The evolution of MLS' homegrown initiative: Growing, but a long way to go

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Ten years into Major League Soccer's push, room for improvement defines the league's development project.

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For nearly the last decade, Major League Soccer has promoted its homegrown program as a league-led initiative that will drive both the league’s growth and that of U.S. Soccer by developing talent within its own borders.

The program has matured significantly since the first Homegrown Player signed in 2008. The returns, however, have not yet been as fruitful as hoped. Part of that is rooted in the fact that MLS academies, unlike most in the world, have had only a short amount of time to grow and produce players.

Most MLS academies are only a decade old, which means Homegrown Players signed at the start of the program had not truly been developed at those clubs. After a decade of work and with a true foundation now in place, however, players like the New York Red Bulls’ Tyler Adams, FC Dallas’ Kellyn Acosta and Portland Timbers’ Marco Farfan represent the next frontier in Homegrown Players: those who spent their formative years in an MLS team’s academy system.

The infrastructure in place for those players has also greatly changed.

USL partnerships, which began with the LA Galaxy II in 2014, have cleared the way for young players to find game minutes to develop. There is now a well-defined pathway to the top of professional soccer in the United States and Canada. Some MLS coaches, too, have been willing to let young players go through growing pains with the first team, and more owners have started to explore that model.

“Signing a Homegrown Player now versus five years ago, six years ago, even four years ago is greatly different,” Real Salt Lake general manager Craig Waibel told FourFourTwo.

FC Dallas technical director Fernando Clavijo agreed.

“It is a big difference,” Clavijo said. “We are prepared now, something we were not in the past.”

Even so, multiple MLS technical directors and general managers interviewed for this story agree there is a long way to go as the homegrown program nears its second decade. The numbers bear that out. Despite more than 175 homegrown signings since 2008 – many of whom qualified under the league’s loose standards for homegrown status – only three teams in MLS have seen their homegrown signings combine for more than 20,000 career minutes at their club: D.C. United, the New England Revolution and FC Dallas.

Those trends continue on the field this season, where just one team in MLS has played Homegrown Players at least 20 percent of its available minutes: the New York Red Bulls. FC Dallas is on the fringe at 19.3 percent.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There is much work to do, and plenty of progress still to be made.

“Academies are in their infancy,” Waibel said. “Dallas and us are well ahead of curve in terms of signing homegrowns, in terms of developing and selling, but it’s still a process. Dallas has some guys that start every game. At RSL, we have Justen Glad [who would be a regular starter] and guys like Jordan Allen, [Sebastian] Saucedo, Brooks Lennon. These are guys none of which start every game, but are counted on to help us win. But we are still very, very, very much in the development phase.”

In order to become an elite league, we have to be willing to sell players in order to improve ... You don’t sell players to put money back in your pocket, you sell to make yourself better."

- Craig Waibel, GM, Reeal Salt Lake

Play the kids

Measuring the progress of the homegrown program can be done in several ways.

The first, and probably the most important, is how many Homegrown Players have come through the system and established themselves as top-level starters in MLS. That list is not as long as you may think. Despite nine years of homegrown signings, it’s not an easy exercise to pick out a top-20 of bona fide homegrown stars.

There are some impressive names, of course: Andy Najar, Bill Hamid, DeAndre Yedlin, Kellyn Acosta and Wil Trapp among them. But it’s a small percentage of the total product, and even consistent career starters are hard to find: Only 21 Homegrown Players have played more than 4,000 regular-season minutes in their MLS careers, according to FFT’s research.

In fact, only eight MLS teams have seen homegrown products total more than 10,000 career regular-season minutes at the club: Seattle Sounders, LA Galaxy, New York Red Bulls, Toronto FC, Columbus Crew, FC Dallas, New England Revolution and D.C. United.

Those numbers may start to trend differently, however.

Ownership groups are starting to ask their front offices for more return on the investment. MLS commissioner Don Garber has said MLS teams spend north of $50 million per year on academies, with an aim on that money eventually bringing a return to the first team. Theoretically, it’s a green light for coaches to let young players get minutes, even at the cost of results in certain moments.

A team like Real Salt Lake, for example, has plenty of incentive to see its many homegrowns log significant minutes this season as it tries to right the ship. RSL has four Homegrown Players on the U.S. team at the U-20 World Cup, and all could be in line for big roles when they return.

The introduction of the USL system bridged the gap between the academy and MLS, too.

“That’s been a big push from all the teams in terms of the investment in the academies and the development of the players and bringing them through,” New York Red Bulls technical director Denis Hamlett said. “I think across the board you can see that. We feel a high importance of our Homegrown Players and bringing them through the system and educating them as to how we want to play. We feel like with Red Bulls II and the first team we have a good pathway for our guys to develop.”

Another measure of the progress of the homegrown program is whether MLS teams are turning the investment in MLS academies into sales in the foreign market. Fewer than 10 Homegrown Players have been sold on the transfer market, however, including Miazga, Najar, Yedlin, Shane O’Neill and Carlos Salcedo. 

We may start to see a shift in that area, as well. As some teams begin to lean more on the homegrown model, they also see those players as a way to eventually re-invest in the team through transfer fees.

One way to incentivize sales may be to remove the limits for Homegrown Players on how much of a transfer fee can be used to supplement a roster with allocation money – or at least to increase it beyond the current $650,000.

“In order to become an elite league, we have to be willing to sell players in order to improve,” Waibel said. “And that’s where most people get confused and most fans get confused. You don’t sell players to put money back in your pocket, you sell to make yourself better. Take X player and when someone offers enough value to improve on that player by selling, maybe not in the exact same position, then it becomes a very, very valuable asset to have. I think we do need to get there. We need to be a bit more fearless in our decision-making and willingness to part with good players, but only with a vision of bringing in more good players, not a vision of putting money back in our pockets.”

As it nears its first decade, the homegrown system’s progress is due, in part, to how teams are developing and identifying young talent.

The making of a homegrown

The guidelines around what constitutes a Homegrown Player have always been somewhat blurry.

Usually, players must compete for a team’s academy for at least one year. Even that rule has been relaxed, at times. It’s why some people draw a distinction between homegrowns who spent less time with their MLS team’s academy and those who truly came up in the system.

Players like Yedlin and Gyasi Zardes were spotted later in their development and brought into MLS academies in their late teens. Others, like Tyler Turner, Harrison Heath and Tommy Redding, were granted homegrown status despite never playing for Orlando City’s MLS academy because it didn’t exist. Teams like Sporting Kansas City have also put in homegrown claims on players like Josh Sargent, who has no connection to the MLS club.  All have fallen within the homegrown rules.

Other, like the Red Bulls’ Adams and FC Dallas’ Acosta, joined at a young age and played up through the system. Those examples are starting to be the norm, but there is an argument that, to some extent, the line shouldn’t matter too much.

“The homegrown program is about development, but it’s also about talent identification,” said D.C. United general manager Dave Kasper, whose academy system spotted and developed two of the best Homegrown Players in MLS history, Andy Najar and Bill Hamid.

As the academies have continued to evolve, however, teams are identifying talent at a younger age and bringing those players through the academy for multiple years. Part of that is due to the fact that the academies now extend into the U-12, U-13 and U-14 age groups – something that didn’t exist when the U.S. Soccer Development Academy was first founded. Some teams are also starting to invest more in youth scouting to find players earlier in their development and integrate them into MLS academies.

“With Kellyn [Acosta], with Paxton [Pomykal], with Jesus [Ferreira], with Jesse [Gonzalez], these guys have been in the academy for six or seven years and we are seeing them grow,” Clavijo said. “Jesus Ferreira, his father was MVP for the league and he was 10 years old when he started playing for our academy. I think that’s real, true academy players and homegrowns. But we have obeyed what the league defines what a Homegrown Player should be. I think we have a little bit more to show.”

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Waibel said coaching at the youth levels has played an important role in the growth of the homegrown system; he pointed to RSL-Arizona director of soccer operations Martin Vasquez, who has loads of professional experience, as an example. It has led to players that are technically and tactically sharper than ever before, Waibel said. 

The advent of the USL system cannot be understated, either.

“When homegrowns started, the league was smaller, there were not as many teams and fewer games,” Waibel said. “Really there weren’t any second-team affiliations. You add teams to MLS, as well as the USL team, and all of a sudden there is the better part of 70 competitive games without counting preseason. When homegrowns first started getting signed it was 28 games with one to two exhibitions, if teams actually played them. The opportunity for homegrowns to get valuable, worthwhile, developmental minutes is exponentially better now.

“There is a complete plan when you sign a Homegrown Player of how you plan to integrate them over the course of time, and there’s more depth and breadth to do that with.”

As MLS moves into its next generation of Homegrown Players, the league should see more impact from that investment. It requires a continued commitment to develop more top-end talent and a willingness to see those players bring returns, both on the field and in the transfer market. Homegrowns can play a vital role in the growth of the league, but the system needs more time to develop.

It’s a common refrain, but for a young league entering its third decade of existence and an academy program that has not yet reached its second, it’s the reality.

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