While most MLS soccer fans were celebrating the beginning of the end for Chivas USA, a day before another young MLS player announced he was going to try his luck south of the border. This time, the defector was Amando Moreno, a striker who had come up through the New York Red Bulls Academy to make three appearances for the club. While every player’s situation is different, it is kind of odd to see an exodus from MLS to LigaMx. LigaMx is clearly the outstanding competition in North America, so it would seem logical for Moreno to stay in MLS where he would have less talented competition ahead of him. From a MLS supporter’s perspective this is slightly concerning, though not without precedent.
Earlier this year, I enjoyed Extratime Radio’s interview with Paul Arriola, the Tijuana player who turned down the chance to join the LA Galaxy academy and went to play for Tijuana instead. During the interview, Arriola went into a fair amount of detail regarding the discussions he had with each club, and Arriola claimed Bruce Arena told him he would need to wait in line behind three or four guys for playing time. Instead, he went to Tijuana, and ended up playing with the first team a fair amount, scoring some goals, and establishing himself as a member of the Tijuana first team. The 2014 Clausura season hasn’t been quite so kind to Arriola, but he is still getting minutes, a remote possibility if he had stayed in Los Angeles.
A kid good enough to play in LigaMx would be behind four guys on an MLS roster? That can’t be right, can it? I mean, the rule is: if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. I’m not going to question how Arena runs his team, but surely having a local youngster from the academy contributing to a successful team would be a big deal: winning games and providing an example to the SoCal youngsters that they can step in and get serious minutes, that Los Angeles is place where you will have a real chance of establishing yourself as a professional.
I believe that minutes matter once you sign a professional contract, and I started to wonder how many chances young players get in MLS. Is there a clear hierarchy on MLS rosters that keeps young players from picking up consistent minutes, and what factors play into those opportunities? Since MLS does have to contend with players coming out of college as well as academy products, I wanted to look at players aged 24 and below. I also wanted to exclude players who had picked up a half season’s worth of the available minutes prior to 2013, which I think is a reasonable amount for someone who established themselves as a first-team player.
When I had finished compiling the data, there were a few interesting things to note.
Secondly, there are some groupings within the league you can pick up on:
- Teams with some superstar rookies that will get a lot of minutes and establish themselves as key players. Seattle, New England, and Colorado all fit in here.
- Successful teams that spread the minutes around to a few different rookies to help turn them into contributors. Los Angeles and Sporting KC go here.
- Teams that commit to the youth, but don’t have a key player among them. DC United and Columbus go here.
- Teams that don’t know what to do with the kids. FC Dallas, New York, and Montreal.
- Teams that don’t play the kids. Chicago and San Jose mostly, although Portland didn’t let too many new kids play besides Jean-Baptiste, and they have since traded him.
- Teams that are in trouble and use kids for lack of a better solution: Toronto, Chivas.
The question then, is MLS allowing young talent the opportunity to play? Every club is going to be different, but the parity of the league means that most teams are going to be fighting for something right up until the last game of the regular season. Given the razor-thin margins between a successful season making the playoffs and a failed season watching them from home, coaches may find it hard to commit to working younger players in so that they can develop, unless there is some external factor (owner mandate, insufficient owner investment, etc) to push them to do so.
Clubs around the world that don’t have salary caps to deal with will often rely on the loan system to develop the youngsters. Players like Danny Wellbeck and Andros Townsend spent a lot of time on loan before establishing themselves at their parent clubs. Is MLS headed this way? Dom Dwyer benefited from spending time on loan at Orlando City, but is he a trailblazer for MLS youngsters, or a one-off? In the end, MLS will probably end up using the loan system like most English clubs, using it to separate the more marginal youngsters into first-team contributors and players to be released at the end of their contract.
The number of young players who have come through MLS and gone on to better things tells me that yes, MLS does let the kids play. Then I look at the recent migration to Mexico, and I worry that the sudden investment in pricier talent is going to stop that next generation from getting those vital minutes. While MLS may be opening the checkbook more of late, investing the time and money to develop young players, then taking the risk of playing them regularly, will have a much larger impact on the quality of the league in the long run.