Donovan: MLS' Homegrown Players need more minutes
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Landon Donovan was downright delighted with what MLS's Homegrown stars offered during their showcase in advance of Thursday night's All-Star Game: how they grew as the game proceeded; found a workable rhythm; gave Mexico's U-20 national team a fight in the second half.
It wasn't enough to stave off a 2-0 defeat, but winning would have just a bonus. The Homegrown Game, a third-year fixture in MLS' annual All-Star week, is designed primarily to illuminate some the league's better youngsters. Though some like FC Dallas’ Jesse Gonzalez or Seattle’s Jordan Morris arrived with ample MLS experience, most have rarely been seen in their clubs' first teams.
That needs to change, says Donovan, who coached the 20-man squad and says the talent within the group can grow into something special, but only with time on the pitch.
“A lot of them just need a chance,” he said after Wednesday night's game at Avaya Stadium. “Our league has sort of shifted to GMs and coaches taking chances on bringing in foreign guys versus giving young guys opportunities. That's why, when I see Dallas do well and give these guys chances -- the Galaxy to a little bit less of an extent, New York Red Bulls giving these guys chances -- that's the only way we get better as a soccer country.
“And so I'm all for bringing in players, foreigners or older veterans that are going to help, but at some point you want to see these kids get an opportunity. Now if they get five games and they don't do well, then that's the way it goes, but you want to see them get a chance.”
Such opportunities have helped the development of many, including Gonzalez and Real Salt Lake prospects Justen Glad and Jordan Allen, but most of Homegrown squad’s roster sees more action with their clubs' USL affiliates, or in U.S. Open Cup. That's helpful, yes, but the better the level of competition, the better the development.
Orlando City's Tyler Turner, one of two MLS players to go the full 90 Wednesday, hasn't played in a league match. RSL's Phanuel Kavita, the other 90-minute man, has been on the field in just three MLS games during the last season and half. RSL's Danilo Acosta and LA's Raul Mendiola haven't played in a league game this year, and Dallas' Coy Craft has gotten the call just once.
Galaxy forward Jack McBean, who signed a Homegrown pact five years ago, was converted to a USL contract in 2015 and re-signed last month to an MLS deal. He started one game and came off the bench in another when LA was shorthanded up front and hasn't made the 18-man game roster in four games since.
The conflict never changes
Donovan dealt with the same thing when he was young. He signed at 16 with Bayer Leverkusen, struggled to find playing time, and came to MLS, to the San Jose Earthquakes, on loan in 2001. He was already a known quantity -- he'd won the Golden Ball as MVP of the FIFA U-17 World Cup two years earlier and featured in 2000 at the Sydney Olympics -- but he wasn't yet the Donovan that so impressed at the 2002 World Cup.
“My first year I was in San Jose, I played 12 straight games without scoring a goal,” he said. “But [then-Earthquakes coach] Frank Yallop said, 'The team's winning, you're doing well in other areas, we're going to let you play.' Now if he hadn't given me that chance, who knows what happens, right?”
It's not easy to find the playing time for young players requiring a bit of seasoning. Breaking into the 18 or the starting XI has never been more difficult in MLS, and the arrival of so many talented players from Europe and South America means opportunities with first teams are fewer and further between.
“It's coaches' decisions,” Donovan said. “Listen, if I'm a coach in MLS -- I understand -- I've got to win on Saturday to keep my job, right? If it's a choice between playing an 18-year-old who I think has more potential than the guy who's playing but right now the guy who's playing is a little better, you're probably going to take the safe bet.”
Mexico's rise the past decade was aided by a rule in Liga MX's predecessor that mandated clubs use younger players for a certain number of minutes per season. It helped in the development of Andres Guardado and Hector Moreno, among others. Donovan says he'd support such a rule in MLS.
Potential kept hidden
Wednesday's game, for what it's worth, offered players some minutes.
“Getting game time is always great for development ...,” said midfielder Zachary Herivaux, who has made just one MLS appearance for the New England Revolution. “For me, the most important thing was getting game time, playing in the game, enjoying myself with these guys.”
The chance to compare notes with others in similar situations is among the most valuable facets of the Homegrown Game, the players say.
“Thing is, you get to meet new guys, from different teams,” Gonzalez said. “You bond together. At the end of the day, it's something to learn from.”
And who knows who might be watching.
“If you're not playing minutes at your club right now, maybe someone else from another MLS club [sees you here and] says, 'Oh, that kid's pretty good,' ” Donovan noted. “Maybe someone from overseas that happens to be here for [Thursday's night's marquee event], a scout somewhere, says, 'Hey, that's a pretty good player.' It's win-win in that way, and I'm glad they took advantage of it.”
Donovan was impressed by his group, and he made sure they knew that.
“I told them [Tuesday] night that they are so much further ahead at this point in their career than any of us were: Stu [Holden, who was an assistant coach], myself, any of the guys that have played for the national team for a long time,” he said. “A lot of them are not playing minutes with their first team yet, but they're much further along.
“It's more difficult now. We had a little bit of an easier opportunity. There weren’t as many good players [then], but if they really want this, the opportunity's there, and they're good enough to do it. So I hope they take it and take control of their careers and take the next step.”
Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.