Seth Vertelney: Major League Soccer reaches a crossroads in youth development

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MLS Preview: Houston Dynamo - D.C. United
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MLS Preview: Houston Dynamo - D.C. United

Major League Soccer's player development system has made big strides over the past half-decade, but much of that good work is currently in danger of being undermined.

There is now a massive gap in the league's player development model. MLS knows it, and how it addresses the issue will be a crucial part of the league's narrative over the next several years.

"We recognize that there's a hole in development," MLS technical director Jeff Agoos told Goal.com. "We need to have an environment that [the player] can play in and make his share of mistakes but not at the point where there's so much pressure on a player or a coach or a club."

The hole in question refers to a lack of playing opportunities for young players under contract with MLS clubs, but not quite ready to make an impact with the first team.

If an 18- or 19 year-old is ready for first team action, fantastic. But most of them aren't. These players are currently in danger of falling into what LA Galaxy coach Bruce Arena called a "black hole" in a June interview with the Washington Post.

How was this gap created? A good place to start is the Homegrown Player.

Started in 2007, the Homegrown initiative is the league's way to keep its best talent within its borders. Under the rule, a club may sign a player to his first professional contract without subjecting him to the draft if the player has trained for at least one year in the club's youth setup.

With the burgeoning academy system now in place, teams have begun plucking pro-ready players from their youth teams. Currently there are 57 players under contract in MLS that have signed through this mechanism.

An increase in young players signed to pro contracts has created something of a catch-22. More emerging talent stays in the league, but there's just not enough room for all of it on the pitch.

Out of the 57 Homegrown Players, only 23 have played first-team soccer this season. Of that group of 23, less than half could reasonably be considered regular contributors.

Agoos admitted that he wasn't surprised about the low number of Homegrown Players seeing minutes, even saying that "it's actually surprising that it's that high," noting the lack of academy-developed talent producing for many big clubs across Europe.

It was the second number, however - the single-digit number of Homegrown Players who are regular contributors to their teams – which bothered him.

"When you get down to that next number, that's a lot more concerning in terms of the contribution," Agoos said.

So where can young players under contract with a MLS team get competitive games if they aren't ready to be a first-team contributor?

There are a few options. First and foremost is the MLS Reserve League, which is a fine place to start, but is hardly ideal with just 10 games on the schedule each season.

Aside from the Reserve League, there are two competitions MLS clubs could find themselves in outside of league play: the U.S. Open Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League. Much like the Reserve League, these are merely auxiliary options.

The U.S. Open Cup is a single-elimination tournament and, in its current format, MLS teams have a maximum of just five games. As for the CCL, there are a maximum of 10 games available for MLS teams, but only five of the 19 MLS teams are in the competition, and with most teams heavily emphasizing a strong performance in the CCL, it's unlikely many young, untested players will see much playing time.

That leaves just one option available under the current structure: loans.

Of the 57 Homegrown Players in the league, eight have been loaned to lower-league teams in the U.S. or abroad this season.

Though it would seem a loan to a lower-division club might be the easiest path to hand a developing player valuable minutes, it isn't as easy as it may appear on the surface.

"Location is a part of it," Agoos said. "Whether the two philosophies match up is also an issue. For example, the way Salt Lake plays and the way Richmond plays may be different, so consideration has to go into the philosophy of what type of team you're sending them to as well."

Dave Kasper is the general manager of D.C. United and has overseen the development of two of the most successful Homegrown Players in league history: Andy Najar and Bill Hamid. United also has two other Homegrowns in Ethan White and Conor Shanosky, both of whom have been loaned to lower-division clubs this season.

"The main logistical hurdle [for a loan] that can be a challenge for some teams in our league is the distance between any USL or NASL team and their city. We have the advantage of having multiple USL teams within a couple-hour drive," Kasper explained to Goal.com.

"We had the luxury of having Richmond Kickers literally in our backyard where [White] could train here during the week and play a game for them on the weekend."

White is a good example of the issues many young players face. A former U.S. youth international, he signed as a Homegrown Player in December 2010 and played in 24 games as a 20-year-old during the 2011 season. A late-season injury derailed his progress and he didn't reach full fitness until a month or two into the 2012 season.

The defender hasn't played in a first-team game with D.C. United in 2012, so he has been loaned several times on a short-term basis to Richmond, which plays in USL Pro, the third tier of the American soccer pyramid.

"In the end he will probably end up somewhere around 18 games or so between Open Cup games, between call ups [to Richmond] and [the] reserve league. I think in a perfect world, we're looking at probably closer to 30 games," Kasper admitted.

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How will Major League Soccer add more rungs to the ladder between amateur and MLS starter? There are several options currently on the table.

"Right now the league is looking at a number of solutions: one of which is increasing the number of reserve games. Two is to help facilitate more player loans to the lower divisions. And three is maybe you take your reserve team and you actually play in one of the lower leagues," Kasper said.

The third option could be the most intriguing of the group. Many European countries currently have a similar system in place. In Germany, Terrence Boyd earned a call-up to the U.S. national team without ever playing a first-team match with Borussia Dortmund. The striker's exploits with Borussia Dortmund II in the German third division earned him the call, and eventually led to a move to Rapid Vienna in Austria, where he has started well with the club's first team.

There is also another, more youth-centric way the league is looking at a solution.

"It's not just that gap between the academy and the first team, I think where we can make some real meaningful strides is at the lower ages where players are coming in," Agoos said. "We mandate now in our academies that they have to have a U16 and a U18 [team], but we need to go much younger than that. We're looking at mandating a U14 team at this point and hopefully younger.

"What we really need to do is to get better technical players at younger ages so that by the time they've got to the point where they are 18 or 19, that gap between the academy and the first team is much smaller."

By looking both forward and backwards, MLS hopes it can begin to erase the gap in between. The size and scope of the hole in development is a story that will help shape the future of the league, and American soccer in general.

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