MLS Youth Report
Heading into 2021, what's next in MLS for the Play Your Kids movement?
April 15, 2021
THE TARDY 2021 MLS season will soon be upon us and as such, club rosters are taking full shape and every squad is busy shaking off the rust of the extended break as preseason progresses.
With a new season comes many traditional storylines and in the modern version of MLS, youth development has gained in prominence particularly since Commissioner Don Garber famously declared in December 2018 that MLS must become a selling league. The #PlayYourKids movement enjoyed a banner year in the unusual and hectic 2020 season. What does 2021 have in store, and what additional signs of progress should fans look for?
Players come and go, so rather than provide a list of ten youngsters to watch, this article will attempt to define core components of youth development that are necessary to constructing a consistent, sustainable pipeline of talent that will ultimately help MLS clubs win trophies and/or be sold for profit — and then highlight areas to monitor in 2021.
To succeed at youth development, clubs must:
1) Identify and recruit talent to the academy
2) Develop academy talent into prospects worthy of a professional contract
3) Bring them into the first team through a combination of coaching, loans, and reserve team
4) Continue to develop them as professional
5) Sell and be competitive on the field at least some of the time (but preferably most of the time)
Failing at any of these steps results in a system that is ultimately less than the sum of its parts. For instance, the unwillingness to sell and inability to develop players to a level that draws foreign offers will eventually dissuade ambitious, highly talented prospects from choosing to sign with your organization, thus degrading the other steps in the chain.
For instance, Real Salt Lake has never made that high-profile sale to Europe from their academy, and also historically have not had much integration between their USL team and academy. Perhaps not coincidentally, Sebastian Soto, Richie Ledezma, and Taylor Booth opted for a different path. And youth development is not easy, because clubs must serve two masters: developing players while still winning enough to stay relevant in their community.
MLS, more than most leagues, is often viewed as a monolithic entity. That perspective applied to youth development, however, obscures significant differences between clubs. The 27 clubs in MLS run the gamut in terms of their approach and experience with youth development.
So, who is good at all five steps? Truth be told, nobody has demonstrated sustained success at all five steps so far. But in 2020, Dallas and Philadelphia stepped forward. Long viewed as the preeminent developmental club in MLS, FC Dallas has made slow but steady progress over the years.
In earlier times, Dallas produced talent, but struggled with steps 3 and 4 under Schellas Hyndman. Although the club managed a couple of sales to Liga MX clubs, it was only until 2020 that Dallas really started to provide proof-of-concept that they could be a pathway to Europe with the sales of Reggie Cannon and Bryan Reynolds.
Philadelphia’s mercurial rise as a youth-oriented club has progressed faster since they began to seriously invest in youth development less than a decade ago. The offseason sales of Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie truly announced the Union’s arrival as a developmental club, but it takes more than two sales to be the American Ajax. Nonetheless, Philadelphia’s pipeline is full of talent and they are well-positioned to continue the cycle.
The question: Will Philadelphia and Dallas be able to sustain their ability to put players on strong developmental trajectories and their willingness to sell when the right offer comes in?
The Once and Future King
The New York Red Bulls have traditionally been at or near the top of the MLS developmental pile, such as it is. In additional academy products like Matt Miazga and Tyler Adams, RBNY has exported draft picks and other young players like Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Tim Ream.
But here’s the thing: after Tyler Adams, the pipeline ran dry perhaps due to some academy upheaval. The club is recovering from this now, having recruited young talent from elsewhere like Caden Clark, Cameron Harper, and Luca Lewis, and there are clear signs that the pipeline is back up and running for the younger ages.
The question: We know that RBNY can coach up academy prospects, draftees, and castoffs alike. Can they capture more of the goldmine of talent in the NY/NJ area?
Coffee is for Closers
There is a growing number of clubs who have successfully brought young talent into the first team, given them opportunities, and watched them seize ever-bigger roles within the club. However, they lack the track record of successful sales.
Sporting Kansas City is particularly industrious with Step 1 and has homegrowns from all over the country strewn across their roster. But they also watched Erik Palmer-Brown walk on a free transfer to Manchester City several years ago and still haven’t made the big sale. Helping the talented but somewhat enigmatic Gianluca Busio take a serious step forward resulting in a sale would be a major feather in their cap.
Likewise, Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids are also clubs that have afforded opportunities to young players but are yet to land their first big academy transfer.
By 2021, Toronto has established itself in this category as well. While the club has gotten value from players like Doneil Henry and Ashtone Morgan in the past, they are poised to have a greater density of contributing homegrown talent in their squad, with Ayo Akinola at the tip of the spear.
The question: Can these clubs develop players to a level that draws a worthwhile transfer offer?
Youth development is a holistic process. Even if you have good talent and good youth coaching, you also need an organizational commitment and an organizational culture that is oriented toward developing and giving opportunities to young players.
This choice of club culture is not without risk: young players are inconsistent, inexperienced, unpredictable, and sometimes fall flat on their faces. It isn’t crazy to routinely prefer the stability and the smaller downside risk of veterans. However, such a choice doesn’t make for a very good developmental pathway.
Seattle has signed more than a few young players to MLS and USL deals. Viewed in a certain light, the Sounders appear poised to unleash a wave of talent on MLS. However, young players have thus far greatly struggled to find first team opportunities.
The Sounders will need to solve the disconnect between the youth and the first team. Coaching up players at Tacoma will make the dilemma easier to solve. Thus far, the Sounders’ biggest successes under the Homegrown banner have been players who spent very little time in the organization as youths and whose age 18-20 development was outsourced to college like DeAndre Yedlin and Jordan Morris.
LA Galaxy are the great underperformers of MLS youth development. Sitting astride the greatest pool of youth talent in the country, the lack of academy production coming out of LA Galaxy has been a grim sight to behold.
The Galaxy at times — somehow — have even struggled with the first two steps despite being in LA. But their academy has quietly made a recovery. A youth-powered Los Dos team did rather well in USL in 2020 and a number of young players have matriculated to first team contracts. The Galaxy are certainly not famous for their long-term roster construction strategy, and making space for these young players is an open concern.
The question: Do these clubs with real talent in their ranks have the will to take a chance on it?
Atlanta, Chicago, DC, San Jose, and NYCFC don’t have particularly illustrious histories as developmental clubs, but all have a handful of U20 academy graduates that hold promise and are in a situation where they can lay a real foundation in 2021.
DC’s big challenge is that their prospects are mostly offensively-minded. A club that was not known for their “champagne football” in the last decade will need to demonstrate that they can develop attacking talent and not just hard-nosed grinders. They had two of the early HGP hits in Bill Hamid and Andy Najar, but haven’t done as much since.
Atlanta developed a reputation for being a bad place for youth talent, though in retrospect that Andrew Carleton experience inordinately contributed to that image. In the meantime, draftee Miles Robinson and homegrown George Bello have been progressing well. Progressing other academy signings and perhaps selling Bello down the line will leave Atlanta’s youth-unfriendly rap firmly in the rearview mirror.
Like the LA Galaxy, Chicago is a perennial underachiever. But the Fire went on a veritable homegrown signing spree last winter and because of the youth of this cohort, the jury will still be out on them for several years. Still, one would hope to see signs of progress into the first team among at least a couple of their young prospects.
NYCFC are an interesting case. James Sands has emerged as a key player. Joe Scally was sold having hardly played at all. And then there are a bunch of other young players who are on the roster but without anywhere to play. As we move on from the crazy, COVID-restrained 2020 season, watch to see what the plan is for Andres Jasson, Justin Haak, and Tayvon Gray. What’s the plan for their development if they aren’t getting first team minutes?
The question: They’ve recruited the talent and signed them to pro deals. What’s the plan now and will it be effective?
Houston, We Have A Problem
Houston is a huge metropolitan area, but there just aren’t that many soccer players who come from there. As the heavyweight in the area, the Dynamo are best-positioned to change that. The Dynamo have a very modest youth development track record, but it’s worth noting that like an oceanliner, it takes a long time to turn this around. There are some early signs down in the academy ranks that the Dynamo may be on a path to greater success.
The question: What’s the deal with Houston, anyway?
Shoot First, Ask Questions Later
The case of CF Montreal is interesting. Only a small handful of clubs have signed more academy players, and yet “name every Montreal homegrown signing” may be the most difficult trivia question in league history. Despite signing 24 players, they’ve never once had a season in which a homegrown played more than 1,200 minutes, a truly ignominious statistic.
In fact, by far the most successful season by a Montreal academy graduate was Maxime Crepeau’s 2019 season — by which time he was playing for Vancouver.
The question: Is the club signing the wrong players or just unable to develop them?
Clubs like Inter Miami and LAFC are new to the scene. It’s impossible for them to have a robust record on literally any front at this point in time. However, that hasn’t stopped them from recruiting and signing some interesting talents.
Now, the question is whether they can keep the talent flowing and provide a way for teenagers to continue their development — a particular challenge for LAFC, who lack a USL team, but who are beginning a partnership with Las Vegas this year.
The question: Will we see continued progress on all fronts?
Work To Do
There isn’t too much to say about relatively new clubs like Austin FC, FC Cincinnati, and Nashville SC. Some have already made some successful-looking investments — particularly Miami, who have signed some interesting prospects from their USL team, but time will tell.
However, there are other longer-running clubs that have yet to make a consistent breakthrough.
- The bulk of New England’s academy production came from Diego Fagundez (signed in 2010) and Scott Caldwell (signed in 2012)
- Columbus has had an academy for a long time, but the only player who has ever made a significant impact in MLS was Wil Trapp. With Aidan Morris, Aboubacar Keita, and some as-yet-unsigned prospects that could change, but so far the production per year ratio has been low.
- Portland is a small market club that has historically relied heavily on foreign imports. Kansas City shows that a small market club can recruit well from across the country and build a productive academy, but a major prerequisite is the desire to do so. Sometimes, clubs will decide that the value proposition just isn’t there. Portland shuttered its USL team for 2021 and have only ever signed six academy players in their history.
- Orlando has had success with draft picks like Cyle Larin and Daryl Dike, but the only academy products who have played more than 90 minutes thus far are Tommy Redding and Benji Michel.
- Minnesota has outsourced their youth development to a partnership with local clubs in a cost-cutting arrangement that looks similar to what the Philadelphia Union did before they got serious about youth development. They signed Patrick Weah this offseason, but whether this system will result in a steady flow of talent is as yet unknown.
The question: What signs will these clubs show us about their intent and ability to develop talent?