Global challenge: MLS trying to balance player development, importing talent

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Rapid expansion leaves no shortage of roster spots. Winning time in starting XIs, though? That's a higher bar.

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On opening day of the 2017 Major League Soccer season, expansion sides Atlanta United and Minnesota United will trot out their first lineups in team history.

Both will likely include more foreign-born players than American.

Just three American-born players are projected to be in Atlanta’s starting lineup: Michael Parkhurst, Greg Garza and Alec Kann. In Minnesota, the lineup will include players from Sweden, Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica, Denmark and Finland. There will likely be fewer than five American-born players in the starting XI.

The expansion teams are only the most recent example of a growing trend in MLS.

As MLS has matured and expanded, so too has the league’s international scouting network. And while MLS has maintained just eight international roster spots per team, the green card process has allowed teams to field more than that allotment.

Of the 555 players listed as active and under contract on this week, 267 were born in the United States, 29 were born in Canada and another 259 were born outside of those two countries. The numbers will likely fluctuate some when teams fill out their rosters. None of the 22 teams has yet signed the maximum 30 players.

The number of internationally-born players also includes some U.S. men’s national team players, most notably Jermaine Jones, Juan Agudelo, Kekutah Manneh, Mix Diskerud, Benny Feilhaber and Darlington Nagbe. It also includes other dual citizens that hold U.S. passports, including Seb Hines and Danilo Acosta.

When including dual citizens, approximately 50 percent of MLS is American. The number of domestic players jumps to 55.5 percent when including Canadian-born players. That’s a slight drop from 2016, when those numbers were 286 Americans, 244 international and 30 Canadian-born players – or about 57.3 percent domestic and 51.9 percent American.

By comparison, the EPL was only 33 percent English-born in 2016, according to the CIES Football Observatory, while 42.1 percent of Serie A was Italian and the Bundesliga was about 50 percent German-born.

Those numbers shouldn’t be surprising during an era of MLS expansion. The U.S. player pool, frankly, is stretched. Expansion has provided more jobs than ever for American players, yet the top players in MLS are coming more frequently from outside of the border. Six MLS front office officials interviewed said the increase in top-end international talent is not a negative for the growth of American soccer, however.

The consensus opinion: Improving the level of play in MLS by importing talent will help the progress of the American player, both in the short- and long-term.

“If we want to compete with the world, we need to have good players in every position,” FC Dallas technical director Fernando Clavijo said. “Those international players need to be better than the possibility you have with American players … I’ll always take an American in front of anyone else. But we’re talking about getting better and reaching the next step and the next level. They need help.”

Development and opportunity

At the National Soccer Coaches Association of America convention this winter, U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena and former Seattle Sounders coach Sigi Schmid held a forum in front of a group of coaches.

At one point, Arena mentioned the influx of higher-caliber foreign talent into MLS and talked about the challenges that created for American players. He reiterated those thoughts in a recent media call, though his answer revealed the give-and-take this issue presents, not just in the U.S., but around the world ...

“The movement over the last two or three years takes away spots on the field for American players, and/or players holding U.S. passports,” Arena said. “It also impacts academy programs, because as kids or players move up the ladder, there are fewer spots for them and clubs are under pressure to win … It’s going to be a challenge in developing elite U.S. soccer players in MLS right now, but I think everyone knows the situation.

“The league is expanding, so expansion still improves positions for American players. It’s going to be a real battle. That’s the real world. Christian Pulisic went to Germany, and he was not guaranteed anything, and young players in MLS are not guaranteed anything either. So, they’ve got to work real hard and fight to get into first teams.”

Arena is right. On one hand, there are more spots for American players today than even three years ago simply because the league has added four new teams. Yet, the integration of Targeted Allocation Money was done specifically to improve roster spots four through seven. Those TAM spots have been used on a majority of international players, pushing Americans further down the depth chart and making it harder for young Homegrown players to break through.

Targeted Allocation Money has also been used to keep top American talent in the league, including Nagbe, Jones, Matt Besler and Gyasi Zardes, but more than 75 percent of TAM signings have been international players, according to FourFourTwo USA’s research.

Multiple MLS general managers, though, pointed to the league’s focus on development as a counterbalance to the top end of rosters leaning more international. The goal is to improve competition within the first team, but also to integrate more Homegrown players into the mix.

MLS is set to introduce a new rule that allows clubs to expand the rosters from 28 to 30, but only if the final two spots are held by Homegrown players. That effort alone will increase the number of American players in MLS. In addition, the league’s focus on adding second-division clubs to develop players has added significant roster space for American players to get games. Those United Soccer League teams will be one of the most vital stages for American development.

“We are trying to close the gap from the academy to the first team,” said Portland Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson, who signed several players from Portland’s USL side, T2, this season. “Those questions [about developing Homegrowns] deserved to be asked. Division two isn’t MLS, but it’s a lot closer than what the academy was …

“The vision is to develop more homegrown talent. Ownership groups are putting pressure to make sure we’re bringing players through and the investment in academies is worthwhile.”

Seattle general manager Garth Lagerwey echoed those thoughts.

“With the resources that we put into our academies now, it is amazing, the opportunities, the coaching, the improvement that is available to these kids that certainly didn't exist in my day and honestly didn't exist 10 years ago,” he said.

In other words, the goal of improving the level of play by adding international talent must go hand-in-hand with efforts to develop the American players.

It has been massive part of the success for FC Dallas, which has eight Homegrowns on its first-team roster. Clavijo pointed to midfielder Paxton Pomykal, who he said was next in line behind Mauro Diaz, as benefitting from playing and training alongside the likes of Diaz, Javi Morales and Carlos Gruezo. He also said coach Oscar Pareja’s willingness to play Homegrowns has made the process easier.

Atlanta United president Darren Eales said it has also been a central part of the expansion side’s building process, modeled after Eales’ experience at Tottenham, where homegrown talent was necessary to compete with the powerhouse teams in England. While Atlanta has drawn headlines for its big-splash international signings, it also inked two Homegrown players.  

“In America, there is difference [from England]. It is a fantastic opportunity to blend high-quality players coming in internationally with younger players,” Eales said. “There is increased expenditure and resources to help talent develop quicker and to a higher level because they get an opportunity to play. It’s much easier to play in this country in MLS at the moment given the standard and rules on internationals than in England in the Premier League.”

That commitment is necessary for the health of the sport in the U.S. and the future of the national team, which is inexorably linked with its domestic league. Improving the level of play in that domestic league is also vital, however.

Long-term view

The short-term impact of the influx of international players, especially at the top of rosters as Designated Players and Targeted Allocation signings, is an improved product on the field today. The long-term impact of that improved product filters down to the youth levels, and even beyond Homegrown players already in the system.

Eales said an improved product for MLS will draw more eyeballs and eventually result in higher salaries. That, in turn, might begin to draw more athletes away from sports like baseball and football. Teams are also beginning to increase budgets for domestic scouting to identify players from around the country to bring into their homegrown system.

The ultimate goal is to sign and develop homegrown players and be able to sell them for a profit, ultimately making MLS a more-involved league in the global market.

“Honestly, we're doing everything we can to find America players and develop them,” Lagerwey said. “I think that's going to be a key to success going forward.”

In the end, though, it will come down to the opportunity given those Homegrown players. If the balance dissipates, the goal of improving American soccer does, too.

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