MLS' focus on Development Academy has league's next stars shining brightly
It has been 10 years since the introduction of the U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy program. Replacing the previous Super Y-League model, the Developmental Academy's shift of focus to heightened training and more competitive games has been vital. It was supposed to persuade the best young American and Canadian talent to remain at domestic academies rather than leave for clubs abroad.
While it's nearly impossible to assume that all bright talents will avoid the lures of Europe and beyond, the DA program has been crucial for the growth of the sport in the United States and Canada. Some players, like Christian Pulisic, Ethan Horvath and Emerson Hyndman, have used their time in the DA program to parlay better youth games into moves to bigger leagues.
However, there are a large number of success stories among players who have entered MLS. The league is able to sign players from its academies thanks to the Homegrown Rule (founded soon after in 2008). From Juan Agudelo to Gyasi Zardes, these homegrown players have made their mark on the league, helping MLS begin to shed the "retirement league" moniker and rebrand it as a league of choice for young American talent.
The rest of the world has taken notice of these homegrowns as well. Andy Najar left D.C. United for Anderlecht in 2013, and the Honduran has become a key part of the Belgian giants' roster. Seattle Sounders product DeAndre Yedlin used a strong showing in the 2014 World Cup to secure a transfer to Tottenham. Now he's a likely starter in the Premier League, after a winding road led him to recently promoted Newcastle United before last season.
A third homegrown has recently found himself in the spotlight again. Matt Miazga still holds the record for highest transfer fee paid for an MLS homegrown player, as Chelsea paid $5 million for him in 2016. He scored the third goal in the U.S.' 3-0 win over Nicaragua in this month's Gold Cup, and it's been confirmed that he'll return to Vitesse for a second season-long loan, where he'll be a regular starter for the Dutch side.
"It made my decision even easier," current Red Bulls starlet Tyler Adams said to ESPN FC, regarding the effect Miazga's rise has had on his decision to sign a homegrown deal. "There's always the option that, if you do well in the system you're at, there could be a bigger move later on in your career. Matt has been a major influence on me. We were in the national team at the same time, so I always looked up to him.
"Seeing that he's doing bigger and better things at Chelsea, with the national team, making big moves. It's worked out for everybody."
Miazga may be the poster child for the program at this stage, but there are plenty of homegrown players who are making names for themselves in MLS. The latest Gold Cup roster included seven homegrowns. Kellyn Acosta was a regular starter, Zardes played a role coming off the bench and Jordan Morris scored the goal that handed the U.S. the cup in the 88th minute of the final.
Of course, not all homegrowns immediately step up for the senior clubs. The road from DA to MLS is imperfect. The partnership with USL has started to bridge the gap, giving these young players a chance at playing regularly in the second division. Still, not all affiliates are under direct control of MLS clubs; if an independent partner is focused on winning a USL Cup, they may prioritize the experience of their veterans over the potential of teenage prodigies.
An intriguing part of All-Star Week, this year's Homegrown Game sees MLS' next best things take on Chivas' U20s on Tuesday night. Adams will take part in the game for the Homegrowns, as will FC Dallas' Jesse Gonzalez. The goalkeeper is the oldest member of the Homegrown roster at the ripe old age of 22, and will be playing in his third Homegrown Game. The ability to play regularly (and at an early age) played a huge role in his decision to come to MLS -- and eventually to represent the U.S internationally.
"I spoke to both coaches (Bruce Arena and Juan Carlos Osorio) before I made my decision," Gonzalez said, having recently made his permanent commitment to the U.S. "Both said to be patient. I was able to spend more time and get more comfortable with [Arena] during the Gold Cup and he was a major influence on my decision to play for the U.S. Playing in MLS will help me be seen more often by Arena, I'm sure."
After serving as the third goalkeeper at the Gold Cup, Gonzalez is beginning to make an impression on Arena. Adams, meanwhile, is very much a hot prospect in his own right. At 18, the midfielder from Wappingers Falls, New York, made his MLS debut last season. His precocious play helped the Red Bulls make the decision to trade Dax McCarty this offseason, and Adams has not disappointed. He has started 11 games this season, as well as five matches for the U.S. side that made the quarterfinals of the U20 World Cup this spring.
"Being with the Red Bulls was always my first choice," Adams affirmed, when asked if committing to college or European academies factored into his decision. "Once I started with the academy and came back from the U17 program, I knew right away that it was the right fit for me. [New York coach] Jesse [Marsch] and the staff he brought with him convinced me that they were going to turn this organization around and focus on youth."
Adams does admit that seeing players like Miazga and Pulisic playing regularly in Europe is a motivating factor. After earning a regular starting spot in the early stages of his career, he believes that staying with Red Bulls is the best route for his development.
"The most important thing is continuing to get minutes," Adams asserted. "I'm continuing to develop, and then doors might open up in the future for myself. Another goal of mine is to break into the national team, and I know I can only do that if I'm playing regularly. The situation I'm in now is great, and I'm looking forward to getting more minutes with the Red Bulls."
Adams has all the makings of a success story. Still, there's room for growth in the U.S./Canadian development structure. While every club would love to develop their own Pulisic, a significant chunk of these generational talents will continue to sign with clubs overseas.
But that may be looking too far down the road. MLS was at a true crossroads in 2007, with contraction and dwindling attendance putting the league in its darkest days. Two rules from that year saved it from implosion. The designated player rule gave the league credibility from day one. However, the Homegrown rule might be the catalyst that will allow MLS to become a league of choice. By giving elite young talent a chance to start sooner, the league has gotten deeper and, in turn, far more fun to watch.
Jeff Rueter is a St. Paul-based writer for ESPN FC and also contributes to The Guardian, FourFourTwo, Howler and MLSsoccer.com. Twitter: @jeffrueter.