Developing young players is one of the top priorities in Major League Soccer.
However, the league’s investment in youth has not seen the benefit in the early years of the Academy programs that it was hoping to see.
“We will continue to invest massive amounts of money in our Academy programs and our Reserve League and that investment has not yet paid off,” said MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who estimated that the league spends 20 million dollars each year on youth development. “We are very focused on doing everything we can to build the pyramid and take responsibility for growing the game in this country.”
While the Sounders FC have yet to sign a Homegrown Player, they have invested plenty in their Academy system, continuing the development of the U16 and U18 teams by adding a U23 team to the development system that is operated outside of the Sounders FC ownership group, but overseen by director of youth development Darren Sawatzky.
“It’s an investment that we’re making, currently, and going up aggressively,” owner and general manager Adrian Hanauer said. “It’s an investment in the future.”
Currently, there are 39 Homegrown Players signed to MLS clubs, with Seattle and the San Jose Earthquakes the only teams without a player under contract developed in their Academy system.
For Seattle, it’s been a matter of patience. Their Academy system took shape in 2010 and has developed some players that have done well in the college ranks. That, head coach Sigi Schmid said, is the design of Seattle’s player development plan – to get players games at high levels of competition to prepare them to be professionals.
“I think our philosophy in regards to Academy players is we want to make sure that we see an opportunity for Academy players to play if we’re going to sign them. We feel, for the ultimate player development, it’s a matter of players getting opportunities to play games. Training alone doesn’t do it,” he said.
While many teams around the league have signed local products to Homegrown contracts, very few are seeing significant playing time. Toronto FC defenders Ashtone Morgan (2,528 minutes) and Doneil Henry (1,139 minutes) and DC United goalkeeper Bill Hamid (2,087 minutes) and midfielder Andy Najar (2,045 minutes) were the only pairs of local talent on the same team that were regular starters. Meanwhile, Connor Lade (2,088 minutes) earned a starting role in New York and Diego Fagundez (770 minutes) was a regular contributor for the Revolution.
Outside of those six, though, the drop-off is immense with no other player over 200 minutes for the team that signed them.
The Sounders, Schmid said, are being conscientious to be sure not to sign Homegrowns for the sake of publicity only to release them two years later.
Part of that development in Seattle’s system has meant time in college and it could mean that when those players end up signing with the Rave Green, they are closer to MLS-ready.
“We’ve encouraged our Homegrowns to move on to college because we think that’s a good intermediate step for them,” Schmid said. “I think as we move forward, you’re going to see some that are very close now and maybe even this is the year that we end up signing one or two.”