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MLS ups investment in development

Article Written by J.R. Eskilson
Published: August 11, 2020

Throughout the #MLSisBack tournament, Audi has donated $1,000 to MLS academy teams for every goal scored. The tally is up to $180,000 prior to Tuesday’s night championship game between Orlando City and Portland Timbers. 

The carmaker announced that they were upping the stakes for the title bout with a $5,000 donation for each goal scored and an additional $10,000 for the winning franchise’s academy. It’s a decent size purse for a tournament that was quickly organized, and well executed over the last few weeks.

The disappointment is neither team in the final is likely going to start a player that progressed through the franchise’s academy.

Eryk Williamson, who is classified as a Homegrown, is likely to start for the Portland Timbers, but he played his youth ball for D.C. United and Maryland. Portland traded for his MLS rights. Williamson has been a breakout player for Timbers during the tournament. He is one of three Homegrown players on the Timbers roster. 

The only Homegrown who is likely to feature for Orlando City is Benji Michel, who has been utilized as a second half substitute for Orlando City during the tournament. Michel spent one season with the Orlando City academy before joining the Portland Pilots. He signed a Homegrown contract after his junior season with the Pilots. 

Despite the growth of the MLS youth teams and the focus on the Homegrown contract (and the marketing move to devote more money to player development), MLS is still struggling to actually develop players for the league. 

The performances of the Olympic team eligible players from the semifinal round had some highs and lows. The same could be said for the rest of the tournament - outside of Brenden Aaronson’s arrival as the social media darling of the U.S. Men’s National team future and Ayo Akinola’s hot streak. Not many U.S.-eligible players were featured in starting lineups throughout the tournament. 

MLS teams have taken advantage of the tournament in regards to handing out debuts to some of those Homegrown players. However, that is not a big change from the past. Debuts have been frequent for young players throughout the lulls of the MLS season. 

The problem has come with franchises handling growth for players when they don’t succeed initially. There is a big disconnect between dealing with a 24-year-old on his second professional contract and a 17-20 year old who is trying to break through to the first team. 

In the past, many franchises have not been equipped to handle dealing with that stage of a player’s development. More MLS franchises are starting to hire specific front office positions for guiding these talents, but there’s not enough around the league. Hopefully more teams will use some of the funds from Audi to look at how to help players make that transition from the academy/USL to the first team - and continue to develop so they stick with the first team and earn consistent minutes. 

After all, MLS academy seem to be doing okay in developing players from the younger years into their teens just look at the Bundesliga for an example of some of their work.

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