SBJ/Aug. 10-16, 2015/In Depth

MLS seeks to build pipeline of players

Commissioner Don Garber has set an ambitious goal of having Major League Soccer be one of the top leagues in the world by 2022. While importing European stars like Kaka, David Villa and Sebastian Giovinco have further increased the league’s talent level and fan interest, accomplishing that goal relies heavily on youth development.

“One of the pillars we measure against is our product quality,” said Jeff Agoos, a former MLS and U.S. men’s national team player who now serves as vice president of competition for MLS, overseeing youth development. “To do that, we have to produce some of the best players in the world.”

Because of the structure of MLS, some of that development responsibility falls directly on the clubs. MLS instituted a homegrown player initiative in 2006, which allows clubs to retain the professional rights to players developed within their own youth academies. The league has since required that clubs operate a number of academy teams, including under-14 and under-18, all of which compete in the U.S. Soccer development league.

That strategy is beginning to pay off for teams. Launched last year during the league’s All-Star Game week, the Chipotle Homegrown Game sees the league’s best homegrown talent face off in an exhibition match. LA Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes played in that first 2014 match versus the Portland Timbers under-23 team. A little less than a year later, Zardes was in the starting 11 versus Tottenham in the 2015 MLS All-Star Game.

That development has been further aided by the 2013 partnership signed between MLS and the United Soccer League, in which MLS clubs are required to either affiliate with a USL team, or start their own franchise to further facilitate player development.

“There was a skill gap for young kids graduating out of an academy at 18 or 19 and then being forced onto the first
Youth enjoy the MLS Works-Colorado Rapids All-Star Community Day.
Photo by: USA Today Sports Images
team — you saw David Beckham line up aside a kid who was still too young to play in college. That’s a pretty huge gap,” Agoos said. “Now, young players can further develop on teams where they aren’t under that kind of microscope, and can learn and grow at a different pace.”

Still, Agoos notes, it’s not simply about getting more youth players into soccer, already one of the most popular youth sports, but also about coaching. “To really produce world class players, we need to provide players with that potential with world class coaching,” he said.

In recent years, MLS has partnered with the French Football Federation to offer additional coaching licenses to academy coaches, and is working with U.S. Soccer to further overhaul coaching.

“We recognize there is no silver bullet to change the fact that [the U.S.] has never produced a world-class field player,” Agoos said. “We’ve made progress, but we also recognize there is plenty of work still to be done.”

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