Ready or not? The double-edged sword of the ‘play your kids’ movement

ISI Photos-Steven Limentani

When it comes to young players getting minutes, there's more than meets the eye, MLS coaches tell FourFourTwo.

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Just “Play the Kids,” right? Isn’t that what we keep hearing, especially around Major League Soccer? A whole bunch of the noise out there seems to suggest that it’s the fix for all that ails U.S. Soccer.

And besides, it is such a catchy little phrase, isn’t it? There’s just one little problem:

“Play the kids” is often more of a nifty meme than an actual, practical application. Sure, the professional soccer world – MLS included – is sprinkled with young players who earn and deserve meaningful minutes. But plenty of young pros just aren’t there yet, and there are more considerations and complicating factors than your average armchair manager might understand. Recall this little maxim: show me a simple solution to a complicated problem, and I’ll show you the wrong solution.

It’s so doggone tempting to speed up the growth curve. No question that it would be great to see more of Andrew Carlton, the 17-year-old Georgian who picked up a sweet assist in the dying moments of Atlanta’s weekend romp over 10-man Vancouver. Same for Chris Durkin, an 18-year-old Homegrown for D.C. United. He has played 47 minutes in three matches. And on it goes. Most MLS rosters have a player or two who also pop up on U.S. Under-20 or Under-18 rosters, or intriguing young players from abroad.

What these talented teens and young 20-somethings can do for clubs – not just on the field, but in transfers that reap profit and nourish achievement within the club’s academy efforts – is rarely lost on fans or media. Their development also has implications on their respective national teams. Thus the clarion call to “play the kids.”

If only it were that simple.

“You are making decisions based on form of team, form of players, partnerships on the field, you name it,” Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes tells FourFourTwo. “Obviously, you take into consideration the player’s growth, their confidence, whether they are ready or not ready. There’s a lot that goes into those decisions.”

The mathematics of “ready or not ready” that Vermes mentioned are fluid and frequently complex. LAFC manager Bob Bradley pointed out that these decisions aren’t just about the player, but about where a young player – really, any player on the roster – fits into the club’s larger strategic approaches. What are the team’s ambitions at micro and macro levels? Is this a “buying club” or a “spending club,” for instance? How does playing time in matches prepare a player relative to the club’s bigger targets?

“So at a certain point, you are trying to figure out: ‘When is this guy ready?’ How good is he? You don’t want to throw a player in before he’s ready,” Bradley said. “But you also don’t want to slow ‘em down and hold ‘em up.

“For me, over the years, you are constantly trying to identify young, talented players, and then one of most important steps is to get them into first-team training, see how they do every day. Based on how quickly they pick things up, how quickly they adjust, then you’re starting to think about how to move them along and what’s the right speed to move them along?”

Photo Courtesy LAFC

Photo Courtesy LAFC

If that sounds like “next level” thinking, it is. It goes well beyond the thinner conversations between supporters and (probably too often) media, who talk about this stuff in a very different context. Mostly, we say that getting youngsters on the field is tricky because coaches want to win games and keep their jobs, and may not favor sacrificing the here-and-now for the potential of later, greater glory. In other words, they get risk-averse.

Of course there’s still some of that. Ten MLS clubs didn’t make the playoffs last season; five of them had a coaching change at some point in 2017. Young players’ inevitable mistakes (and the impact those boo-boos could have personally on a manager’s employment) are part of the calculus. But there’s so much more to it.

For instance, let's juxtapose these competing notions: We all love seeing young Americans like DeAndre Yedlin, Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie go to Europe and thrive. This is one area where we apparently all agree with Jurgen Klinsmann: that they improve when dropped into fierce, daily competition, where they fight their way into the first 11 or languish on the bench.

But if we’re all out here hollering, “play the kids!” then what are we really saying? We want players to go test themselves in Europe – but if they are here, we just want to “give” them starts or minutes they possibly didn’t earn? And while it’s sound logic to ask if we’ll ever know what young players are made of if they don’t get opportunities in matches, there is a counter: How do we know they are earning that time in the 166 hours of the week when we don’t see their team play?

Losing the plot?

Sorting through the wreckage of the U.S. men’s national team’s instantly notorious U.S. crash out in World Cup qualifying, there was even loose chatter in MLS circles of legislating minutes for Americans or perhaps for young players in general. How does that square with the notion of "earning" your time? If we're just giving time to youngsters, haven’t we seriously lost the plot?

A common refrain is that youngs get the call when they are good enough. You know, “If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.” That presumably means the player is sufficiently talented. But what about when “talented” still isn’t quite good enough? In other words, what if he still doesn’t understand tactical roles? Or, what if his attitude just isn’t right? Or if there is still a better or equally talented player in front of him on the depth chart?

There are examples right now in MLS of young players who might be tiptoeing the fringes of their national team, some who maybe even go into a national team camp and come out less grounded. Does a manager put that guy on the field? Isn’t he doing the young player a long-term disservice in doing so? We surely don’t want to see another Freddy Adu.

“It’s a double-edged sword when a kid is not ready,” Vermes said. “First, you are putting him into a bad situation. But you’re also putting the team in jeopardy because you’re not putting the best team on the field.”

That sounds like a lose-lose. Of course, it’s not just about attitude; it’s also about confidence, about cultivating that critical self-belief. What if playing “the kid” isn’t the best thing for the him in the long run? This is where it all gets situation-specific.

“It depends on the individual,” Bradley said. “Some guys can get thrown in, and even if it doesn’t go well, they are strong enough mentally that in the long run, it doesn’t cause long-term damage. Others … you might be doing that.”

Bradley once had a young Brad Guzan at Chivas USA. Guzan was probably starting before he was ready in 2005. When Bradley took over the club in 2006, he found a ‘keeper whose confidence and belief was firmly intact. “He got thrown in and, as much as the team did poorly [in 2005], Brad was mentally strong. That first year’s experience hadn’t caused any big problems.”

There are club-related issues, too. Last year, as things began to unravel during FC Dallas’ long, unhappy summer, manager Oscar Pareja pushed back against a growing chorus of “play the kids.” Pareja, himself arguably the face of actually integrating young MLS talent, seemed agitated in this instance. “Who? Who do you want me to play?” he asked a group one day, rhetorically.

Jesus Ferreira was 16, he said, and not ready for a regular role. Ferreira was probably only on a professional contract because Dallas was still smarting from McKennie’s departure to Schalke with zero compensation. Thus, around Toyota Stadium and perhaps around MLS, the practice of stashing young talent as asset protection was initiated. So “signing” no longer necessarily meant “prepared to contribute” on game day. And about Paxton Pomykal, then 17: Pareja noted that Pomykal’s best position was either behind Kellyn Acosta (himself still an emerging young American player) or behind Mauro Diaz, a league Best XI midfielder who was recovering from injury and sorely in need of minutes to smooth out his game.

Elsewhere, Pareja said, the team’s technical director had gone out and purchased players like Hernan Grana and Cristian Colman. They deserved every possible chance to prove their worth and demonstrate that these acquisitions weren’t busts for the club.  “I have an obligation to those players, too,” Pareja insisted, “not just to our academy players.”

Indeed, this was another of Bradley’s points about how these things need viewing in a more comprehensive context. A club may have a terrific young right-sided attacking prospect, for example. But if upper management buys a more experienced right-sided attacker, playing the kids just got a lot more complicated in that instance.

Expediting the process isn't always a solution

Sure, it would be great to see these guys hurry along, to expedite the growth process for the talented likes of Vancouver’s Alphonso Davies (hat tip to you guys, Canada!), Real Salt Lake’s Brooks Lennon or Seattle’s Handwalla Bwana, just to name three.

Wouldn’t it be great to supply them full-time minutes and more significant roles, just as Tyler Adams grabbed with such maturity and success in 2017 with the New York Red Bulls? Or like Pulisic and McKennie are getting at a higher level still at strong Bundesliga clubs? But that’s sort of the point – that they are special cases, and that they are ready now. Not everyone is an Adams or a Pulisic, and Vermes gets a little indignant when that comes up.

There are plenty of MLS managers who would and do recognize special talents. He has no doubt that someone like Pulisic would play regularly at most MLS addresses, and chafes at suggestions otherwise.

Now, not everyone around MLS agrees completely; some wonder whether talent recognition at younger ages is where it should be around MLS and within U.S. Soccer. But that’s another conversation – one that we’ve had for decades. Without resolution, it must be said.

Journalists and supporters clamoring to see young MLS players climb their respective depth charts have an incomplete picture, Vermes said. Even as a technical director previously – Vermes held that role for Sporting before moving into the manager’s chair in 2009 – he quickly discovered a new level of familiarity once he got “out of the office” and into the daily grind on the field.

“There are a lot of things I found that I didn’t know [about the players],” he said. “Until you coach the team, until you’re involved inside those white lines every day, there’s just a lot you don’t know. What are his training habits? How is his competitiveness? How does he respond when things aren’t going well? I just know they [media and supporters] don’t have the intimate knowledge like we do.”

Of course managers should push young talent when it makes sense. It’s getting tougher as discretionary funds keep allowing MLS clubs to further fortify the middle of their roster, effectively pushing up-and-comers further down the pecking order. Still, it’s happening.

Could it be better in some places? Bradley mentioned that within MLS – and around the world, for that matter – the track record of getting meaningful minutes for young players is certainly better at some places than at others. And going forward, that part of the equation might become more meaningful in itself.

“If you’re a young player, looking at situations and opportunities, you want to go somewhere where you feel like, ‘If I train well, show what I’m all about, I’m probably getting a chance to play.’ ”

In the end, that’s what it’s about: getting a chance. It just needs to be earned.

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