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MLS youth: Use them or lose them

Some of America’s top prospects are leaving for Europe, seeking a more streamlined pathway to the first team.

Paraguay v USA - FIFA U-17 World Cup India 2017 Round of 16 Photo by Maja Hitij - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Since the inception of Atlanta United, its front office has made it clear that building the first team through the academy is one of its highest priorities. This statement was a bold one, as it contradicts the current trend in MLS. The only club that could make a legitimate claim to building their first team through the academy up to this point is FC Dallas, which has signed 18 homegrown players. However, only three of those signings, Kellyn Acosta, Jesse Gonzalez and Victor Ulloa, made a significant impact for Dallas last season. Now that’s not to disparage what Dallas has been able to do — they’re attempting to change the dynamics of the league in a progressive manner.

Behind the ineffectiveness of teams to build from their own academies is a painful fact: MLS clubs rarely give consistent minutes to homegrown players as teenagers.

As of now, there are 98 players signed to homegrown contracts. Out of those players, 20 made their first league appearance at or before the age of 18. That number diminishes even further when looking at U18 players who are consistently called upon. Only three, Kellyn Acosta, Diego Fagundez, and Tyler Adams, started 20 matches before turning 19 in MLS history.

“But Haris, 19-year-olds are also teenagers!” Yes, they are. However, according to Article 19 of FIFA transfer regulations, youth players aren’t allowed to register with a team in a country other than their own until they are 18. Essentially, this is the age MLS prospects reach a fork in the road. Do they stay in the U.S./Canada to pursue a first team spot with an MLS team or does a European club come calling for their service?

The fact that only three current homegrown players were regular starters before turning 19 is telling. Now more than ever, American prospects seem to be asking themselves an important question. Why would they stay in MLS, potentially for years, before receiving consistent playing time? By contrast, a league like the Bundesliga in Germany regularly develops prospects to get them on the pitch with the first team as soon as possible.

Take 17-year-old U.S. youth prospect Josh Sargent for example, who recently arrived at Werder Bremen and officially signs with the club in February once he turns 18. In an interview with American Soccer Now, Sargent was asked about his decision to choose Europe over MLS.

MLS was definitely an option for me at first. It would have been nice. Everyone speaks English and it’s only three hours away, but I believe in life you have to do what is hard for you in order to build yourself as a person. When you look at MLS, you don’t see many young players getting minutes, but Weston(McKennie) and Christian(Pulisic) are getting minutes. I don’t know how you can refuse that.

The aforementioned Pulisic has also voiced his frustrations with young MLS players struggling for playing time, in his heartfelt Players’ Tribune piece.

I understand of course that, even with the option to leave, leaving the States might not be for everyone. Staying is fine and I totally respect it. At the same time, I have to say it really does frustrate me when I watch MLS and I see our best U17 players who again, are so talented and so capable, being rostered, but then not being put on the field much to actually play. I watch that and I just think about how I was given a chance, a real chance, and it changed my life. Why then are we seemingly hesitant to allow these other talents to blossom?

This issue has now hit close to home, as Atlanta United youth star Zyen Jones is reportedly on trial at Schalke, with the German club eager to sign him once he turns 18. The striker scored eight goals in 16 appearances between three different age groups and cemented himself as one of Atlanta’s brightest prospects.

Now more than ever, there’s a trend of American youth players being poached by European teams. There needs to be an incentive for these talented individuals to stay in MLS. From a career development standpoint, that incentive hasn’t existed in the history of the league and prospects are catching on to that.

MLS is at an odd place where teens seem to have more opportunity to get quality minutes in Europe than they do in America/Canada, even though the perception is that it’s tougher to make it abroad because the teams are “better”. At the end of the day, if their homeland won’t give them the opportunity at an early age, someone else will.