MLS’ homegrown arms race is reaching ludicrous levels

ISI Photos-John Dorton

The territorial battle for players is happening at younger ages, and the rules remain a little cloudy.

Last week, Sporting Kansas City signed the youngest player in MLS history not named Freddy Adu, a tantalizingly talented 15-year-old named Gianluca Busio.

A flashy, versatile attacker, Busio has scored eight goals for the U.S. U-15 national team this year, including five in five matches at the CONCACAF U-15 Boys’ Championship in August, where the young Yanks finished second. He’s been called “arguably the most all-around talented player in the entire U.S. youth national team pipeline,” and some evaluators rate him more highly than his much-ballyhooed U.S. teammate, Giovanni Reyna, son of Claudio.

Sporting elected to sign Busio to a Homegrown Player contract at this early stage as a statement of purpose and to head off the prospect of him using a European Union passport, obtained via his Italian father, to make the leap across the Atlantic.

SKC is laying claim despite the fact Busio hails from Greensboro, North Carolina, and has been in Sporting’s system for barely a year. A product of the youth club North Carolina Fusion, Busio was identified by SKC’s sizeable scouting network and relocated to the Midwest last summer. He lives with a host family and is finishing his high-school education via online courses.

Busio’s rare gifts and Italian roots give him more leverage than most. But he’s a harbinger of several trends sweeping across the elite ranks of the U.S. youth game.

Top pro prospects are getting spotted younger and younger, and they’re being recruited on a national basis that often pushes the definition of the term “homegrown” to its breaking point, occasionally antagonizing grassroots clubs in the process. And agents are flocking, even to out-of-the-way places few fans would expect to be hotbeds.

The hunt is on for young stars

“The clubs that have the weaker territories for talent are doing everything in their power to color outside the lines to beef up their academy system, so they have a shot to compete with the big boys, with the LAs, the Dallases, the New Yorks,” one insider with extensive knowledge of the landscape told FourFourTwo USA, speaking under condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

“The clubs that know that their markets aren’t providing enough talent, those are the hungry ones. … The top kids are getting four or five calls after a big tournament, [with clubs] saying, ‘What are you doing? What’s your thoughts? Is this something you’d entertain?’”

Busio is one of several prized MLS youngsters with a similar path. His fellow SKC youngsters Daniel Salloi and Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal trace their roots to Hungary and Malaysia (via Illinois), respectively. FC Dallas homegrown winger Coy Craft is actually from the southwestern corner of Virginia, about 1,000 miles northeast of Frisco, Texas. Real Salt Lake gems Jordan Allen and Justen Glad are from Rochester, New York, and Tucson, Arizona.

Gianluca Busio

Gianluca Busio

Most were spotted at showcase events or by local contacts, wooed, and groomed far from their home communities. Some clubs can offer them residential facilities, while others arrange host families or group houses where several prospects live and commute together.

Are MLS clubs truly “developing” those players in the traditional sense? And is this state of affairs in the players’ best interest? Those questions are open to debate.

“I think it's positive for MLS teams to be actively seeking some of the best players in the youth game and offering them opportunities to be exposed to higher levels sooner, whether within the USL or first-team training opportunities,” said TopDrawerSoccer.com’s Travis Clark, a longtime observer of the elite youth landscape who also writes for FourFourTwo USA. “Provided, of course, that they are also paying close attention to players in their backyard and working with younger age groups to prepare them as well.

“MLS teams should be the drivers of development in this country, as pro teams around the world do. The hope is that the MLS teams are also keeping the best interests of youth players in mind, and not just looking out for their own.”

The Kansas City Star reports that Sporting KC has added six academy scouts in the past year; a FourFourTwo source estimates that about half the league is now investing significant resources in youth scouting. “Small-market” clubs like SKC, RSL, the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew feel an urgency driven by the smaller, shallower talent pools in their regions.

Even teams from large metropolises like FCD, the Seattle Sounders, Philadelphia Union, LA Galaxy and Atlanta United – whose market was a favorite hunting ground of other clubs before it entered the league – are getting involved, too. One scout told FourFourTwo USA that Atlanta, despite being new to the game, has already cast its reach across the greater south, from Mississippi to Tennessee.

All are keen to push the envelope in a sphere that’s still only lightly, and often haphazardly, regulated by the league’s central office.

Land rush: A still undefined map

Just like increased ambition, spending and networking have fueled a bull run for MLS on the international transfer market over the past year or two, a similar arms race has quietly sparked to life at the academy level. Unaffiliated DA clubs have little protection.

“How much poaching is going on? Tons,” said another source. “Certain teams are more respectful than others. They will get in touch with the technical directors and coaches of the player in question before going to the player and his parents. Others will bypass them altogether and find the players' parents and try to woo them.”

MLS headquarters has for years tried to impose some order by delineating “homegrown territories,” geographical catchment areas in which teams have preferential rights to sign local or regional products. A few teams have tried to expand their reach by crafting affiliate partnerships, like Portland with the Boise Timbers Nationals in Idaho or Colorado’s Carolina Rapids – though it’s notable that the latter couldn’t snare a claim to Busio. Most teams in and around dense soccer hotbeds only have dibs on a 75-mile radius drawn around their home stadium.

Huge swathes of talent-rich turf – including and especially places like Busio’s native North Carolina – are still unclaimed by MLS teams, fostering something of an “if you’re not cheating you’re not trying” mentality.

“Every situation is different,” said one insider. “Where is the line? How do they draw that line? Ultimately someone’s going to be pissed off … [MLS is] basically creating precedent every single time they make a decision, and it’s going to upset someone. It’s a no-win situation with these convoluted territory rights.”

Few work the system with more savvy than Sporting KC’s Peter Vermes, who possesses as deep a Rolodex as any American coach. Sporting prevailed upon the league to mark off the entire states of Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma as its territory, has cultivated a sprawling network of regional affiliate clubs and does not hesitate to challenge the homegrown claims of other clubs.

“We have to develop our own players. We have to,” Vermes told the Star. “We’re not going to be investing millions of dollars into a few players. We have to take that money and invest it in a structure that will create those players ourselves.”

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

In past years, SKC successfully contested Dallas’ claim to former U.S. youth international Boyd Okwuonu and Philadelphia’s rights to Keegan Rosenberry, forcing the Union to burn a draft pick on its own academy product. Conversely, last winter, Sporting gained the MLS rights to talented teenage striker Josh Sargent via his residence in Missouri and a brief summer training stint in KC, despite the fact that he’s from St. Louis and was primarily developed by the Scott Gallagher youth club, which operates USL side Saint Louis FC.

Even when such players don’t choose to sign with MLS, these gambits can pay off down the line. In 2013, San Diego-area native Paul Arriola spent less than a year with the Galaxy and spurned the club’s homegrown contract offer to join Liga MX’s Club Tijuana. LA somehow managed to keep hold of his MLS rights, eventually claiming half a million dollars in allocation money from D.C. United when that club acquired him earlier this summer.

Leverage: The golden ticket

Similar to Busio’s EU passport, Arriola carried a priceless tool as he turned pro: access to Mexican citizenship via his family’s heritage. It made him a far easier and more attractive signing for Xolos, and it gave his representatives crucial bargaining power vis-a-vis MLS, which is known for its hardball approach to negotiating with domestic players.

Add in the reality that clubs both at home and abroad are generally keen to bring players into their systems at the youngest age possible and it’s made U.S. and Canadian youth national teamers with foreign passports – or concrete offers, like the deal that lured Weston McKennie away from FC Dallas to German power Schalke – the most prized commodity in the player pool. That’s duly drawn the focus of leading reps like Wasserman Media Group, James Grant Sports and Octagon.

“You’re seeing the major agencies really go as young as possible, really be embedded in the MLS academy system and targeting players that want to go abroad early and get them out – because that’s where the money is, that’s where the return on their investment is,” said one source.

“If you have a leverage point with an MLS homegrown, then you know you can squeeze a little bit more of that money out of the pot that they have available to pay him. Otherwise you’re looking at what is pretty close to the league minimum [salary] and some incentives here and there.”

McKennie’s case is both instructive and influential. Thanks to U.S. Soccer’s policy against training compensation or solidarity payments for clubs whose academy products move abroad, FCD was left empty-handed by the polished central midfielder’s departure.

The club’s leaders were infuriated, and they responded with a flurry of teenage homegrown captures, breaking the club’s record for youngest-ever signing twice last winter as Paxton Pomykal, Jesus Ferreira and Bryan Reynolds moved up from the academy. Even though none were seen as ready for MLS minutes, Dallas’ investment is now more secure, with foreign clubs unable to swoop in and grab them for nothing. Busio’s signing follows a similar rationale.

The phenomenon of “diaper dandies,” prospects recruited at ever-younger ages by big-time college programs, is familiar to fans of basketball, American football and even women’s soccer. Now MLS is following suit, and it’s probably only a matter of time before Freddy Adu’s record – 14 years, 10 months and 1 day – bites the dust.

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