What exactly is a "homegrown player"?
That question feels more and more pertinent as Major League Soccer ramps up its promotion and marketing of players it deems “homegrown” players. Anyone following MLS with any regularity in recent months has been inundated with tales of the league’s efforts to produce the next generation of stars, even if the claims are, by and large, being exaggerated.
In normal soccer terms, a homegrown player is a player who a club has spent years developing, a player who was taught the game from a younger age and brought up through the club’s academy ranks before graduating to the first team.
It isn’t really that complicated a concept to understand, and the world’s best talent producing academies make it clear what being good at developing young players can yield. Whether you talk FC Barcelona’s system or Ajax’s long-fabled academies or any of the other major European clubs known for producing talent, it is pretty easy to trace the development genealogy of the world’s best players.
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Which brings us back to MLS, where the league is doing its best to take credit for the development of players who spent less time in MLS academies than they did at other youth clubs, or at colleges.
You are seeing it more and more. Television commercials and programs, magazine features and online articles trumpeting the alleged rise of the MLS homegrown player. Top young standouts like DeAndre Yedlin and Gyasi Zardes have fast become poster boys for this MLS push to promote the “we are developing our young stars” narrative, even if a closer look at such players reveals that calling them "homegrown" in the classic sense is a stretch.
Yedlin spent less than two years in the Seattle Sounders academy before heading to Akron University, where he spent two years under well-established talent developer Caleb Porter, now the coach of the Portland Timbers. The Sounders did play a role in developing him, and did give him the opportunity to thrive as a pro by starting him as a rookie, but the reality is the Sounders were responsible for only a fraction of Yedlin’s development prior to turning pro.
Zardes is another player the league has rushed to slather with the homegrown player label. By all accounts, Zardes spent less than two years with the Galaxy academy system before spending four years in college at CSU-Bakersfield. You will not find photos of Zardes decked out in Galaxy gear as a young boy, nor a foreshadowing video interview of a pre-teen Zardes proclaiming his biggest dream being to play in MLS one day.
Even a player like New England’s Diego Fagundez doesn’t quite have the most clear-cut homegrown player roots. He was a part of the Revolution’s academy system less than two years, and was already an established youth soccer star in the New England area before joining the Revs and signing a pro contract. The Revs saw the talent and signed him as quickly as they could, and they have provided him a place to continue developing his talent. But the fact remains other youth clubs put more time into Fagundez’s development than the Revs did when he ultimately signed his contract.
There are plenty of examples such as these, though Yedlin, Zardes and Fagundez are just three of the most high-profile cases, and three of the most successful players MLS loves to trumpet as if they were developed by MLS teams before their ages had even hit single digits.
The MLS Homegrown Player initiative started out with very reasonable goals. The league set out to establish a system that would allow teams to identify the top players it was developing in its academies, and sign those players to pro contracts once they spent a reasonable amount of time developing in said academies.
Where things began to go south was when teams began trying to game the system, and began trying to claim players they had pretty skimpy claims to. MLS soon followed suit by lowering the requirements for players to be labeled homegrown players, meaning teams could claim players with even less time invested in them.
That shift was driven by the league’s need to be able to sign up top youth talent before European clubs could begin to swoop, and rest assured, European clubs have already begun scouring the United States for top youth talent — and have started to sign them away, with the likes of Gedion Zelalem (Arsenal), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund) and Junior Flores (Borussia Dortmund) just a few top talents who had been developing in the United States youth ranks.
You couldn’t really blame the league’s motives, which became very clear in December of 2011, when MLS allowed the Galaxy to sign hot-shot youth prospect Jose Villarreal to a homegrown player contract even though he hadn’t even come close to fulfilling the league’s already-lowered standards for being designated as such.
MLS allowed the Galaxy to sign Villarreal, but made Villarreal stay with the Galaxy youth academy in order to fulfill his homegrown player development requirements after signing his pro contract. The absurdity of the whole thing was enough to make you scratch your head, but one highly placed league source made it clear MLS would rather bend its rules than risk losing a highly talented prospect.
That is completely understandable, but what we have seen of late is the league starting to believe its own lies about player development, and about its role in nurturing the league’s best young talents. It is one thing to set up rules in order to sign youth talent before European competitors can, and it is another thing altogether to pretend that the youth talent being signed was actually developed by MLS academies.
So why does it really matter if MLS is exaggerating its role in developing many of the league’s best young players? For one, it is disingenuous and does a disservice to those academies that actually put in years to develop players like Yedlin and Zardes. You don’t see Barcelona trying to hide the fact that Lionel Messi spent several years in the Newell’s Old Boys youth system before joining Barcelona, do you?
More importantly, the recent wave of hyperbole surrounding MLS “homegrown” players is painting a picture that suggest MLS academies are actually doing a good job of developing young talent, which simply isn’t the case. The number of homegrown players playing regular first-team minutes in MLS is still relatively low, and becomes extremely low once you only take into account players who can genuinely be considered true homegrown players.
Who qualifies as a “true homegrown player”? Someone who has spent more years in an MLS academy than with another youth team or college team. If you spent one or two years with an MLS academy as a high school-aged prospect, then spent four years in college, did the MLS academy really develop you? Now, if a player sent four or more years in an MLS academy, then signed a pro contract, or even spent one year in college before turning pro, it is a much better case for calling someone a “homegrown player."
The reason the label should matter is because MLS academies simply need to do better, and as much as MLS commissioner Don Garber has made it clear the league is spending more money on player development than ever before, the proof isn’t quite in the pudding yet.
Some teams, like Sporting Kansas City, FC Dallas, the Colorado Rapids and D.C. United, have done a good job of putting years into developing players who have come through their player development pipelines to contribute to the first teams. While there are some examples of teams doing well, the number of teams that have genuinely succeeded in the very important mission of producing first-team talent is far too small to say MLS academies are doing a good job.
Simply put, they are not. Not if MLS is spending as much money as it claims to be spending. The sooner MLS cuts down on the misleading hyperbole about “homegrown” players, and starts holding its academies accountable for the slow flow of talent, the sooner MLS fans will have a true sense of where the league stands when it comes to producing talent, and the sooner the league will have a legitimate player development boon to promote.