Within the wider pantheon of global leagues, it is not particularly difficult to light upon a purpose that would drive MLS into its next glowing iteration. If the league is still wed to the idea of bringing in aged, beyond-their-prime stars to weigh down owner finances, then it must be a developer league.
In a recent sit-down, MLS commissioner Don Garber basically conceded as much.
“It would be very easy for many of our owners to have teams that look like Chelsea in Major League Soccer,” he said. “It doesn’t make economic sense for us because the revenues would not be able to cover the increased costs of being able to have a $100 million roster.”
This is not newsworthy, that MLS owners could, theoretically, fling open their doors to huge payrolls. We’ve known this in some measure for years. The league does not have a net to catch the overhanging burden of these salaries, and for a cadre of owners who bought into MLS more for the future investment rather than to play at a toy version of Roman Abramovich, the idea of throwing away that kind of money is not yet a cogent reality.
So that is our baseline. MLS is not ready, in any real kind of way, to be a true buyer league. And where does that leave us? Ah yes, that eternal conundrum of American development. Producing our own and providing a well-groomed patch of turf in which to watch them grow.
That is MLS’s subterranean purpose at the moment. Its broader aim, as the continual spasms of expansion will tell you, is to grow the league to a point of nationwide relevance. But before it can burst out of its cocoon with broad circulatory story lines (like the fervor around the Warriors’ chase for 73), macro-economy personalities (you hated Rafa Marquez, but on balance he was good for the league), and wider attention from the after-action recap shows, we are in a sidecar. Someone else is determining the direction.
In the meantime, MLS can be a legitimate end game for American players. With recycled retreads like Sebastian Le Toux, Marcelo Sarvas, Hassoun Camara, Luke Mulholland, Baggio Husidic and Sam Cronin not only kicking around the league but leeching mouthfuls of starting minutes, there is no wider point to make about talented XI guys elbowing young Americans out of the picture.
And yet. Here we are.
Garber told a meeting of the Associated Press Sports Editors that MLS gives “players an opportunity to play day in and day out and lead a team and get lots and lots of reps, as opposed to going overseas to test their courage and test their mettle and maybe not playing.”
This is carefully spun PR birthed from popular theory passed down over the years. It is no more true today than it was in 2005. The sooner it becomes a monolith standing lonely and desolate in the past, the better we are.
MLS is actually a fine enough place for young defenders and holding midfielders to develop. So it goes as an American, I suppose. But the USMNT player pool is not hurting for them, even as Jurgen Klinsmann continually lobs minutes at Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones. Wil Trapp and Marky Delgado and Kellyn Acosta were never the issue. In reality, they were never really the ones Garber should’ve referenced.
In truth, the average age of all starters in MLS last weekend was just south of 28. Few of those were young American attacking players, a desperate and broken segment of the American developmental landscape when it comes to professionals in MLS.
If we classify “young” in this case as 23 and under – the final stop on the YNT ladder as an Olympic player, may the 2016 team rest in peace – there were a total of 16 American players who filled that description in MLS last weekend. They played a combined 1,075 minutes, and 11 of them started. Almost none of them were attacking players.
As a point of comparison, 33 Germans in this same age range across every single position started in the Bundesliga last weekend in one fewer match. Started. Sunday’s match between Köln and Mainz actually featured a duel between 22-year-old German keepers. In a league with objectively higher stakes than MLS in areas like spending requirements, fan support/demand, and the wild swings between the money packaged with European competition versus the loss of revenue levied by relegation, this is a significant dedication to raising young Germans through pro minutes. There is also objectively more talent in the Bundesliga from top to bottom, creating a bottleneck for young Germans the league’s coaches have systematically decided to plow through.
And if you think this wasn’t a pointed decision made en masse by German soccer, look at England today.
Part of this, of course, is that most young German players are simply better than most young American players. But scale that talent to their respective leagues, and you’ll see that the 17-year-old Felix Passlack beating out Marcel Schmeltzer for a starting spot at Dortmund last weekend is no different a scenario than Tommy Thompson starting in place of Alberto Quintero.
Only Thompson didn’t play, let alone start.
MLS is not a bad league for young American players. In a number of cases, it clearly allowed up-and-coming prospects to build themselves. Anyone who watched Matt Miazga in Red Bulls U16 games and then witnessed him help pitch a shutout for Chelsea against Aston Villa earlier this month can see those things. The same goes for Kellyn Acosta and Bill Hamid, two of the most fervent examples of what the league can do for young players when given the chance.
But to say, somewhat blindly, that MLS gives these players “lots and lots” of reps across the board? No. It does not. Not yet, anyway. Take Junior Flores. The 20-year-old diminutive attacking midfielder from Los Angeles has spent the last couple years trying fruitlessly to ascend to BVB’s first team. But he’s been playing consistently for BVB2. Can anyone say for certain that his European experience, as imperfect as it has been, is demonstrably worse than if he had stayed in America? Talent or no, our breadth of experience does not tell us that the average MLS coach would have the gumption to start him over, say, Micheal Azira.
At this point in its existence, MLS has the luxury of plotting its own course. It is old enough to have both feet on the ground and young (and financially nimble) enough to use them to sprint in a variety of directions. The most obvious, at this point, is to drill ever deeper wells into American development and see what emerges.
Because 11 “young” starting Americans (and make no mistake, I am being generous to MLS by terming 23 “young”) on an average MLS weekend is not a ringing endorsement for U.S. youth players. Not nine years after the establishment of the Development Academy and seven after the first Homegrown player signed on the dotted line.
In one sense I think Garber (and to some extent his benevolent foil in Jurgen Klinsmann) has framed this discussion as a Garber-versus-Klinsmann battle for the hearts and minds of young players, and I don’t find that particularly beneficial. Can MLS be a good destination for young players? Sure. Is it objectively better, both in available playing time and developmental progression, than going abroad? Absolutely not. There is certainly nothing to suggest it.
Earlier this year, I chatted with rising UCLA sophomore and inevitable MLS GA target Jackson Yueill. The creative midfielder grew up in Minnesota, sheltered from the forgiving glow of an MLS academy, and he was just coming off a fruitful year of U.S. YNT stints. At least for now, Yueill is an integral part of Tab Ramos’ current U20 MNT cycle, and he’ll almost certainly have a role to play in the 2017 U20 World Cup, should the U.S. progress that far.
Youth national team camps are breeding grounds for professional crosstalk. The U20 cycle the first YNT grouping that includes a significant share of pro players, and many of these teammates use the camps as advice pools. And the talk today does not quite back up Garber’s words that MLS is an objectively better place for young American players than anywhere else.
“A few of them think they might have signed a little too early,” Yueill said. “They think they maybe should’ve waited, that maybe they should’ve tried to go for European clubs, because with MLS they’re stuck with the second division team and not getting many minutes. A few of them aren’t really happy with their contracts.”
Whatever the future holds for MLS, more minutes for young Americans should be high on the list. Bring them through your academy at speed. Risk them in high-intensity situations. Watch them grow.