Can Major League Soccer create young stars to lead the league forward?
By Drew Farmer
David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Kaka, Thierry Henry, Steven Gerrard, Denilson and many more big name European and South American football players have graced the United State’s and Canada’s Major League Soccer.
The league has spent millions on these players with results that have seen attendances grow and North American interest in the sport at never before seen levels.
With the 2017 season about to kickoff, MLS is at a crossroads with big name foreign stars. For one, the names of highly marketable stars willing to move stateside is drying up. The names the teams can go after are moving to China thanks to the extravagant wages the Chinese Super League is offering.
So, where does MLS go from here?
For years, the league has bragged about its growing academies and homegrown players. Yet, it seemed for quite some time that the league’s braggadocio was nothing more than hot air. Players seemed to be signed as homegrown youth players, but none really made a dent on the national team or became elite MLS talent.
La Galaxy’s Gyasi Zardes and DC United’s Bill Hamid were two youngster brought into the league as homegrown academy players. Despite both being good for their teams – Hamid a bit more than Zardes – neither has really made the jump to helping the US national team like many would like. Nor have either become top talent in the league that bring to mind star soccer players. Both are now in their mid-20s, and the likelihood of both being career MLS players is high.
While those players are part of MLS’s version 1.0 of the academy and homegrown player movement, the league is going full steam ahead in developing new talent.
For the most part, teams are trying to cultivate talent like never before. This tactic is partly down to the finances being invested into a small number of top-tier players being so great. Kaka will earn over $7 million in 2017.
But another reason is that MLS is still only a destination for top players at the end of their careers. Meanwhile, China is attracting good players in their prime.
MLS does have a crop of young players that are leading the charge to become elite talent, however. Whether these players can rise to the heights that Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey did is debatable.
Seattle Sounders’ forward Jordan Morris may be 22, but that is young in terms of MLS American players. Morris won the league’s Rookie of the Year award in 2016 after a sterling 14 goal season. The Sounders lifted the MLS Cup on the back of Morris’ great play toward the tail end of the term. Once a Sounders’ academy player, the forward also played for the University of Stanford, winning the College Cup before turning pro. It is players like him the US needs more of, but seems to have few of.
“We want to get to a place where the majority of our roster in the future is made up of players that we’ve developed. That is a huge, huge piece of the long-term success in this organization. It’s one thing to stay competitive; it’s another to develop from within. We’ve already shown some signs of that, but we have to get to a place where we’re developing the top-class player.” – Peter Vermes, head coach and technical director of Sporting KC.
One team that is attempting to keep their wage bill low in MLS is FC Dallas. Last season, the team had the lowest pay roll in MLS. The team has made it a priority to grow its own players and it paid off in a big way. The Texans were the league’s best regular season team, enabling it to win the Supporters’ Shield.
Other MLS franchises are seeing the benefits of the academy system, and in a league where money is limited, it is a great chance to build new players. Add in the US and Canada’s large populations and the growing popularity of soccer, and many of the league’s teams may have starting XI’s provided by their academies in 10 years.
For now, the player like Morris are few and far between. And having big name Canadians and Americans as instantly recognisable by the mainstream is still an uphill battle.
Follow Drew Farmer on Twitter @DrewMFarmer. Drew is a weekly guest on Radio Yorkshire’s MLS Monday. Drew is also the authour of SoccerTravels available on Amazon.co.uk.