MLS players divided on whether young Americans get enough playing time in league
Major League Soccer players are largely split on whether young American players get enough playing time, with 51 percent of players polled telling ESPN the league offers sufficient opportunities.
In a poll of 104 current MLS players conducted by ESPN on the condition of anonymity, 43 percent said MLS should be doing more to give young U.S. players more minutes, while 6 percent were unsure.
The question became a talking point during the MLS offseason after U.S. star Christian Pulisic, who plays for Borussia Dortmund in Germany, wrote in a piece for The Players' Tribune that the country's best teenage players were "not being put on the field much to actually play" despite being included in first-team rosters.
Since then, three U.S. under-17 players -- Josh Sargent, Zyen Jones and Chris Gloster -- have all signed with clubs in Germany. Meanwhile, MLS clubs have increasingly started looking abroad for young talent, with teams signing 96 newcomers from other leagues at an average age of just over 25, including 30 players from South American countries who average 22 years old.
But minutes for players who come out of MLS academies are also increasing. Last season, MLS homegrown players started a record 803 games, playing more than 74,000 minutes, an increase from 2014, when they only started 422 times and played 39,000 minutes.
In the poll, one player told ESPN he believed the opportunities for young players were "on par with other leagues," while another said more chances will come as the youth system improves.
Others felt general managers and coaches were put in the difficult position to appease club ownership by prioritizing short-term success over long-term development.
One Eastern Conference player said: "I think that when a staff is asking their owner to spend money on players, and then they don't play that player and play a young player, it decreases their chances of convincing owners to spend the 'discretionary' salary."
Players who felt there were not enough minutes for young players were more outspoken, with a number of players pointing to the failure of the U.S. national team to qualify for this summer's World Cup as proof that MLS must better develop domestic talent.
"Certain clubs do emphasize playing their [homegrown] players but it's not enough," one player told ESPN. "There's an emphasis right not with this league on signing young players from abroad with [targeted allocation] money. Which is good from a business perspective.
"But if we want our young players to develop, if we want our federation to develop, if we want our national team to develop, these guys need to get games. These guys are the future of our national team. So we want these guys to stay domestic first and foremost, and we want them to play."
Earlier this month, MLS released figures touting itself as the "youngest, most diverse league in North America" among all sports, but one player said adding players from abroad will lead more top U.S. talent to pursue moves to Europe earlier in their careers.
"I think that we do need to think more about our future," he said. "As the league continues to have a lot of diversity, it does seem that we are losing talent -- not because talent isn't there, but because of fewer opportunities for our young generations to get more playing time."
As for a solution, one Eastern Conference player said MLS could look to Mexico, where the Liga MX has a rule to give more chances to young domestic players, even with a similar influx of talent from South America.
"I'd implement a rule [where] a percentage of young Americans under age of 21 has to get a certain amount of minutes during the year," he said. "The Mexico league is so strong, especially due to the amount of foreign players, specifically the amount of South American players that are in the league that constantly are raising the level, and bringing more competitiveness within the club.
"I see that happening in front of my eyes here in the U.S., and I think that's great. But in Mexico they have the 9/9 rule, where you have to have at least nine [players that were registered in Mexico before turning 18] on the gameday roster. I think it would be important to obviously want the league to grow but we don't want to take everything away from young American players because U.S. Soccer is important to us and not qualifying for the World Cup is a ginormous blow.
"I think you have to look at it that way. How can we get young players to develop early on in their career? Giving a percentage to young American players is one way to do it."
Follow @ESPNFC on Twitter to keep up with the latest football updates.