas Cini

The Timbers made some encouraging academy strides over the past few years, one of which was hiring former Fire academy head Larry Sunderland to spearhead the system. They’d have been even lower on this list two years ago. That’s meant searches for talent further afield, which led to the capture of South Florida star recruit Lucas Cini, who joined for the 2016-17 season. That said, the academy is still working from behind, and its past in producing senior team players is nothing to laud. Its current academy stock, meanwhile, has a few bright spots (Adrian Villegas for one) but is, on the whole, lacking much depth or technical gravitas. It is improving, and it would be no surprise to see the Timbers rise on this list in the coming years. It would be a continuation of the trend, anyway. But it is digging itself out of an academy ditch far deeper than the club’s overall health would lead you to believe.

Little by Little

17. New England Revolution
Top product: F Diego Fagundez
Top current player: F Justin Rennicks

At least on paper, New England’s academy past looks at lot cheerier than its present. The Revs have always been a slow-and-steady developer of talent, meticulously pulling a player per year (or every other year) out of the academy after being sure they were ready. It isn’t the most efficient approach in the league, but then again, the Revs’ academy is hardly brimming with pro talent anyway. As good as guys like Diego Fagundez and Scott Caldwell are, there are no similar identifiable Homegrown talents in the academy right now, and it’s been like that for a few years. In fact, the Revs haven’t signed a Homegrown since Zach Herivaux in 2015, and his pro prospects are murky as New England clam chowder. There are a handful of interesting alums currently in college (I think Dartmouth’s Amadu Kunateh is a sleeper), but where’s the beef?

16. San Jose Earthquakes
Top product: M Tommy Thompson
Top current player: F Arda Bulut

Two or three years ago, San Jose might’ve been considered an MLS academy bottom-feeder. Now? It seems the club might’ve already reached its youth nadir on the way back up to mid-tier respectability. To say nothing of Tommy Thompson’s experience in the Bay Area, the club finally signed a second Homegrown in Nick Lima this offseason, and the pipeline has a few encouraging pieces working their way through. That includes guys like Amir Bashti at Stanford, JT Marcinkowski at Georgetown and, until recently, Jean-Julien Foe Nuphaus, who just left for Hoffenheim in Germany. That at least showed the club is looking for talent in the right places and doing a respectable job developing it. San Jose still has major pipeline issues, and until they prove the senior team cares about its youth (and San Jose ups its HG signing practices) they’ll stay firmly in the bottom half.

Born on a Different Cloud

15. Montreal Impact
Top product: M Wandrille Lefevre
Top current player: F Jean Arnaud Tano

Montreal is perhaps the most difficult MLS academy to fully get your arms around. The front office made a notable investment in youth, and few teams have more competent youth coaching staffs and a broader mandate to sign Homegrowns. But the fact remains that while the Impact continue to make pains to sign young players, not a single one has really broken through. Which is doubly confusing considering the talent. The Impact shocked the academy world in 2015 by going to the DA finals just three years after the academy started. It was a stunning accomplishment and showed the sort of talent on hand in Montreal, which is an unsurprisingly well-stocked academy pool of players. The trouble hasn’t been in finding them or developing them before 18, it’s been in the translation to the senior team. That, of course, is an issue. But it doesn’t discount the fact that the academy itself is in relatively good shape, even if it isn’t producing monumental talents every year.

Fade In-Out

14. Columbus Crew
Top product: M Wil Trapp
Top current player: F Daniel Wright

The Crew academy is actually two arms on one body. Since 2011, the Crew have had a partnership with Detroit-area youth club Michigan Wolves, which essentially opens up otherwise underserved Michigan to the Crew’s Homegrown pipeline. It was a positive development, and remains so, but the reality is that the Crew academy has slipped somewhat from its Wil Trapp heyday. At least on first blush there doesn’t appear to be anything approaching a no-doubt Homegrown on the lot. That doesn’t mean one can’t develop, but the Crew academy pipeline seems to have slowed significantly (especially considering how difficult the once-lauded Ben Swanson’s found playing time, even on loan). There are of course plenty of Division I, Power Five players here. But even the most promising currently in the system look more like four-year guys than Homegrowns capable of pulling a Trapp.

It’s Getting Better, Man

13. D.C. United
Top product: M Andy Najar
Top current player: D Chandler Vaughn

The fact that D.C. United still advertises that it charges for its Development Academy side will continue to be a burning demerit on its account until it turns into a fully free-to-play endeavor. But when you look at the actual business of development, D.C. United is faring relatively well these days, and it’s improving to boot. Alumni like Maryland’s Eryk Williamson are among the most prized prospects on the USYNT level, and there are enough individual talents on offer here to believe D.C. United is getting a handle on its situation. That said, Andy Najar and Bill Hamid were signed more than a half decade ago, and D.C. United hasn’t done much of anything to integrate its own into the fold since (prayers for Chris Durkin and Ian Harkes). It’s only this high on the lifeblood of its current talent pool, which is probably as high as it’s been since Najar and Hamid initially took the league by storm.

12. Chicago Fire
Top product: M Harry Shipp
Top current player: M Djordje Mihailovic

It’s been perhaps too easy to dismiss the Fire academy outright over the past few years. Chicago’s ineptitude on the senior level poured dirt over what’s been a surprisingly robust academy in the meantime. The addition of former PSG academy administrator Cedric Cattenoy to lead the academy should be a boon, and the team’s 2015 U18 DA title was no fluke. With outstanding college talent like North Carolina’s Cam Lindley and Mauricio Pineda, the Fire should be set for a few years at least. That said, Chicago’s biggest issue down the years has been what it’s done with that academy talent and youth coaching. That is to say, not much. We’ll never know if Victor Pineda could’ve been an MLS player as he languished on the bench without a chance for years, and one hopes the same doesn’t happen to Collin Fernandez. Still, the Fire academy is solidly placed in the league’s midsection. Nothing to be ashamed of here.

11. Sporting Kansas City
Top product: D Erik Palmer-Brown
Top current player: D Jaylin Lindsey

If you were to ask me to identify the fastest rising MLS academy in the league, I’d level my finger at Sporting KC. In a heartbeat. A few years ago SKC’s academy was an also-ran trying without much success to throw a lasso around a large land area with large pockets empty of talent. With the benefit of a few years and a talented group of coaches, SKC’s academy probably made up more ground on the rest of the league than anyone. They maneuvered for the HG rights to U17 MNT striker Josh Sargent, who might be the biggest attacking talent in the pool. They moved along Hungarian international striker Daniel Salloi, who’s now on a pro deal. They currently house U17 MNT defender Jaylin Lindsey, one of the most enticing American defensive prospects anywhere. The list goes on. In a few instances SKC might be playing the game in terms of getting players eligible, but judging on their holistic academy SKC should continue to move up this list.

Shakermaker

10. Atlanta United
Top product: M Andrew Carleton
Top current player: F Lagos Kunga

Atlanta United is so new, and its academy apparatus so relatively green, that it’s tough to rank them much higher, no matter how many academy players they’ve signed before the first team fires up this year. That said, folding the Georgia United academy into its ranks was the biggest coup in DA history, and their in-progress training center will dwarf anything their competitors can currently muster. The true value, though, was keeping GU coach Tony Annan and moving their U16 and U18 teams over as seamlessly as possible. Now, Atlanta United is atop its division at both age groups and has one of the most promising pipelines to the first team already. This offseason, Atlanta United GM Carlos Bocanegra noted a handful of academy players will train with the first team this preseason. As a note, in six months Atlanta United’s already signed as many Homegrowns as San Jose has in a decade (and both are USYNT mainstays).

9. Orlando City
Top product: F Pierre da Silva
Top current player: F Joe Gallardo

It didn’t take long for Orlando to make Florida a hotbed of development activity. And it made sense, because as the only MLS club in an enormous state (not to mention the proximity to U17 residency) Orlando City owned a major development niche off the bat. And they’ve used it. Orlando City’s academy is loaded with talent, and the captures of U.S. U19 teammates Pierre da Silva and Joe Gallardo, the latter of whom played in the 2015 U17 World Cup, were the stories of 2016. Homegrown talents like Mason Stajduhar prove the club is actively scouring its academy for talent, and recently added academy head David Longwell (formerly of St. Mirren) has said all the right things. We’ll have to wait for an Orlando City academy kid to crack the first team before moving the club further, but Orlando City gets high marks.

8. Philadelphia Union
Top product: D Auston Trusty
Top current player: D Rayshaun McGann

Philadelphia’s YSC Academy opened in 2013, but it didn’t seem to make much of a dent until technical director Earnie Stewart arrived in late 2015. YSC is a distinctly European model (sans the monetary cost absent a scholarship) combining school and academy soccer into one, and Philly’s players raved about its convenience and promoted its benefits ceaselessly. The signings, under Stewart, of players like Auston Trusty, Matthew Real and Derrick Jones into the Union system (some for Bethlehem Steel in the USL) proves the system is beginning to churn out tangible value. And, more to the point, that there is tangible value deep into the club’s academy. There should be more where that came from. Philly’s system is one of the most sustainable in MLS, and it should pay out Homegrowns year over year so long as the front office continues to value a pipeline it’s done well to cultivate.

Force of Nature

7. Seattle Sounders
Top product: D DeAndre Yedlin
Top current player: M Shandon Hopeau

The Sounders are in a unique position in Seattle. The area is soccer mad - undeniably so - and the Sounders have done well to mine its depths for area players like Jordan Morris and DeAndre Yedlin. Most MLS clubs would donate an arm for even one player as good over the breadth of their histories. But the Sounders are also on the vanguard of attracting players from outside their immediate footprint, and they are perhaps better at this currently than any other MLS academy. It’s how they added Nick Hinds, a highly regarded prospect who just finished his freshman year at Akron. And devastatingly effective winger Shandon Hopeau was recently incorporated from Hawaii, which is Sounders Homegrown territory. The Sounders’ academy is just outside the elite inner ring of academies, but not by far.

6. Toronto FC
Top product: D Doneil Henry
Top current player: M Ayo Akinola

One might expect Toronto FC GM Tim Bezbatchenko to spend much of his time touting the senior team signings the club made to reverse history and push TFC to the brink of the 2016 MLS Cup title. But in a chat with me last year, he spent more time lavishing the academy structure. The club’s academy players train in the same palatial facilities as the first team, and its youth coaching staff is perhaps the most underrated group in the league. TFC has always been at the forefront of youth integration; it was pushing along Doneil Henry and Ashtone Morgan before most teams even marginally trusted Homegrowns. The fact that TFC’s academies don’t compete in the DA shields them from view and creates some cognitive dissonance, but make no mistake, TFC stacks up with anyone when it comes to overall academy talent and next level integration. If they can shield Ayo Akinola from Europe, watch out.

5. Vancouver Whitecaps
Top product: M Russell Teibert
Top current player: D Joel Harrison

Visit just about any European academy, and host families near the stadium for the most highly regarded prospects are a constant. That allows top tier players the ability to sink into the academy without prohibitively long commutes (one European academy head once told me it becomes negative value when the time in the car is longer than time on the field). Vancouver was a trailblazer in this regard in MLS, and it remains the best and most effective host family system in MLS. To boot, the Whitecaps operate in partnership with a staggering 15 regional training centers, from Vancouver all the way to the sparsely populated Prince Edward Island 3,700 miles away. The result is a commitment to youth that constantly puts the Whitecaps in DA final fours, pushes out skilled players like Marco Bustos and values the pipeline to the first team. It’s hard to overstate the smart development that went into the Whitecaps’ development framework.

Morning Glory

4. Real Salt Lake
Top product: F Brooks Lennon
Top current player: M Taylor Booth

Since establishing its partnership with Grande Sports Academy in Arizona several years ago, RSL blossomed from a small regional club to a legitimate power with tendrils reaching into every corner of the country. RSL’s out-of-state residency academy is unique in MLS, and it provides an intense development atmosphere most every academy in the country fails to equal. That system churned out quality like Sebastian Saucedo, Carlos Salcedo, Brooks Lennon, Justen Glad and Jordan Allen, among others. As good as that system was, its progress always felt capped operating so far from club HQ in Utah, and that’s soon to change with $50 million training complex just miles from Rio Tinto Stadium. RSL’s current academy structure is already hard to touch (watch an RSL academy team play and you’ll know joy). It might just be about to jump into a new stratosphere.

3. New York Red Bulls
Top product: D Matt Miazga
Top current player: D Chris Gloster

The Red Bulls’ academy itself is unquestionably an MLS development blue blood. Even a cursory glance down the list of signings over the last year alone should make that plain. It’s the premier developer in the Northeast and has been for years, a reality that hasn’t changed. The fact it basically walked to a 2016 USL championship with a ton of Homegrowns certainly helps the argument. Take a look at the academy standings year over year and that should be more obvious. The only question marks are why it takes the organization so long to sign some players who should, by all rights, be handed Homegrown deals far earlier (like, for instance, whatever’s happening with Adam Najem). But in general it’s hard to mark the Red Bulls off for not signing HGs in comparison to the league average, and Red Bulls players (like prized U18 fullback Chris Gloster) still grace USYNT camp rosters regularly. NYCFC has work to do.

2. LA Galaxy
Top product: F Gyasi Zardes
Top current player: M Efrain Alvarez

In a lot of ways the Galaxy are trailblazers in the youth development game. They were the first to use their USL pipeline, the first to sign a Homegrown player and generally among the first to recognize the value of a robust development apparatus. Life in the Galaxy academy is still good. They house perhaps the most exciting player in the entire DA in Efrain Alvarez, and they were the first to integrate a high school program into the academy structure to streamline scheduling. But there’s an argument that FCD stole some of the Galaxy’s thunder the last few years, and they’re no longer the lead dog in terms of top-to-bottom academy talent. That said, the Galaxy’s coaching staff is second to none, the teams generally engender a fluid pass-and-move style and it continues to move Homegrowns through a USL pipeline that just produced its new senior team head coach. In many ways, this is the model.

Supersonic

1. FC Dallas
Top product: M Kellyn Acosta
Top current player: F Jesus Ferreira

Perhaps the true measure of FCD’s current unquestioned stay atop the American academy heap was the reaction after they pulled off the unthinkable in 2016. After sweeping the U16 and U18 national titles - something no team had ever done - nobody was all that surprised, so good were both teams. FCD went into academy overdrive this offseason, reeling in an unprecedented 18th Homegrown signing. Not all panned out (the nature of the beast), but arguably nobody on the continent has a more holistic approach to its own development pipeline. FCD doesn’t just pay lip service to their talent pool. They play them early, often and at every level. The question isn’t so much whether anyone is currently challenging FCD. In truth the club is in a class of its own at the moment, even though it could desperately use a USL team to house all these Homegrowns in the interim. The broader question is who can match the pace. Because right now FCD is setting it.

 
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