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Bruce Arena: MLS expansion shouldn't come at expense of developing players

Bruce Arena was not on hand for the Galaxy's 1-1 draw at Comunicaciones.
Bruce Arena says Major League Soccer must be cautious in its plans to expand to 28 teams.

CARSON, Calif. -- LA Galaxy manager Bruce Arena feels MLS needs to slow its expansion plans and that the league is losing focus on developing domestic players.

Since the end of the 2004 season, MLS has doubled in size from 10 to 20 teams. Four more clubs are set to come on board by the end of the decade and last month MLS announced plans to expand to 28 teams, though the timeline has not been spelled out.

"I think we need to slow down a little bit," Arena told ESPN FC in a wide-ranging interview. "What we're not prepared for yet is the size of the league. As the league continues to grow and get bigger, there are issues with travel, there are issues with suitable facilities, things that don't make it easier.

"Obviously there are financial rewards for the league when they keep expanding. However, it doesn't necessarily ensure that the product is getting better. You have to be careful and balance that the right way."

When asked if dilution of the player pool was an issue, Arena said he wouldn't describe the problem that way. Instead, he said, there is too much of an emphasis on international players.

"I happen to be of the belief that -- and listen, [the Galaxy] don't have any excuses here either, we have international players -- this league should be focused on our domestic players, and we're losing that," Arena said. "We're not the EPL, where you have these fabulous players from all around the world. I think we need to have the right balance there as well, domestic players to international.

"I know there are issues in terms of labor law and immigration status and that type of thing, but I hope we don't lose sight of that."

In recent years, high-profile players like New York City FC's Frank Lampard, Orlando City's Kaka, and the Galaxy's Steven Gerrard have all joined the league. Arena added that having such players in MLS is a plus, but that there are problems in terms of player wages that need to be addressed.

"To grow the league you need to have better players. I don't think anyone would say that David Beckham being here was the wrong move, that we were playing a 35-year-old or 36-year-old player by the name of David Beckham. I think there are two sides of it," he said.

"I think having Andrea Pirlo and Lampard here and Didier Drogba here is good for the league. You still have to have the other side of it. I think that American players are not paid enough to be as professional as they need to be. I think a paycheck makes a big difference in people's attitudes in life.

"We eventually have to get to a point where all of our players are professional players on a first-team roster [who] don't need to worry about living from paycheck to paycheck.

"That's my personal feeling. I think a lot of our markets in major cities, I think living at a minimum wage in those markets and asking them to be a professional athlete is asking an awful of lot."

In 2016, the minimum salary for the first 24 players on a team's roster will be $62,500, with reserves beyond that number making at least $51,500.

The perception of MLS in most quarters is that of a growing league whose level of play is improving every year. But Arena was more circumspect in his assessment of the level of play.

"I think we're making baby steps," he said. "I don't think it's getting worse by any means, but I think we're at a little bit of a standstill. I don't think the play has improved significantly and it needs to if we're going to challenge to be a top league one day. But there's a simple correlation. It's financial resources."

Arena is of the belief the academy programs that each MLS club now has are an important step in improving the level of play, but he thinks the academies' ability to consistently produce high-caliber players is five to 10 years away and that the 18-21 age group is "still a cloudy time in our development."

Arena also said there are a variety of factors at play in terms of the effectiveness of MLS academies.

"It's getting [players] in earlier, being able to keep them," he said. "We still have this gap out of the academy. Are they ready to play for the next team, the second team or the first team? It's not like we're carrying them all the way through.

"A couple of them make it. A couple of them get promoted or graduated; however you want to say it. And then others are done. It's going to take time. We don't have the resources and the time invested in the academy programs yet to really pay dividends."

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