En Route: Renewed focus plus NCAA rule change has helped Home Grown players find minutes outside of MLS regular season games

Relaxed NCAA rules and resurgence of reserve league offer opportunity for developing talent at MLS clubs.
On May 8, 2010, Juan Agudelo took the field for Red Bull New York nearly six weeks after signing his professional contract. However, he was not trotting out with the full team. The young striker was back with the club’s U-18 academy team playing alongside his former teammates despite the professional label. Helped by a newly relaxed NCAA limitation, Agudelo and RBNY were taking advantage of a rule that allowed professional players to play and train alongside amateur athletes without sacrificing the other players’ college eligibility.

A year later, over a dozen have joined Agudelo in making the leap from youth stars to professional soccer players. And with the relaxed rule about mingling professional talent with amateur athletes before they enter the first year of college, Home Grown players have found a new avenue for picking up minutes – Development Academy games.

From Los Angeles Galaxy to New England Revolution, many of the MLS clubs across the country are now using the Development Academy for young professionals like Jack McBean and Diego Fagundez to advance their abilities in more accessible, less pressure situations. Both teenagers were signed during the 2010-11 offseason, and have yet to make their MLS debut, but they have found success in competitive games in the Development Academy.

“I don’t want to just be practicing,” McBean, 16, told Goal.com earlier this season after a Galaxy U-18 Development Academy game. “I want to play in some games.” McBean’s sentiment is common among the Home Grown players who have yet to break through with the first team.

“I just want to play on the field,” FC Dallas home grown player Moises Hernandez told Goal.com after a game at Dallas Cup XXXII. Three other FC Dallas Home Grown players joined Hernandez on that team, all of whom have yet to find a place with the first team.

Fagundez is in the same situation with New England, as the talented wunderkind has slowly climbed up the ladder with the Revolution since signing his professional contract. The 15-year-old midfielder began the year with the U-16 Development Academy team, he received his first appearance with the U-18 team at the end of April, and made his professional debut in the same week in a U.S. Open Cup game. He is still off the radar for MLS minutes, but he is progressing within the club and keeping up his game fitness thanks to the relaxed NCAA rules.

For the clubs, this invaluable opportunity to sign rising stars to contracts, but allow them to play in competitive games regularly, has already paid dividends. New York has seen Agudelo go from Development Academy player to national team regular in just under a year. While Agudelo is more of a rare exception, he is a jumping off point of how player development in the United States is progressing within MLS.

U.S. Soccer Development Academy Director of Scouting Tony LePore said the Academy was all for the Home Grown players playing in the youth league. LePore spoke about how it improved the quality of play in the games during a telephone interview with Goal.com in January.

It has also worked the other way as potential Home Grown players, but still amateur athletes by definition, can now play with the reserve team for MLS clubs without consequence for college eligibility. The Galaxy, along with many other MLS clubs, are using this as a chance to see some of the younger players adjust to a new level and speed of play.

The Los Angeles franchise has featured two of the young stars of its academy, Matthew Tilley and Justin Dhillon, in the club’s first two reserve games. The 16-year-old and 15-year-old respectively both cited the experience with the reserve team as helping to improve their games.

The reserve league schedule – albeit brief at 10 games – does offer this added level for developing players, which is what MLS commissioner Don Garber emphasized when announcing the league would be returning.

The return of the reserve league is also part of the overreaching movement by MLS to focus more on player development. Galaxy’s Academy Director Chris Klein talked with Goal.com last month about how MLS youth academies are changing.

“Some of the changes you will see in months, others in two years, and even some will take five years,” Klein said. The reason for the lengthy timeline is due to how MLS academies originally approached player development. U.S. Soccer implemented the Development Academy for U-16 and U-18 age groups, so most academies started with only those two teams.

Now, Galaxy is adding younger ages to put more of the focus on developing these players opposed to just collecting the top talent for the older age groups.

This renewed focus will take time, but it shows the movement toward building the youth programs in MLS. Just five years ago, youth academies were an idealistic thought for MLS franchises that line of thinking has quickly changed in the last year, but it will still take time for MLS academies to realize their full potential.

J.R. Eskilson is the Youth Soccer Editor at Goal.com. If you have a comment or an idea for a story, you can email him at jr.eskilson [@]gmail.com. Or follow him on Twitter @NCAAsoccer

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