2010 was in many ways, the annus mirabilis of American soccer. This year saw MLS alumni demonstrate that America can export top-level soccer talent. This year saw Landon Donovan’s heroic, world-class goals against Slovenia and Algeria, the latter being quite possibly the greatest moment in USMNT history. But it was not the kingmaking exploits of America’s greatest-ever player that will have the most lasting reverberations across the American soccer landscape.
No, that honor belongs to the myriad advances made by the plethora of talent coming through at MLS clubs. This was the year that saw a teenage immigrant kid who signed professional forms three days before the start of the season outshine all the college-trained players and became the hope of two nations. This was the year that saw another teenage immigrant became the youngest goalscorer in national team history. This was the year that saw a kid from outside D.C. make his debut for his local team and became the youngest goalkeeper to notch a league win in MLS history.
The trickle of homegrown academy players, staring with Los Angeles’s Tristan Bowen in 2008 (who played 17 games for the Galaxy, picking up two goals and two assists as they won the Supporters Shield this past season), burst into a flood in 2010, as ten different MLS teams signed nineteen players from their academies.
D.C. United’s Andy Najar won rookie of the year. New York Red Bulls’ Juan Agudelo scored for the U.S. national team before scoring a goal for his club. Philadelphia Union and New England Revolution made Diego Fagundez and Zach Pfeffer two of the youngest players in league history.
The key behind this explosion is Major League Soccer’s unique league structure. While MLS has its detractors for various reasons, no other league in the world subsidizes youth development in the manner this country’s does, paying the salary of any youth player signed to the first team, with no limit on the number homegrown players.
It’s a fantastic incentive for clubs on a number of fronts. They can sign the best of their area’s youth players before they go to College, and offer these elite players a constant, intense competitive environment against seasoned professionals, rather than the short college season against amateur players.
With MLS assuming all the risk of their salaries, clubs are free to fill out rosters and add depth with promising young local players, rather than bringing in journeymen to fill in the lower paid rank-and-file.
The initiative also helps build local pride in teams which haven’t had the time to build true legacies yet. It’s one thing to have a star player, but a star player who once sat in the same seats that you now occupy? That’s a powerful connection.
National teams have shot to prominence because of the concerted efforts of a single club to produce top-level talent. Spain’s recent dominance on the international stage is almost entirely due to the program at Barcelona. Half of the fourteen players that represented Spain in this summer’s World Cup Final were products of the Barcelona system. Of the fourteen to represent the runner-up Netherlands, seven came through at Ajax, long the powerhouse of Dutch youth production.
While such heights may be a long way off for American clubs, it shows the potential rewards for such serious dedication to youth. There is little need to spend big on aging European stars when you’ve got a team full of ambitious, talented players who grew up in your own backyard.