LAUDERHILL, Fla. – MLS devotes a total of three sentences to the Home Grown player rule in its publicly available set of rules and regulations.
“A club may sign a player to his first professional contract without subjecting him to the MLS SuperDraft if the player has trained for at least one year in the club’s youth development program and has met League criteria. Players joining MLS through this mechanism are known as Home Grown Players. There is no limit to the number of Home Grown Players a club may sign in a given year.”
All of the guidelines outlined within the statement are followed in one form or another, but the brevity of that passage obscures the complexity of some situations they govern and the malleability of the metric used to assess them. The end product often leaves coaches, executives and observers frustrated due to the apparently inconsistent outcomes and raises those familiar and uncomfortable queries about the equity and the pliability of the league's internal governance structures.
In this particular instance, those concerns are well founded, if a bit lacking in global context. The overarching goal behind the Home Grown player rule – make the league stronger by identifying and nurturing promising young players and subsequently introducing them into the professional game when possible – does not waver, but finding a way to achieve it sometimes requires a circuitous path from start to finish.
The Home Grown player system, explained
A series of specific guidelines underpin the Home Grown player rule. They are, by and large, designed to reward clubs for the efforts they make to develop players within their academy structures and keep them active within their club when and if they leave for college.
Each club sends a list of 18 to 20 potential prospects in four separate age groups (U-14, U-16, U-18 and U-23) to the league office on a quarterly (or, in some cases, more frequent) basis. The players included on that list must be in the club's youth development system at the time (and presumably located within its home territory – generally defined as within a 75-mile radius of the home stadium plus any additional territory granted to the team) and may not include any U.S. youth internationals who were not involved in the club's academy program prior to their inclusion with the national team.
All players must take part in a combination of 80 games or practice sessions before departing for college in order to establish their eligibility for a Home Grown contract. Once they leave for school, they must participate in a minimum of 30 games or practice sessions (usually with the first team, but not always) during their four years in order to maintain their connection to the club. No player may feature in a competitive first-team game without spending at least one season under the club's auspices, even if an exception is made to include them under the Home Grown rule.
The guidelines govern many of the potential Home Grown signings clubs wish to make, but they do not account for every potential scenario, according to MLS executive vice president of competition and player relations Todd Durbin.
“We have rules in place to ensure development is real and meaningful,” Durbin said during a phone interview on Sunday. “The challenge comes up when a player hasn't met the requirements and wants to sign somewhere else.”
Dealing with the exceptions to the rule
Clubs can and do approach the league about signing players that do not strictly meet the criteria. In those instances, several factors – including, but not limited to, the duration and the nature of the links to a club and its youth affiliates and any participation with PDL sides sponsored by the clubs – are used to determine whether a player receives a Home Grown contract. No factor, it seems, is more important than a player's ability or desire to move overseas.
Part of the scope of the Home Grown initiative includes creating incentives for potential professionals to start their careers in the United States. The objective isn't to push players into MLS too quickly – “We don't want to create a perverse incentive for players to sign a contract when they are not ready or lose out on the chance to play for their hometown team,” Durbin said – but to protect the league's interests in securing the top young players when they are ready to make the leap to the next level. The tension between the grand objective and the guidelines designed to create a level playing field inevitably leads to exceptions to the rule.
Four fairly recent decisions highlight the case-by-case nature of the Home Grown player process and underscore the league's willingness to bend its stated regulations to accomplish its primary goal:
Portland signs Univ. of Washington forward Brent Richards
Richards signed with the Timbers despite never playing a game for a Timbers Academy side. Why? No such team currently exists.
Fourteen of the 16 American-based MLS clubs – plus Vancouver – enter academy teams in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy program. Two other clubs – Montréal and Toronto FC – place some of their youth sides in the Canadian Soccer League. Philadelphia (more on the Union's peculiar academy structure in a moment) and Portland do not currently field academy teams in external competitions against non-MLS sides.
In the Timbers' case, this deviation from the norm arose from their time in the USL. Current Timbers general manager and technical director Gavin Wilkinson started Eastside United in 2001 and still serves as its technical director, according to the Eastside United website. Current Timbers U-23 coach Jim Rilatt is also the director of coaching at Eastside United, according to the Eastside United and the Timbers websites.
Those extensive connections provided the foundation for Richards' MLS arrival. Wilkinson coached Richards for five years while the Timbers used Eastside United as a feeder club in the USL, according to a Tweet by Portland investor/operator Merritt Paulson last week. Richards has also played for the Timbers' U-23 side in the PDL, further cementing his allegiance to the club.
(Note: In addition to its bonds with Eastside United, Portland has also linked up with the Oregon Youth Soccer Association to run the state's Olympic Development Program and has plans to start up its own academy program in younger age groups this year.)
Under the terms of the expansion agreement struck between the Timbers and MLS, certain players were grandfathered into the Home Grown process, according to both Durbin and Paulson. Richards featured on that particular list and subsequently received approval from the league to join the Timbers.
Philadelphia signs Zach Pfeffer and Jimmy McLaughlin
No set of similar, expansion-related strings applies to the Union's decentralized approach to player development. Philadelphia bills its youth setup as “unlike any other MLS youth academy program because local players remain connected and registered with their respective feeder clubs” on its website and that claim holds true.
Several local youth clubs – including firmly established Development Academy sides FC DELCO, PA Classics and PDA – are designated as Youth Development Affiliates after meeting and maintaining certain technical requirements and paying a yearly fee of $1,000 to the Union, according to the Union's website. Selected players participate in games (against other MLS youth academies) and training sessions under the auspices of Union Academy staffers.
This arrangement has caused some consternation within league circles. While other teams fully fund Development Academy sides (not an inexpensive venture considering the travel involved, though it should be noted that the Union have several coaches on staff in its academy system) and remain limited to players within their specific club program, the Union extends its reach to more local youth players without expending additional resources. As a counterpoint, it is also worth noting that the prominence and the success of FC DELCO and PDA in the past may have rather unnaturally reduced the pool of players available to the Union if it operated a typical academy system.
Durbin noted that the league's requirements do not mandate that clubs place teams in the academy system in order to sign Home Grown players. By providing supplemental training within the Union Academy structure, the Union meets the necessary standards of providing players with developmental opportunities, according to Durbin.
McLaughlin and Pfeffer both played for FC DELCO before signing Home Grown deals with the Union. Pfeffer earned U.S. national team consideration at the U-14 level before the Union ever existed, but his time with FC DELCO and his integration with the Union Academy once the club formed were enough for him to land a Home Grown player contract in December 2010. McLaughlin first featured for the Union Academy at the U-17 SUM Cup in 2010 and saw match action with the Union in exhibition and reserve matches this year before leaving Colgate to sign with the club in December.
Los Angeles signs Jose Villarreal
The questions prompted by the unusual academy situations in Philadelphia and Portland do not exist in Los Angeles, but two fundamental problems emerged when the Galaxy made its move to sign Villarreal in December: (1) he earned his first international callup before he signed on to play in Los Angeles' academy and (2) he joined the Galaxy less than a year ago.
Villarreal's prominent role in Pateadores U-18 Development Academy title run in July leaves no doubt about the recent nature of his ties, but there are some ties between the two parties. Before he linked up with southern California powerhouse Pateadores, Villarreal spent time with South Bay Force, a youth affiliate of the Galaxy (and, somewhat helpfully, Pateadores). Villarreal's younger brother, Jaime, also currently plays for the Galaxy's U-16 side.
Galaxy officials told league executives that the U.S. youth international hadn't spent enough time in their system and reinforced their desire to sign him, according to Durbin. In the end, that bit of frankness, the links between Villarreal and the Galaxy and the desire to secure Villarreal's long-term services in the face of potential overseas interest ultimately persuaded the league to sign off on the deal.
Real Salt Lake fails to sign Tony Cascio and Nick DeLeon
While some teams have successfully lobbied to earn exceptions for their potential Home Grown signings, other sides have failed to land players they expected to obtain through the process. The decision to reject RSL's claims to sign the collegiate standouts kept two likely first round picks in the SuperDraft.
Both players featured at one time for RSL's Arizona academy team, but their links with the team fall short of the stated requirements. Cascio featured for the Arizona team before he departed for college and took part in first-team training sessions in Utah at points during his freshman and sophomore summers, while DeLeon only played in a handful of games with the Arizona academy and did not train with the first team, according to sources familiar with their situations.
RSL included both players on their list of potential additions, but the Claret-and-Cobalt failed to persuade MLS officials that it had played a large enough role in their development in order to sustain a Home Grown claim. Durbin called the decision process “pretty straightforward” and credited RSL for recognizing and stating that the players did not meet the requirements.
The future of the Home Grown player rule
Such terminology does not fit neatly with the case studies listed above or the overall precedent set forth under the auspices of the program. The Home Grown player rule is, admittedly, a work in progress that has created areas of ambiguity for coaches, executives and players alike as they wade through the current system.
“The rules are evolving and they'll continue to evolve,” Durbin said.
A youth development committee will meet early in the new year to start tackling some of the issues within the existing structure. Durbin specifically mentioned the balance between a club's developmental rights to a player and the tutelage he receives at the college level (e.g., should one year in an academy system outweigh four years of college and keep a player out of the SuperDraft?) and the problems raised by regulations and restrictions pertaining to the youth national team setup as issues the committee might tackle.
Alterations appear inevitable as those questions and other more pointed lines of inquiries swirl around the process. Future changes will not clear up the criticisms of the moment, but Durbin said he believes all teams are treated equally within a system that has met its current goals.
“For the most part, it's pretty straightforward,” Durbin said. “To date, it's been equitable. The real question is whether it's the outcome we want.”
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.Follow GOAL.COM USA on