73014_isi_packwoodwill_bpi_mw_birmingham_burnley_43.2662864 Matt West/isiphotos.com

How MLS Can Attract and Develop Better U.S. Players

First there was Project 40, a joint effort between MLS, U.S. Soccer, and Nike. When that sputtered, Generation Adidas came along. But Brooke Tunstall argues that the league can, and should, do much more.
BY Brooke Tunstall Posted
July 30, 2014
10:18 AM
AT WHAT POINT does Major League Soccer recognize what it’s doing isn’t working—at least not well enough?

In 1997, less than two years into its existence, MLS began an ambitious program designed to get the top American players into a professional environment at an earlier age.

They called it Project 40 and it was co-funded by U.S. Soccer and Nike, at the time a major MLS sponsor. The idea was to pluck the best high school and collegiate underclassmen players and get them signed to pro deals instead of playing four years of college soccer. They were extremely ambitious too: the "40" in Project 40 indicates how many top prospects were expected to sign on for the program each year.

The thinking, of course, was that with its short season and restrictions on training hours that college soccer wasn’t a good enough model to allow MLS and the U.S. national team to develop world class talent. Getting top players into a pro environment at an earlier age would enhance their skills at a key developmental stage.

MLS never came close to getting 40 players a year to skip college. Instead the league got about a dozen per year, even as Project 40 morphed into Generation Adidas after a multimillion-dollar sponsorship deal that, in theory, should have made more funds available to sign top young talent.

Today too many of the top American players are still spending too much time in college soccer. In our most recent list of the top 100 American soccer players—the ASN 100—24 athletes spent four seasons in college soccer and 13 more played three seasons. All told, 55 played at least one season of college soccer.

We at ASN aren’t arrogant enough to think our list is definitive but we’re also confident it offers a fair and accurate look at the general state of the current U.S. soccer player pool—and 37 percent of the list is spending at least three seasons in a system that limits them to about 20 games or so crammed into a three-month season.

This isn’t how a powerful national team in international soccer is developed.

There’s more. Of the 45 players on the ASN list who never played college soccer, 29, basically two-thirds, of them began their pro careers abroad. Granted, a handful of them, like Jermaine Jones and Fabian Johnson, spent their entire lives living abroad but for players like Will Packwood and Michael Orozco, born-and-raised in the U-S-of-A, they went abroad because it offered the best, and sometimes only, chance to sign professionally as a teenager.

ASN 100 College Experience Breakdown

  • NO COLLEGE SOCCER—45: Howard, Jones, F. Johnson, Bradley, Altidore, Beckerman, Donovan, Johannsson, Beasley, Brooks, Boyd, Diskerud, Chandler, Agudelo, Green, Gil, D. Williams, Castillo, Magee, Lichaj, E. Johnson, Torres, Packwood, Gomez, McInerney, Spector, Orozco, O’Neill, Arriola, Garza, Hamid, Shea, Mapp, Gyau, Gatt, Holmes, Wood, Acosta, Cooper, Morales, Wooten, Joya, Rubin, Cropper, Hyndmann)

  • 1 SEASON IN COLLEGE—6: (Corona, Nguyen, Okugo, Kitchen, S. Williams, Serna)

  • 2 SEASONS IN COLLEGE—12: (Guzan, Yedlin, Davis, Feilhaber, Trapp, Rowe, Klute, S. Johnson, McCarty, Marshall, R. Clark, Onyewu)

  • 3 SEASONS IN COLLEGE—13: (Dempsey, Gonzalez, Parkhurst, Goodson, Rimando, Edu, Kljestan, Bruin, Beltran, Farrell, Bocanegra, ^Friedel, Zardes)

  • 4 SEASONS IN COLLEGE—24: (Besler, Cameron, *Bedoya, Zusi, Ream, Wondolowski, Evans, Powers, Schuler, Hedges, Shipp, *Irwin, Kennedy, *Borchers, DeLeon, Hall, *Neagle, *DeMerit, Sinovic, Rolfe, Alexander, *S. Clark, Larentowicz, Mullins)
    * undrafted after senior year of college soccer
    ^ was a pro before the start of MLS—is really old!
    players in bold began their pro careers outside MLS

    While some might view it as a positive to have foreign clubs do the heavy lifting for many of the top American players, consider this: Of the 92 players on the roster of the four teams that made the semifinals of the World Cup in Brazil, the only player to have been developed outside of the country he played for was Lionel Messi, who famously ended up at Barcelona only after Newell’s Old Boys, the club in his native Argentina, refused to pay for hormone therapy for the undersized Messi.

    Clearly, the way to become a world power in soccer is not to have another country do the work.

    None of this is to suggest there haven’t been success stories from Project 40 and Generation Adidas. Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, and DaMarcus Beasley—last seen starring for the U.S. at the World Cup in Brazil—all signed with MLS as teenagers. And Clint Dempsey, Brad Guzan, and Omar Gonzalez were among the players on the U.S. roster who were coaxed out of college early with Generation Adidas deals.

    College soccer is the red-headed stepchild of American soccer: It receives too much blame for the ills of the American game and not enough of the credit for what it does to help. Graham Zusi, for instance, was unknown on the national stage in high school but after four seasons at the University of Maryland he developed into a World Cup starter and an MLS Designated Player.

    But there’s little argument that the American collegiate system is the optimal way to develop world class talent. We know this because A) there have been no world class players developed via the NCAA and B) the free market says so. After all, the development of soccer players is a billion-dollar international business; if spending four seasons in college was the best way to develop players, you can bet the farm that it would have been implemented by clubs around the world.

    It hasn’t, and that’s a big reason Jurgen Klinsmann and U.S. under-20 boss Tab Ramos haven’t been shy about criticizing college soccer as a means of player development.

    After the U.S. was eliminated in the World Cup earlier this month, there was much handwringing and soul-searching about what the U.S. needs to do to reach the next level—where escaping from group play isn’t the goal but rather the least it should achieve.

    Well, a big solution would be to get more of the best players into that pro environment as early as possible. And that requires MLS dedicating more resources to player identification and scouting. Consider that seven of the players on the ASN 100 were undrafted coming out of college as seniors; that’s a lot of players for so many teams to collectively miss. And there needs to be a commitment to signing more players at a younger age. A dozen or so a year for Generation Adidas just isn’t going to get it done.

    MLS could go a long way toward getting more players out of school early if it allowed underclassmen to declare for the draft, or simply followed the model used by baseball and hockey and opened the draft to players of a certain age. As ASN explored earlier this year, too many players who want to turn pro early are blocked from doing so because of an arbitrary and unnecessarily Byzantine MLS rule prohibiting underclassmen from declaring for the draft.

    If Major League Soccer followed the MLB or NHL models, all players at a certain age—say high school seniors or college sophomores—could be eligible for the MLS draft and then could negotiate with the team that drafts them. If MLS followed the NFL and NBA model, underclassmen who think they’re ready to turn pro could do so. (Unlike the NFL and NBA, however, MLS should allow high school seniors to declare for the draft if they follow that model.)

    To its credit, MLS is making inroads that should help with player development and reduce the dependency on the collegiate game to be the primary developer of elite American talent. The academy system and homegrown player initiatives are a big step in the right direction, and as we are seeing with DeAndre Yedlin, this approach is already bearing fruit.

    But a quick look at a map shows there are still huge swaths of the country that aren’t anywhere close to an MLS market, and won’t be anytime soon. Should the league just let these players fall through the cracks in the system?

    Further, MLS needs to allow teams to sign more of their academy players and then provide for them a place to play games outside of the first team. More MLS teams need to follow the Los Angeles Galaxy model by adding their own second teams in the third-tier USL Pro league. Attempts by MLS at a reserve league haven’t resulted in nearly enough games for the few players that do turn pro early but can’t get minutes with the first team. Having teams in USL Pro is a positive solution to this problem.

    But few teams are following the Galaxy’s lead: As of today only four other MLS teams have confirmed plans for a USL Pro team, and MLS needs to mandate that each of their clubs has a club in USL Pro; otherwise too many of the top prospects won’t get enough games to properly develop.

    CLEARLY, WHAT MLS is doing now isn’t getting enough players out of school early, which means the league needs to admit what it’s currently doing isn’t enough. It also needs to recognize the solutions to these problems require MLS to do things it has been historically reluctant to do—give players more control and spend more money.

    Right now the league office gets to decide which, and how many, underclassmen can be drafted. Several prominent agents who deal with MLS told ASN the league is reluctant to have underclassmen who haven’t signed with MLS declare for fear of them trying to leverage either returning to school or signing elsewhere in an attempt to get a higher salary.

    That’s being penny-wise and pound-foolish. Most players who declare want to be pros, and while some might turn down MLS offers for Europe or Mexico, there won’t be enough to force MLS teams to break the bank or risk losing prospects.

    It also takes money. Not just salaries, though that’s part of it. It takes owners who are willing to spend more on academies and on reserve teams in the USL, as well as bigger scouting budgets that heretofore most MLS owners have been reluctant to spend.

    The league needs to remind its owners that an improved U.S. national team is good for the fiscal health of the individual clubs and that the investment in player development will pay off with improved performances by the U.S. And if they can’t do this by cajoling them, then U.S. Soccer and MLS need to mandate it, something the federation has the power to do as the governing, and sanctioning, body of the sport in this country.

    Further, MLS should trump scholarship offers by paying for tuition for any player who turns pro before earning a bachelor’s degree. The lure of a college education is a big reason why many players pass on MLS entry-level salaries, but if there was a standing offer to pay for school, either during or after their careers, then it provides more incentive to the players to leave early—especially since so few college players are actually on full-rides.

    Division I programs are limited to 9.9 scholarships and most players, even elite ones who are pro prospects, are only getting partial scholarships. By offering to pay for tuition, MLS could be offering many players more scholarship money than they’re already getting.

    Again, the status quo isn’t working. But to take the next steps toward Don Garber’s stated goal of making MLS one of the world’s elite soccer leagues by 2020, more needs to be done at the player development level. Is the league serious about becoming an elite league? If so, changes are essential.

    There will always be players like Matt Besler, a doctor’s son who was an Academic All-American as a pre-med major at an elite school (Notre Dame) who played four seasons of college soccer because he wanted his degree before going pro. And there will always be late-bloomers like Chris Wondolowski, who got no offers out of high school to play Division I soccer and who was a late-round draft pick out of Division II Chico State and took three years as an MLS reserve before developing into an MLS starter and eventual World Cup player. No amount of increase in scouting budgets or enhanced opportunities for player development will change the metric for players like that.

    But for most of the elite players, the kind that will dominate future ASN 100s and, hopefully, U.S. national team roster spots, MLS needs to take the lead with better scouting, making it easier for more young players to turn pro and giving them more developmental games once they do so. Then, and only then, will the U.S. evolve into a team that can consistently contend for a place in the World Cup semifinals and beyond.

    Brooke Tunstall is an American Soccer Now contributing editor and ASN 100 panelist. In 1998 he was commissioned by MLS to write a feature on Project 40 for its preview magazine. You can follow him on Twitter.
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