As Major League Soccer grows older, its players continue to skew younger. Teams in the domestic first division, which kicks off its 23rd season on March 3, signed 73 players during the offseason. Those men boasted an average age of 24 and three-quarters. The nine designated players, led by 19-year-old Uruguayan Diego Rossi, were even greener at just over 22-and-a half years old. MLS, saddled by a reputation as a league for aging stars, is becoming something else.
The youth movement extends to domestic players as well. According to league officials, MLS spent more than $40 million in each of the past two seasons on youth development, improving training facilities, bolstering academies and attempting to change how young players are trained.
On some level, that effort has been successful. Across MLS, homegrown players started a record 803 games in 2017, playing more than 74,000 minutes while accounting for 78 goals and 94 assists. That’s up dramatically from just three years ago. In 2014, homegrown players accounted for 422 starts, nearly 39,000 minutes, 39 goals and 35 assists. Taking into account the three new teams, homegrowns played 37.5 games per team in 2017 versus 22.7 games per team in 2014, a jump of 65 percent.
Those figures don’t tell the entire story, however, as they include both current and former homegrowns. The total numbers take into account the 22 starts and 1,994 minutes played by 19-year-old New York Red Bulls star Tyler Adams and the 20 starts and 1,895 minutes FC Dallas’ Kellyn Acosta put in, but also 44 starts and nearly 4,000 minutes from 25-year-old Juan Agudelo and 27-year-old Bill Hamid. In other words, they should rise dramatically as more homegrown players enter their prime, gain experience and earn starting spots.
Homegrown players are becoming a larger part of the MLS landscape, which is an unmitigated good. But are younger domestic players getting an opportunity in the league? The results are decidedly more mixed. According to analyst Alex Olshansky, U-22 domestic nationals (which includes Canadian players) played just 2 percent of the available minutes during the 2017 season. That number is consistent with recent seasons, and it pales in comparison to European leagues, which range from Serie A’s 4.2 percent to the Bundesliga’s 7.6 percent and Ligue 1’s 9.5 percent.
An influx of foreign talent is limiting the available spots for young Americans. In 2014, 107 U.S.-born players started for Major League Soccer teams on opening day. Last season, that number fell to 102 despite 33 new jobs opening up due to expansion. Getting young, domestic players on the field is hard, an effort that takes buy-in not just from the coaching staff but from management and ownership as well. FC Dallas, which signed 20 homegrown players including Acosta, Jesse Gonzalez and Paxton Pomykal, and also developed Schalke midfielder Weston McKennie, is one of the best at doing so. But even that success comes at a price.
“It’s not easy to have the results on the field and develop players at the same time,” the club’s technical director Fernando Clavijo says. “It’s not easy to be successful on the field playing younger players. It’s always a risk. We know that. We are willing to keep moving forward with it.”
FCD just signed a partnership with German powerhouse Bayern Munich to develop players in the academy and shuttle them to the first team. Many other clubs in MLS are following in these footsteps. It’s a long, arduous process, but the rewards are many. The ultimate goal is to build talent for the club, and for the American (and Canadian) national teams. The will is there.
“I was not born in this country but I feel more obligation working with American kids,” Clavijo says. “I think we try to work with Americans of course because that’s where we are. That’s where our obligation is, to try to set up players and educate players for our national team. That is our role. Our goal of course is working with those kids who may have an opportunity to represent the United States.”
Eight homegrown players have earned caps for the United States national team: Acosta, Adams, Agudelo, Hamid, Matt Miazga, Jordan Morris, DeAndre Yedlin and Gyasi Zardes. And 12 appeared in this year’s January camp: Adams. Agudelo, Hamid, Morris, Zardes, Danilo Acosta, Marky Delgado, Justen Glad, Ian Harkes, Brooks Lennon, Nick Lima and Wil Trapp.
But still, young players struggle to get on the field. Seven homegrowns on MLS first-team rosters made the U.S. U-17 World Cup squad. Those players — Ayo Akinola (Toronto FC), Andrew Carleton (Atlanta United), Chris Durkin (D.C. United), Chris Goslin (Atlanta United), Jaylin Lindsey (Sporting Kansas City), Bryan Reynolds Jr. (FC Dallas) and James Sands (New York City FC) — played a total of 23 minutes during the 2017 MLS season.
That leaves something to be desired, but that nine MLS-based players in last year’s U.S. U-20 World Cup combined for 10,189 first-team minutes suggests there are opportunities for young Americans as they get older.
However, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Real Salt Lake have been among the most dedicated clubs to youth development in MLS; take away their four players from that list (Lennon, Glad, Danilo Acosta and Sebastian Saucedo) and that number drops to 3,066.
Hopefully, the success of players like the Red Bulls’ Adams and FCD’s Acosta will encourage coaches to play their kids, and ownership to understand that the potential long-term rewards outweigh the short-term risks.
“We do believe in what we are doing. We believe in the younger players and the opportunities that they may have at FC Dallas to make an impact as professionals,” Clavijo says. “Everybody right now is trying to catch up. Not because we are better, just because we have done in and we believe in the process of what’s going to happen.”
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.