Atlanta United made quite the impact on MLS in its first year in the league. Usually, that sentence is followed by examples, but by this point the story is well known to the point of cliche. Along with its high profile, the team has attracted some odd takes that came along with its success. There’s the “Atlanta United is the reason the Crew are moving” take and the “Atlanta United isn’t any different than MLS teams from 10 or 15 years ago” take. The newest one is along side these two for head scratching leaps of reason as well.
Despite the fact that after just one year it is too early to evaluate how successful Atlanta is at giving U-21 Americans minutes, someone has grabbed a new cudgel to whack away at the team with: hindering American youth development. According to Major League Shocker, signing Ezequiel Barco is doing just that. As described in the article:
“Using Atlanta United as an example, United States Under-17 stars Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin played a combined 4 minutes last year. In fact, on Atlanta’s roster no American under the age of 23 played more than 178 minutes throughout the entirety of the 2016-17 season.”
In order to illustrate how serious this crisis is, this chart is used:
Tabulated how many minutes each MLS team gave to U-21 American and Canadian players in 2017. Totals include pre-birthday minutes played by players who turned 21 during season.— Sam Stejskal (@samstejskal) November 29, 2017
RSL clobbered everyone in this category. pic.twitter.com/42MsZkArmg
Got that? Atlanta United, a team in its first year in MLS with three high profile USYNT players on the roster, and three others signed to homegrown contracts, is hindering youth development while six other teams gave no minutes to under 21 players. DC United, a founding MLS member that was out of the playoffs by the end of April last year, didn’t give a single minute to a U21 player, but an expansion team that sits at no. 14 on that list is why U.S. youth development isn’t where it should be according to this.
Atlanta United had two Homegrown players on their 30 man roster last year, Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin. The pair bounced between training with the Atlanta United first team, winning the U.S. Soccer Development Academy tournament, and spending much of the year training for the U-17 World Cup, qualifying for the tournament, and then traveling to India to play in it. Aside from those two, Brandon Vazquez and Miles Robinson are the other American players on the team too young to buy a drink in the States.
Vazquez was effective, if unpolished as his red card demonstrated, with a goal and assist in his 13 appearances. The only time Robinson played in an Atlanta United jersey, he was getting scored on by USL players and left at the 45th minute against the Charleston Battery in the US Open Cup. He’ll get there, but he wasn’t ready for MLS in 2017.
While that takes care of the U21 Americans, it would be a mistake to say that if those players were ready, or not with the YNT, they wouldn’t see minutes. This is illustrated by Anton Walkes who, at 20 years of age, played 1528 minutes and started 17 games for the club.
The article also evokes Atlanta’s home crowds and uses Carleton as a strawman to illustrate its point: “Imagine how much more excited those same Atlanta United fans who rejoiced when Yamil Asad scored that historic goal off of a Tyrone Mears cross would have been if Andrew Carleton had assisted on that play instead?” This is like saying, imagine if Carleton scored 19 goals rather than Josef Martinez.
Oddly, no reason for why Atlanta would want Asad and not Carleton scoring that goal is given, the closet it comes is this: “Still, for some reason, Major League Soccer has almost abandoned any effort to produce and play young Americans.” It is as if the conclusion is leading the article, but that path goes absolutely nowhere. The piece concludes by saying, “To the detriment of American soccer, MLS and teams like Atlanta United have decided to import talent, rather than cultivate their own.”
Yes the team is trying to sign Barco, but Atlanta United has a deep commitment to cultivating their own young talent. The aforementioned victory in the Youth Development Academy tournament illustrates that. As MLS’ Charles Bohem points out, “the Five Stripes have crafted a powerhouse youth development system. And it represents a warning to the rest of MLS and the wider North American youth soccer scene: A sleeping giant has awoken.” As Bohem describes, the team has done so while building partnerships with other youth clubs rather than just acting as a competitor with nearly unlimited resources by comparison, strengthening soccer in the entire state as a result.
Put aside all of the other arguments about why Barco and Atlanta United aren’t holding back youth development (OK, don’t put them aside: there’s value in fighting for minutes in any context and it’s not a given that if Carleton and Goslin were at a different club they would just be given time on the field; Tata Martino has shown that he’s committed to playing young players and said it’s a good strategy as he discussed after the U.S. failed to reach the World Cup), there is a way to discuss why MLS is so bad at developing talented Americans without the nuance-lacking view that it’s the fault of an expansion team.
Here are a few factors that explain why teams in MLS have a difficult time playing U21 players that the article fails to consider:
- Most U21 Americans are playing in college, not MLS or another pro league.
- The youth development system is structured to get suburbanites college scholarships, not prepare them to turn pro when they are still teenagers.
- Academies have little incentive to influence their best players to join MLS and sign homegrown contracts, or go abroad, because USSF blocks solidarity payments to academies.
- MLS takes 25% of any sale of a HGP should they leave MLS, providing an disincentive to the league acting as a “selling league” and a developmental one.
- As Jonathan Gonzalez, Christian Pulisic, Weston McKinney, and Josh Sargent show - MLS might not be an attractive league for reasons like restrictive transfer rules for the best young Americans to join.
Those are just some things that contribute to explaining a book’s worth of reasons for why young players don’t get playing time in MLS. None of those reasons have to do with Ezequiel Barco signing with Atlanta United or with Yamil Asad scoring the first goal in the club’s history while Andrew Carleton was 16 years old and was focused on the U17 World Cup. It will take time for Atlanta United to develop and feature their own talented players. All of their five homegrowns are under the age of 18 and with the ambition and business nous that the team has exhibited so far, it would be foolish to at least not give the team time to show that it can, or can’t as the case may be, find playing time for its talented youngsters before blasting off hot takes about how they’re hindering American youth development.