The 2013 MLS rookie class always did set a very high bar for 2014 to follow. Stacked with impact players coming in via the draft and homegrown player processes, the 2013 class could eventually wind up being one of the best in league history.
We may only be eight weeks into the 2014 season, but this year's rookie class hasn't exactly dazzled the league, and the lack of impact rookies makes you wonder if that's just an anomaly or the start of a trend.
As the 2014 season hits the quarter poll, there just haven't been many rookies who have made a serious dent, and much fewer teams are incorporating rookies into their squad rotations than in year's past.
The past weekend in MLS action offered an example of just how barren things are for the 2014 class, with San Jose Earthquakes midfielder J.J. Koval the only rookie to earn a start, and a handful of other rookies seeing modest minutes.
In fairness, the runaway favorite for MLS Rookie of the Year, Chicago Fire midfielder Harrison Shipp, was on a bye, and Montreal Impact defender Eric Miller had started seven straight matches before being rested this weekend against Philadelphia.
Then you have Chivas USA rookie Tommy McNamara, who had been very impressive early on for the Goats before tearing his ACL a week ago.
Even with those factors taken into account, it's tough to look at this year's rookie class and not feel like it is light on pro-ready talent, particularly in the area of homegrown players not developed by the college system.
More than a dozen players were signed to homegrown player contracts since last season ended, and of those, only Shipp has made any sort of impact — and he was a four-year standout at Notre Dame. Which raises the question of whether MLS academies are really doing enough to develop talent capable of contributing to the first team.
The fact is the current MLS academy system just isn't getting the job done. If you look at some of the most successful recent homegrown players in MLS, almost all of them had multiple years of college development under their belts. Players like Yedlin, Wil Trapp, Shipp, Gyasi Zardes and Scott Caldwell all put in two or more years of college development before turning pro.
Have there been some true homegrown players to go straight from the MLS academy system into the pro system, without the help of the college game or even the U.S. Under-17 residency program, and develop into contributors? Yes, there have, and players like Diego Fagundez, Bill Hamid, Andy Najar and Shane O'Neill are held up as shining examples of what MLS academies can produce. But is that really enough to call MLS academies successful, or is it time to start asking when MLS academies will be able to develop players who can actually help the first team.
The league, and its teams, are working on ways to better develop young talent, as evidenced by the relationship MLS and USL Pro now have, which has allowed MLS teams to loan out young players to USL Pro clubs to gain experience (some teams are also loaning out players to NASL teams). Loans, and the creation of MLS-owned USL Pro teams like the LA Galaxy II squad and the proposed New York Red Bulls USL Pro team, should help create more opportunities for young players. But are MLS academies preparing these players to turn pro?
That is the real question, and while yes, MLS academies are still in the early stages, at some point there will need to be some accountability and teams will have to start asking questions about why more pro-ready talent isn't coming through the pipeline, and if teams aren't themselves to blame for not investing more into those development systems.
No, this isn't just about a weak rookie class, but about an overall lack of contributing young talent in MLS. Not many MLS teams are giving young players key roles, and you can bet some of those teams will argue that there just isn't the quality young talent coming through the youth ranks to make that worthwhile.
At least one coach disagrees. Colorado Rapids coach Pablo Mastroeni stated at the beginning of the season that young players aren't given enough of a chance in MLS, and that one of his key goals is to make sure young talent is given the opportunity to succeed with the Rapids.
"I know it's easier for some teams to just go and sign some veterans or some foreign players, but we need to give young American players a chance to develop and get that valuable first-team experience," Mastroeni told Goal USA. "That's something I'm committed to and I think that not only is that good for my team, it's good for the league to have more young talent coming up, and getting the chance to develop."
Mastroeni has been a man of his word. The Rapids are the only team to give two different rookies multiple starts (John Berner and Jared Watts) and have given minutes to three different rookies (with 20-year-old Marlon Hairston).
Mastroeni remains in the minority when it comes to giving multiple young players minutes, and while you can't really blame coaches for choosing to go with veteran options, or continuing to hit the foreign player market as they find limited options being produced by their academies, MLS has to know that a league with plans to expand to 24 teams in the immediate future needs its teams to start producing more pro-ready talent.
MLS WRAP WEEKLY AWARDS
Player of the Week- Bradley Wright-Phillips. The English striker netted a hat trick in Wednesday's 4-0 win against Houston, then delivered a quality equalizer in the New York Red Bulls' 1-1 tie with Columbus on Saturday.
Rookie of the Week- J.J. Koval. The first-round pick was the only rookie to start in MLS this week, but he also happeed to turn in a solid showing in the Earthquakes 1-0 victory against Chivas USA.
Team of the Week- Seattle Sounders. It took 45 minutes to open the scoring against Colorado on Saturday, but once the Sounders got rolling, they couldn't stop, scoring four goals on their way to a romp over the Colorado Rapids.
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