Grant Wahl’s Ambition Rankings are always my favorite time of year, but not perhaps for the customary reason. I’m less interested in the top 22 (an ever-inflating number with each subsequent round of expansion) and far more interested in the questionnaire.
The first question in particular.
How much money has your team spent in the past five years on youth development? How much in the past year?
Historically anyway, MLS clubs have been loathe to give out specific dollar numbers related to anything. And there was a reason. The figures weren’t particularly flattering, especially considering a number of MLS clubs (it could be almost all of them, for all we know) operate in the red each year. And it served them nothing internally to reveal numbers that could pull back on the curtain more on what they weren’t doing as opposed to what they were.
Transparency’s been an oft-beaten drum skin these last few years, and the league’s decision to publicize the actual allocation money figures on trades this year was a prescient one from a PR standpoint. The league cannot operate in shadow and expect us to simply believe them when they say they’re improving. Show us.
Perhaps it’s simply my vantage, but the academy spending figures are hugely important and the single most interesting response in Wahl’s questionnaire. Clubs with the resources of those in MLS absolutely have to have robust, well-funded academies to build depth, even in the starting XI. And there is no way to do that other than to pour resources into the academy like dumping buckets of water on a never-ending grease fire. And now that many of these academies are five, six, seven, eight years old, it’s time we had some measurable data to claim they’re doing so.
Wahl asked each club how much it spent on its academy infrastructure in 2016 and how much it spent over the last five years. Some clubs misdirected into non-answers with PR-driven platitudes (the Whitecaps wrote an impressive 307-word diatribe without ever answering the question), and some are too young to give an answer, like resident Uniteds Atlanta and Minnesota. And some simply declined, citing policy like NYCFC. In the end, 11 teams who had the ability to do so were not forthcoming with those figures, so we can only guess at what, for instance, the New York Red Bulls, the San Jose Earthquakes and Toronto FC ultimately spend annually on their academies. Disappointing, to say the least.
But nine clubs did heed the call for transparency, and those front offices get a giant, gleaming gold star today. (sorry RSL, close but no cigar on “The estimated 5-year outlay of this program would be high seven figures.”)
Pulled from each individual questionnaire, here’s the ranked list of the nine who submitted figures on how much they spent in 2016 on their respective academy setups.
9. New England Revolution: $1 million
t8. D.C. United: $1.5 million
t8. Montreal Impact: $1.5 million
6. Chicago Fire: $1.75 million
5. Columbus Crew: $2.5 million
t4. FC Dallas: $3 million
t4. Portland Timbers: $3 million
t1. LA Galaxy: $4 million
t1. Philadelphia Union: $4 million
The most intriguing positioning on this list is undoubtedly the Union’s. As a caveat, their answer was that they spent an average of $4 million over the past few years, so they could’ve technically spent less than the Galaxy in 2016, but it also could’ve been more. Given the impressiveness of the figure I’m OK landing on that number (FCD’s was also an average at $3 million). In any case, the Union have made more strides to outspend their competitors than anyone in MLS since its YSC Academy opened its doors in 2013. They’re to be commended for the effort. Names like Matthew Real, Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty are proof positive the wheel is turning, too.
The Galaxy are no surprise this high, but it’s a shame neither the Red Bulls nor RSL submitted even a general number. It’d be interesting to compare how each reaches similar heights with disparate resources.
These numbers are steadily (if slowly) trending upward, which is a good sign. But compare it with the resources behind the development system under-girding the 2014 World Cup champions and things are perhaps not so out of reach as it may seem. The total outlay on youth academy spending between the 36 DFL-controlled clubs in the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga was about $160 million in 2016. Split between 36 clubs, that’s an average of about $5.5 million per club.
Of course it’s only an average. Bayern Munich obviously spends orders of magnitude more on its academy than VfL Bochum, for instance, but the upper rungs of the ladder are perhaps not quite so out of reach than they at times seem. The Bundesliga is clearly far more established than MLS, and the comparison is a bit unfair as a baseline, but it does tell you where the league needs to go. Without knowing the other clubs’ expenditures, we’re looking at an average of $2.6 million for those nine. Hardly enough, but hardly prohibitive for raising up national team quality players either.
There is still a ways to go on the funding side, clearly, but the league’s slow-and-steady progress on the youth front continues apace.