Saying an MLS Homegrown side is set to be the most enjoyable iteration of itself is something like calling Master of None the best Netflix comedy series featuring an actor of Indian-American descent released in 2017. It may be good, but you aren’t saying much of anything.
Nonetheless, the 2017 MLS Homegrown team is A Lot Of Fun. The most fun, in fact, we’ve ever had in this game stretching back to the wild days of yore in 2014.
We are inundated with praise for FC Dallas’ academy. The positivity seems to ooze out of the league’s very fabric as the club signs one promising academy kid after another. And when one scores, well, you light the beacons to Frisco and tell the rest of the league to follow the leader.
There is something undoubtedly numbing about all this from a partisan point of view. Fans of the opposition become necessarily calloused to it – here comes more FCD academy news – but there is a method to it. The notion an academy can feed an entire MLS club is notably new, a fleeting ideal that’s never been tested in any substantive way until recently. The MLS modus operandi has historically involved a heavy dose of mistrust when it came to its own fledgling academies. Shifting that viewpoint takes time, but it also takes some small measure of indoctrination.
Ah, the eternal MLS salary dump. That time-honored tradition wherein we marvel at Kaka’s deal, puzzle over Brek Shea’s and try to work out how FC Dallas squeezes so much out of so little while D.C. United pulls so little out of… so little.
Everyone sees these numbers through their own kaleidoscopic lenses, and mine tends to skew toward the youths. And in particular, the Homegrowns. Just what are these young bucks getting paid these days? Today, I have answers.
In February, MLS announced a $200,000 cash infusion for MLS teams in part to help sign Homegrown players. It wasn’t exactly a cash dump, but it did represent a not insignificant hike that allowed MLS teams more leeway in how they approached contract negotiations with their own academy kids. Homegrowns will make less regardless by dint of their lack of professional gravitas, and the historic feebleness of the American youth production line also hits the contract. Ajax doles out heftier contracts to its youth players not only because they have the cash to do so, but because the academy’s success ups its player market value. MLS isn’t quite there yet.
If you’re been spinning your wheels through the American soccer mud patch at all over the last few years, you’ve probably run into Steve Fenn’s data visuals at one point or another. He’s been on the leading edge of MLS statistical analysis as the league’s grown into its most modern iteration, and he just dropped a lovely piece of work on our doorstep for perusal.
As those of us who’ve spent any time cruising through the at-times confusing MLS Homegrown landscape well understand, it can be a thorny business to digest exactly how it all fits in together. Which is where Fenn’s latest visualization comes into play.
Every MLS Homegrown dropped neatly into a tidy roster package? Yes and please.
I want you to paint a mental picture. There is a balance scale. On one end, a European academy in one of the continent’s Top Five leagues. On the other, an MLS academy. Now imagine an MLS-reared academy prospect with interest from both dropping the two onto the opposing end of the scale. What happens?
Two primary competing interests are local allegiance and familiarity versus the prestige of perhaps one day playing in the Champions League. This tips the scales in one direction or another depending on the personality. There is no right answer to this particular question. Either you want to develop at home, in front of family, or you want a fresh angle at first team minutes. Both can develop high quality national teamers. A young player can perhaps develop more completely in Europe, but how can you be sure that’s the case in every case? To put it simply, you can’t.
The one area, however, where MLS will lose on the scales every time? Money.
The Homegrown Watch at NYCFC was notably delayed by the club’s decision to take a more methodical approach with its academy roll-out. NYCFC didn’t even announce its own academy until a month prior to the senior team’s MLS debut in March 2015. It finally joined the Development Academy in August 2015 – albeit at just the U14 level – well after the first team began playing its own MLS games.
Contrast this with Atlanta United’s approach, for instance, and you can understand why, entering its third MLS season, NYCFC has yet to sign a Homegrown and Atlanta United already has three. In lieu of Homegrowns, NYCFC’s basically dumped bags of allocation money on young draft picks. After dropping an unknown amount of cash to trade up to No. 1 to grab Jack Harrison in 2016 (it was probably a lot), NYCFC spent $325,000 in allocation to secure Jonathan Lewis and Kwame Awuah in a pair of draft-day trades.
Judging by Patrick Vieira’s recent statements, both in the press and on the field, the age of the NYCFC Homegrown could be rapidly approaching.
It’s been nearly four years to the day since the Colorado Rapids signed a Homegrown player of their own. That streak is officially (blessedly) toast.
On Friday, the Rapids announced the signing of Denver center back Kortne Ford and Creighton central midfielder Ricardo Perez. Both were upperclassmen in 2016, Ford a junior on a College Cup team and Perez a senior for Creighton, which lost to Providence in the third round of the NCAA tourney. Ford seems to be the real gem here after making national waves in the NCAA semifinals, but both have a shot at the 18.
Back in the fall of 2013, as the YSC Academy flung open its doors to student-athletes for the first time, I sat down with then-Union GM Nick Sakiewicz, in addition to some other major names, to dive into the academy’s nuts and bolts.
Sakiewicz has since departed the club under acrimonious terms, but the school is still bulling along. Before YSC, the Union didn’t have a dedicated academy arm, instead relying on a series of regional satellite clubs they’d bring in for broader club-based training sessions to scout. It was essentially the fading ODP model shrunk down to academy form.
D.C United’s ripcord pull on Durkin’s contract is a quality bit of business for the capital club. For one, United hadn’t signed a Homegrown from the academy that pushed out Andy Najar and Bill Hamid since January 2014. But there’s also the fact that Durkin is a tidy player who’s value added to a franchise that tends to give opportunities to players of his ilk.
And what kind of players are those, you ask? Step right up.