Head start, fewer limits keep Mexican academies ahead of MLS development

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

With a decades-long head start and fewer geographic and financial limits, Mexico's clubs, in Liga MX and beyond, continue to outpace their MLS counterparts.

When the final whistle sounded on FC Dallas’ 2-1 win over Liga MX side Monterrey, the team stormed the field to celebrate a historic win for an American team.

The game wasn’t in the CONCACAF Champions League, but rather in the Super Group of the Dallas Cup, a top youth competition that had never before been won by an MLS side. It marked significant progress for an MLS academy.

On-field results, however, are just one measure of where academy ranks – and not the most important one. While MLS is making progress with its academy teams, the league still has work to do to catch up to its top regional rivals when it comes to producing top professionals.

We are getting much, much closer than we have ever been before, but still I think economically [Liga MX clubs] are looking at a lot more players than we are able to look at …

- Fernando Clavijo

MLS often points to its investment in academy system – commissioner Don Garber has stated the financial commitment is north of $50 million per year, or about $2.5 million per team – but those resources still fall short of what the top teams in Mexico put into their academy programs.

The results have been obvious at teams like Pachuca, which has brought through players like Hirving Lozano, Rodolfo Pizarro and Erick Gutierrez, all of whom are the subject of major transfer rumors. Even Costa Rican powerhouse Saprissa has seen nearly 20 players come through its youth system and into the national team ranks in the last decade-plus.

In other words, there is work left to do for MLS to catch up to its top regional rivals.

“We are very, very, very close,” FC Dallas technical director Fernando Clavijo told FourFourTwo. “I tell you the amount of players that Pachuca and Monterrey and the Mexican academies have, they are double or triple the players we have here for a very simple reason: economics. We have rules, we don’t have many roster spaces to sign kids. They are looking at a lot more players than we have to do because of [homegrown] territories, protected players. It’s difficult. … We are getting much, much closer than we have ever been before, but still I think economically they are looking at a lot more players than we are able to look at, and it makes it difficult to find more players.”

RBNY's Tyler Adams is a shade behind Chivas' David Avalos (John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports)

John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Former U.S. national team forward Herculez Gomez, who developed at an academy in Mexico and played professionally in both Liga MX and MLS, said the MLS academies still have a long way to go to reach the level of those Liga MX teams. That’s due in part to the head start Liga MX teams had in setting up the infrastructure of its academy system, which includes not just the top professional teams, but second- and third-division clubs that spend most of their resources developing youth players that they can then sell on to the top clubs.

Gomez pointed to his former club, Estudiantes Tecos, as a team that never had a strong first team but was academy-focused and was eventually bought out by Pachuca when it was relegated out of Liga MX. The team still exists as Mineros, but its academies – fuerzas básicas – still exist in Zacatecas and as a third-division club in Guadalajara.

“If you did a top 20 [of academies in CONCACAF] the allocation would be heavily tilted in the favor of these Mexican clubs,” said Gomez, who is now a commentator for ESPN. “Like 80-20 [towards Mexico], and I’m being generous. There are second- and third-division clubs in Mexico that have better academy set-ups than most MLS … There are fuerzas básicas like Tecos in other parts of Mexico where the youth setup is greater than the first team setup.”

Roberto Cornejo, assistant general manager of Club Tijuana, said he thinks MLS academies are improving, saying American academies also deserve credit for players who come up through the ranks before departing for Europe. Xolos has committed a good amount of resources to its academy since it was in the second division, and all Liga MX teams are required to field teams in the U-20, U-17 and U-15 divisions, as well as a second-division team.

Tijuana had six players it considers homegrown in the lineup at the end of the season, but Cornejo said he certainly sees the progress being made north of the border.

“It’s hard to answer, I don’t know how you judge the end result,” Cornejo said, of comparing Liga MX and MLS. “If it’s players placed in the first-division teams, I see a lot of American players going to Europe, too. It’s not necessarily easy to say American academies are not working because they are playing in MLS, you also see a lot going abroad. I’m sure both the Mexican and American academies have room for improvement.”

As MLS continues to play catch-up, teams are finding ways to work with the rules in place for the U.S. Development Academy. While homegrown territories of other MLS teams limit scouting ability to some extent, there are many pockets in the U.S. where MLS academies can’t and don’t reach. Increased budgets in scouting are needed to reach those markets, however, as well as a commitment by teams to look outside of their local areas.

Gary Rohman/MLS/USA TODAY Sports

Gary Rohman/MLS/USA TODAY Sports

Real Salt Lake has had much success in doing just that, recruiting players to its Casa Grande location in Arizona, a method that has produced pros like Danilo Acosta (above), Justen Glad and Jordan Allen. Other teams are starting to utilize residential academies, as well, including the Philadelphia Union and Sporting Kansas City, which has effectively used affiliate academies to mine talent in the Midwest.

The task now is to turn those efforts into on-field results for the first team. The teams that have made those commitments are starting to see the results with top, young talent, including FC Dallas, the New York Red Bulls and Real Salt Lake, all of which feature multiple academy products in their first-team lineups.

I believe MLS teams have better environments for players to develop in than Liga MX … I think that Mexico has a U-20 league that provides players to the first team that is not matched by anything we have here yet.

- Tab Ramos

“More professionals are coming through the academies now,” Real Salt Lake general manager Craig Waibel said. “But getting to the first team is more difficult as resources grow greater for the first team [roster]. It’s nice to look at local countries [when comparing], but also look at the European models, the German model, the English model, the Spanish model. Very few of the elite teams bring kids through the system as opposed to developing and selling them to support the rest of the system. A lot of definition takes place in terms of how each club wants to run their academy and how to integrate those players.”

USL affiliate squads are also helping to expand that reach by giving MLS teams the ability to develop and sign more players that can come up through the second team. It’s an evolving relationship, but one that is helping MLS teams make up ground in the race to produce pro players.

The USL system, in fact, may be one of the bigger boosts to MLS academies when it comes to catching up to the Mexican infrastructure. U.S. under-20 national team coach Tab Ramos alluded to exactly that in an interview with philly.com.

“I believe MLS teams have better environments for players to develop in than Liga MX,” Ramos said this winter. “Having said that, I think that Mexico has a U-20 league that provides players to the first team that is not matched by anything we have here yet. That's a gap that we at U.S. Soccer are trying to work together with MLS to try to fill…

Now, if you're one of the better players in Mexico, you will flourish in one of these leagues. But if you're not, the environment of each club, it's not a great one to develop a player in.”

The results of this year’s CONCACAF Champions League proved there is still work to be done for MLS to reach its goal of surpassing Liga MX as the top league in CONCACAF. FC Dallas’ win in the Dallas Cup showed that MLS is at least making some progress on the academy fields, too, but every indication is that a continued commitment – financial and idealogical – is needed to narrow that gap even more.

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Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.