Like every sport in every country, MLS and American soccer have a select tier of writers, reporters and voices that, when they say something you listen. The Athletic’s Paul Tenorio is near the top of that list, which is why his scoop last week about Major League Soccer considering the elimination of “Homegrown territories” sometime in late 2019 or early 2020 rightfully drew quite a lot of attention.
MLS making tweaks to their many bizarre regulations may not seem like headline news, especially in the midst of an epic conclusion to the regular season and the ramp-up of the league playoffs. But this tweak is nothing to be ignored, and in fact could spark a league-wide arms race for young talent and fundamentally change elite youth soccer in the United States forever. So, we figured it was worth diving a bit deeper into it and examining the potential ramifications it could have on Atlanta United and the young players of this city.
First, a Little Background
Don’t understand what a Homegrown territory is? You’re not alone. Fortunately (unfortunately?), we’re about to change that.
Major League Soccer designates geographical areas of the United States that each team “controls,” so to speak. Each club has exclusive rights to signing players from within their territorial designations to Homegrown contracts. Atlanta United’s territory is the entire state of Georgia; some teams have only a small radius around their city, others have multiple states. The entire system was set up to, like many other things in MLS, help even the playing field and maintain the league’s parity-driven structure.
The key word here is exclusive rights. On the surface, it makes sense that Atlanta United should have first dibs on players from their home state that could potentially make it professionally in MLS. So while other MLS teams can’t recruit Georgia players to other parts of the country, that also means that Georgia kids can’t join an MLS academy unless it’s Atlanta United.
MLS academies can only realistically roster around 20 kids at each age group. So for all the players in this state that maybe don’t fit the system quite right, or got missed by the scouts, the options are somehow make it to Europe, get a college scholarship, or just be out of luck. Now think about places like New York and Los Angeles, massive population centers with millions of soccer players, and you’re starting to see why this might be a serious problem.
What makes this even crazier is that, while much of the nation is encompassed in these land chunks, much of it is not. In these places, MLS academy recruiting has become somewhat of a Wild West-style free-for-all and has led to some odd player pipelines. Sporting Kansas City have found a stronghold in the Carolinas, FC Dallas have a real presence in Alabama and Tennessee, and half the league has fought over kids from talent-rich Miami. Atlanta United is firmly involved in these recruiting battles as well, bringing in youngsters from Charlotte, Mobile, Knoxville, Birmingham and even far-away cities like Las Vegas and San Diego in just the last year.
Therefore, as a young, talented, American player, whether or not you have a choice of where to develop your game has arguably more to do with where you call home than anything else. A kid from Chattanooga, Charleston or Tallahassee has infinite power over where he might choose to try to make a career out of soccer. He can field offers from different clubs, go on trial visits, meet with coaches, etc. But for kids from Dalton, Savannah or Valdosta, that power doesn’t exist. With the right talent, exposure, and resources, they can still make it in Atlanta, but that is pretty much their only hope. Fundamentally, that’s absolutely absurd.
The Side-Effects of Change
So, if MLS scraps all these territory designations, all the self-imposed hindrances will go away and everything will be sunshine and mimosas, right? Unfortunately, nothing is ever that simple. So, let’s run down what Major League Soccer without geographical recruiting restrictions might look like.
First, the good. Removing these territory rules, more than anything else, increase the rights and opportunities of the young American player. Any change that accomplishes that is a good one regardless of what else comes out of it, full stop. There’s no way Atlanta United will ever be able to roster every potential professional-quality player in the city of Atlanta, and those players they miss should have every opportunity to make a career out of this game somewhere else.
Of course, while it would increase the opportunities for players, it would also increase the pressure on the teams. The next George Bello may very well decide that this whole Atlanta United thing isn’t for him and he’d rather play for NYCFC instead. Even the best player in United’s academy could take his talents elsewhere if he felt the opportunity there was better for him. And since none of these kids are paid professionals, no money would need to exchange hands for this to happen.
Thus, Atlanta United and every other club in Major League Soccer will have to do something they’ve never had to do before: work incredibly hard to prove to the up-and-coming kids in their own backyard that their club is unequivocally the best place for them to further their careers. And, by extension, they’ll also be trying to prove the same thing to players from all around the country, because kids from anywhere else could also decide Atlanta is the best place for them.
That doesn’t just mean having the nicest fields or the best weight room at the training ground, either. If clubs want to bring in a prospective young star, they will need to show that their pathway to first team minutes is clear and accessible. Basically, if Atlanta United wants to convince the next George Bello to stay home, they’ll have to give more chances to the current George Bello.
Infrastructure and facilities will matter, though. For most MLS clubs, being able to search the entire nation for talent will require a large ramp-up in investment in scouting resources. Clubs will also need to spend more on making sure their day-to-day training environments are most conducive for player development and attracting talent. Thus, the arms race this rule change will induce will not just encompass a battle for players, it will be a battle for the best coaches, scouts, and facilities. That type of competition will breed improvements out of necessity, and ideally, it will one day lead to a better quality of young player being produced in this country.
There are limits to this, though. Most kids lack the resources to move across the country with no guarantees of success or even retention in an academy program. When we talk about youth players leaving where they’re from, we seldom discuss how it affects the player both mentally and emotionally. MLS academies are cut-throat, high pressure environments where every practice is considered a try-out. 14 year-olds moving 2,000 miles to a new city just to be cut when they’re 16 is not a good situation for anyone involved, and there needs to be reasonable ways of addressing this concern.
The potential “wining and dining” of young kids causes some concerns as well. As we’ve seen recently in NCAA Basketball, when powerful, wealthy people are trying to win over young athletes, there’s usually something shady going on, and more often than not the athletes themselves are the ones that end up worse off. The NCAA is a consideration in all of this, too. College soccer doesn’t have the spotlight of some other sports, but it is still the eventual landing spot for the vast majority of MLS academy players. As long as the arcane amateurism rules that govern collegiate sports remain in place, players in these situations will have to keep them in mind.
People will need to address these problems as they arise, and players will need to consider their opportunities carefully. However, this is a necessary evil for the good that eliminating Homegrown territories will do. These rules inhibit the development of elite American players and artificially restrict competition between clubs. In this era of unprecedented growth for the league, MLS cannot afford to limit themselves in this way any longer.