Major League Soccer has taken great strides to improve youth development and foster the growth of young American players through the academy system. The ugly truth facing the North American league, though, is that there is a long road ahead before the league's youth development program can be considered a rousing success.
In the wake of a number of MLS Homegrown Players -- players signing with the first team directly through a club's academy system -- being outright cut in recent weeks, MLS commissioner Don Garber was pressed on the issue during a conference call with national reporters on Monday.
"Clearly, developing young players is one of our top priorities," Garber said. "We will continue to invest mass amounts of money in our academy programs and our reserve leagues. That investment has not yet paid off."
As of now, the reserve league involves teams playing 10 games over the course of the year, and the only other games teams have to incorporate more than their first-choice players are few U.S. Open Cup contests, in-season international friendlies and, for some teams, the CONCACAF Champions League. Others are sent on loan to the second-tier NASL and third-tier USL PRO.
Even so, Garber said that the league continues to invest $20 million a year in its youth development programs and still has grand visions for being a facilitator and factory for young players to come through the system and thrive.
"We are very focused on doing everything we can to build a pyramid and take responsibility for building the game in this country," Garber said. "The league continues to want to take a leadership position in growing the game overall. We know how important that is to help our country be better on the national team level."
Garber alluded to the success that the Mexican national team has had on the youth level -- winning the gold medal at this summer's Olympics and the 2011 U-17 World Cup and finishing third in the 2011 U-20 World Cup -- but said that the league has no immediate plan to implement a mandatory minute total for young players as is done for the clubs in top-tier Liga MX.
"We have spent a lot of time as recently as two-to-three weeks ago talking about the concept of mandatory play for young players," Garber said. "We are mindful of the success Mexico has had. We're not sure that success is driven by the rule."
Garber said that plans to improve the conditions for younger players include tinkering with the reserve league, building a closer relationship with NASL and to potentially incentivize teams for playing its younger players on the first team.
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