A truth serum has made its way into the veins of American soccer in the past month, and its source is the panic, fear, anger and disgust generated by the U.S. national team's failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. The serum has led to hard questions being asked after too many years of complacency, and U.S. Soccer and Major League Soccer being questioned in a way they had never been before.
Christian Pulisic's heartfelt article for The Player's Tribune included plenty of insightful observations, but one topic he hit the mark well on was the reality that MLS just simply doesn't provide enough opportunities for playing time for young players. And by young he means actually young, from ages 16 to 19, as opposed to the "young" age of 22 or 23 we often see trumpeted on the league's own website.
"It really does frustrate me, when I watch MLS, and I see our best U-17 players — who, again, are so talented and so capable — being rostered … but then not being put on the field much to actually play," Pulisic wrote. "I watch that, and I just think about how I was given a chance … a real chance … and it changed my life. Why then are we seemingly hesitant to allow these other talents to blossom?"
It's a valid question. How is it that a league that never stops trumpeting its player development efforts manages to provide so few actual playing opportunities for young players emerging from its academies? MLS commissioner Don Garber never misses a chance to talk about how much money the league has spent on player development, but much like you can't hide being a bad cook just because you spend a lot of money on groceries, the league's talk of big spending on development can't hide the fact young players aren't playing all that much.
New York Red Bulls standout Tyler Adams, Real Salt Lake duo Justen Glad and Danilo Acosta, and Orlando City's Tommy Redding were the only Under-20 players developed exclusively by the MLS system who saw significant minutes in 2017. Just four players out of a league of 22 teams. Even with the inclusion of young international signings like Yangel Herrera and Anton Walkes, only 10 U-20 eligible players played more than 1,000 minutes in 2017, and just four were born in the United States.
That is a depressingly low number for a league that prides itself on player development and is even tougher to defend in a league where 12 of 22 teams make the playoffs, an environment that would presumably afford more clubs the opportunity to play young players.
Either MLS academies aren't developing and preparing young players well enough to be ready for the pros as teenagers, or MLS coaches aren't adequately equipped to incorporate young players into first-team environments. There is also the very real possibility that both things are true.
MLS points to continued growth of statistical production (minutes, goals, assists, etc.) among MLS academy products as evidence of a successful system, but it isn't really a surprise those figures would keep rising exponentially when you count all players who have passed through the system over the past decade. Including stats from players in their late 20s to measure the strength of present-day player development is misleading. Looking at young prospects in their teenage years, and how they are contributing, offers a much better measure, though it's one that isn't too flattering to MLS.
Players developed in @MLS academies played a record number of minutes during the 2017 season and both goals and assists this year were up 200% compared to the 2014 season numbers. pic.twitter.com/Fp1cYfwtCO — Dan Courtemanche (@courtemancheMLS) November 13, 2017
Consider the 2017 season and how some of the league's worst teams handled it. D.C. United's season was a lost cause early on, and despite having U.S. U-17 standout Chris Durkin — one of the best American teenagers in the U.S. pipeline — D.C. didn't manage to play Durkin for a single minute. Should we assume that just because he was the U.S. team's most impressive player at the Under-17 World Cup that he would have thrived in MLS as a 17-year-old? Not necessarily, but it's definitely worth asking how a team that endured such a hopeless season couldn't find a single minute for one of the country's best prospects.
The LA Galaxy were an even worse example. Despite being the only MLS team in one of the most talent-rich areas in the United States, and a team often lauded for investing in player development, the Galaxy played just one teenager — Hugo Arellano — all season. Arellano's four starts served as the smallest of silver linings in a season that concluded with the Galaxy parting ways with several of the very players who had previously been considered stars of the team's academy system, such as Jose Villarreal and Jack McBean.
If anything, Villarreal and McBean are examples of what too often happens to talented teenagers in the MLS pipeline who sign pro contracts at young ages. They struggle for playing time, their development is stunted and they never fulfill their potential. Meanwhile, the league trumpets homegrown players who spent as many years, if not more, developing in college than in MLS academies, and tries convincing a country that a 23-year-old player is young when in the world's best soccer-playing countries a 23-year-old is already a veteran at a high level.
That's how you get away with convincing people you're developing "young" talent. You lead them to believe that somehow the U.S. is different from the rest of the world and that American talents develop at older ages, when the reality is Americans have often developed at older ages because they have had to overcome the developmental black hole the 16-21 age range had become for so long.
Pulisic helped show us all that this wasn't a reality American soccer had to accept, and Weston McKennie has come along to show that Pulisic isn't just some one-of-a-kind example. Now, thanks to the two of them, we are beginning to hear the right question: Why aren't more American teenagers in the MLS pipeline getting the opportunity to thrive as professionals?
There are exceptions, with Tyler Adams standing as the biggest of them all. At the age of 18, Adams stepped into the New York Red Bulls starting lineup in 2017 and thrived. He had some early struggles, but Jesse Marsch gave him the opportunity to develop and Adams ran with it, emerging as one of the league's best young players, even earning a U.S. national team call-up in the process.
Marsch is no stranger to playing young players, having given Matt Miazga his opportunity to start as a central defender for the Red Bulls in 2015 at the age of 19. That faith led to Miazga flourishing and making a $5 million move to Chelsea a year later. Adams is on a similar path, and it shouldn't be long before he too makes the jump to Europe as a talented, and prepared, young player.
Unfortunately, Marsch is a rare breed in MLS, a coach who embraces the integration of young talent rather than dreading it. U.S. U-20 coach Tab Ramos touched on this very subject in a recent interview with SiriusXM, putting the onus on pro coaches to be able to integrate young talent.
"A good coach needs to be able to fit that in for your club philosophy — to replace the 34-year-old with the 17-year-old," Ramos said. "The 34-year-old will always be better than the 17-year-old until you give the younger player a chance to play in games. That’s when they are going to prove to you that they’re better. Young players require it.”
He went on to say: “You can’t blame a coach for wanting to win games — in a professional club that’s what they are there for. But at the same time, the club has to have its own culture and its own philosophy and its own way of fitting younger players in.”
Real Salt Lake provided an excellent example of what can happen when you embrace young talent. RSL's season endured a poor start, and coach Mike Petke turned to players like Glad, Acosta and Brooks Lennon to help turn things around. RSL rebounded and narrowly missed out on the playoffs, but that season has built a foundation for success around homegrown talent.
You can argue that RSL is a rare example because the club's current generation of young talent has long been seen as a special group. While that may be true, it was still up to Petke and RSL to embrace that young talent rather than letting it stagnate on the bench in favor of more experienced players who weren't necessarily that much better, and it should be noted that Petke was the coach who gave a 19-year-old Miazga his first stretch of MLS starts back in 2014.
It wasn't too long ago that FC Dallas was being trumpeted as the standard bearer for the incorporating of homegrown talent. With players like Kellyn Acosta, Jesse Gonzalez and Victor Ulloa emerging from the pipeline as first-team regulars, Dallas thrived and Oscar Pareja was lauded as the model developer of young talent.
Then 2017 happened, and FCD stopped bringing along young players while leaning on older players as the club endured a thoroughly disappointing season. The promising homegrown quintet of Paxton Pomykal, Jesus Ferreira, Coy Craft, Reggie Cannon and Bryan Reynolds combined for 171 minutes of first-team playing time.
That stat is a damning figure for a club that lost McKennie to Schalke a year ago. Would McKennie have been given the same opportunity with Dallas in 2017 that he is currently enjoying with the Bundesliga club?
MLS officials would likely argue that it's an unfair question because McKennie spent his formative years in the FCD academy, and the league deserves credit for that. Yes, MLS does deserve credit for that, but it also deserves criticism for not producing more players like Adams and McKennie, and for the meager minutes the league's teenagers have managed.
It is telling that the issue was something Pulisic felt the need to address, and it's scary to think his incredible rise might have never happened if he had wound up in the MLS pipeline instead of blazing his own trail to Germany.