More than a meme? Why 2017 could be MLS' year of the Homegrown

MLS has long touted its Homegrown initiative. Is this the year the rest of the league starts following FC Dallas?

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When it comes to MLS academies and the quickening flow of Homegrown signings, the actual usage of them sounds like the old Hokey Pokey song. You know, the kids melody where you put “one arm in, take one arm out,” before you put “your head in, take your head out,” etc.

Most teams just haven’t gotten anywhere near the big moment of putting their whole self in. And maybe it’s time more do it.  

The narrative of academies and homegrown signings has been just super for MLS. In some places, the extensive deployment of locally developed young men – looking at you FC Dallas – has been the story.

Developing professionals from within improves league quality with cost efficiency, while also creating real hometown heroes to add more “local” flavor to clubs.  Newspapers, blogs and local TV outlets have swell stories to tell about neighborhood kids done good. Downstream, perhaps the United States national team even stands to profit.

So, yes, American soccer has checked a big box here: Homegrown players are being developed, signed and now affixed to MLS first-team rosters in platoon-sized strength.

Now you know what would be just great? If more of them actually started playing.

It’s time for the next step in this process – for more clubs to incorporate Homegrowns on the regular, in matches that actually matter. It’s time for “play the kids” to be more “policy,” less “meme.”

Could 2017 be a tipping point?

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The percentage of minutes now going to Homegrowns isn’t bad – it’s just not overly impressive when considering that 11 clubs now have four or more Homegrowns on their rosters (several more in some cases).

New England led MLS last year with 20.6 percent of its minutes going to Homegrowns. (The Revs’ figure was bumped up significantly by London Woodberry’s 25 starts; he was originally an FC Dallas Homegrown.)

Real Salt Lake was next at just under 15 percent. Almost 14 percent of FC Dallas’ minutes went to Homegrowns after leading the league in that category in 2015. But they were the scale skewers.

Half the MLS teams (10 of 20) devoted less than 5 percent of their minutes to Homegrowns.  The problem, of course, is that game-day personnel choices – a meddling general manager or owner notwithstanding – generally come down to one man, the manager. It takes guts.

Managers are understandably reluctant to trust their jobs, their very livelihoods, to 18- or 19-year-olds. It looks just peachy on paper to sign these guys, generating return on investment for the academy investments and reaping all that swell PR. 

But you get on the business end of these choices, when the consequences of wins and losses get real, can the manager trust these guys? We imagine and perhaps hope that they can, but previously there was now proof in that homegrown pudding.

Now signs are appearing that 2017 could become a tipping point, that a significant shift to more a liberal sprinkling-in of Homegrowns could happen this year. If it happens, so much of the credit goes to FC Dallas.

For two years, beginning in 2014, Oscar Pareja made good use of the club’s prodigious academy, assigning meaningful starts and appearances to Victor Ulloa, Kellyn Acosta, Moises Hernandez, Jesse Gonzalez and others. But in the bigger picture, the critical moment happened last year as actual achievement landed in suburban Dallas.

See, it was one thing to “play the kids.” It’s something else to demonstrate that winning with them wasn’t just fairy tale stuff. Dallas did just that, conclusive proof that can hopefully embolden more clubs. Perhaps it apparently has.

No MLS team has changed its essential approach as much in a short offseason as the LA Galaxy. The days of multiple, glitzy signings may be done as AEG embraces its more frugal side. That’s good news for a small batch of Galaxy Homegrowns, six currently on the roster. LA was among the first to begin signing promising Homegrowns, but with the likes of Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard and Giovani dos Santos around to gobble up minutes, they have mostly been relegated to spot duty.

Consider that Raul Mendiola, Bradford Jamieson IV and Jack McBean have played 12 combined professional seasons. From that, the trio has just 20 combined starts for LA. More worryingly, the number of starts for that trio barely rose from 2015 to 2016; they combined for six in each season. The payoff, of course, is seeing starts and appearances increase gradually as young Homegrowns age and improve.

Across the country, the Red Bulls now have eight Homegrowns on their roster, and head coach Jesse Marsch has spoken lately about the rising importance of this group. Although rosters are not final, his team’s average age is now just above 25, which is about two years younger than in 2016. That’s not exactly Borussia Dortmund just yet – the Bundesliga side, home to American phenom Christian Pulisic, has some sort of magic conveyor belt in churning out impressive young talent – but it’s a move in the right direction.

The Red Bulls’ 18 total Homegrown signings, by the way, equals Dallas as best in MLS.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

In Houston, naming Wilmer Cabrera is a good sign. Like fellow Colombian manager Pareja, he has successfully worked with younger players, having coached the U.S. Under-17s Under-18s. Safe to say that Pareja’s success just north of Houston helped clear the way for Dynamo GM Matt Jordan to make the call on Cabrera.

In fact, consider this significant shift at BBVA Compass Stadium: The Dynamo began 2016 under Englishman Owen Coyle, which always looked a little too much like U.S. pro soccer in the 80s and 90s, with its heavier lean toward over-the-hills. The hiring of a South American with a reputation for working with young players looks like a 180-degree swing.

A few other places around the league are making noise about better use of Homegrowns. But one place seems particularly worth watching if we’re talking “tipping points.”

Might FC Dallas lead the way again?

Pareja and his team could really race ahead this year in deployment of Homegrowns; the circumstances look right for it.

Pareja is saying, without actually saying it, that he might be OK taking some “Ls” earlier in the year if it means granting extra minutes to the likes of Coy Craft, Paxton Pomykal, Jesus Ferreira and others. (That’s in addition, of course, to Ulloa, Acosta and fellow locals who contributed to last year’s breakthrough season in Frisco.)

As Dallas came into 2016, the club had just one trophy – and that was 20 years earlier, the 1997 U.S. Open Cup crown. Pareja understood the organization desperately needed the nourishment of titles.

Well, that’s been done. Claiming the 2016 Supporters Shield and the 2016 U.S. Open Cup provides Pareja the latitude to approach 2017 differently. He can follow the model the Galaxy used so well under Bruce Arena, and the one Seattle rallied behind last year, if only accidentally. That is, that March, April, May and June are just set-up months, best for cultivating the field. The real business of MLS starts around July; so long as you’re not too far behind, teams can rise and achieve from there.

Pareja is using the word “balance” now in discussing upcoming personnel choices and his 10 Homegrowns. “Now we have a great opportunity to give them more minutes, a good opportunity to accept that we sometimes have to think more about the development of these players. We tried to do it the last three years, but not with the intensity I would have liked because we were pursuing trophies. I think we can do it with more frequency now, for sure.”

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Steve Davis' column, America's Game, runs weekly on FourFourTwo USA. Follow Steve on Twitter @SteveDavis90.