Through most of its existence, MLS has held a symbiotic relationship with the US National Team.  The league owes its existence to the 1994 World Cup hosting rights, and one of the stated goals of MLS is to develop players for the national team pool.   Since the league’s creation, at least half the players on each World Cup roster have had some MLS experience.  Off the field, Soccer United Marketing handles commercialization efforts for both MLS and the US National Team.  The bond between the national federation and domestic league is the foundation of the “For Club and Country” rallying cry.

The past few years, though, have featured a turbulent divergence from the norm.  As each side acts in its self-interest, the US National Team and MLS are less calibrated than they were in the past.  Jurgen Klinsmann expresses his standards and opinions on players freely and publicly, regardless of a player’s stature.  Don Garber acts as the most vocal advocate for the league’s quality.  The friction likely results from personality conflicts and communication methods rather than philosophical incompatibility.  Based on his call-ups of both veterans (Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore) and newer players (Gyasi Zardes, Darlington Nagbe, Matt Miazga), Klinsmann views MLS as a net-positive for the national team.  Meanwhile, to fulfill his goal of MLS as a “league of choice” for top American players, Garber must prove that strong MLS play is a path to the national team.

The latest saga involved Jordan Morris and his decision to train with Werder Bremen before signing with Seattle.  US assistant coach Andreas Herzog facilitated the trial, though Morris declined the contract offer to stick with his hometown team.  For some reason, Morris’ decision turned in to a referendum on the “MLS or Europe” debate, but that obscures a larger issue.  The bigger question is: Why aren’t there more US players in Morris’ position?  A national team cap for an amateur player is an anomaly, but globally, a good 21 year-old attacker should have multiple options domestically and abroad.

I researched the prevalence of young players – those younger than 23 – in MLS and other global leagues, looking particularly at three areas:

  1. How often are young players getting a chance to play?
  2. Are those younger players goal-scorers?
  3. Among those goal-scorers, how many are domestic players and how many are international?

All of the following data comes from the detailed player stats section of whoscored.com.  February 18 is the age cut-off date; unfortunately, the age data does not update retroactively, meaning that the presence of younger players in the European leagues is likely understated.  However, by looking across 11 leagues, we should have a directional sense of opportunity for younger players.  Also, the threshold here is simply making an appearance – there is no minimum number of minutes played to be counted.

The first area is addressed easily:

Slide1

MLS is in the middle tier of these leagues, with 24% of players who made an appearance younger than 23.  The Dutch and French leagues are rife with opportunity for younger players, whereas the Russian and Turkish leagues tend to favor older players.  Ultimately, MLS’ player distribution is within range of the leagues to which it aspires.

By going down a level in the analysis, we can segment the U-23 players.  The next chart breaks out the U-23 group by those who scored, and if those goalscorers played domestically or internationally (percentages here are for the total player pool):

Slide2

At this level, some more differences emerge.  Remarkably, 11.6% of the Dutch league (56 out of 481 players) were Dutch U-23 players who scored a goal.  Among top-flight leagues, Brazil, Germany, France, and Spain show a proclivity for developing young attacking talent (read more about the Euro scouting here) – 6% or more of the players in those leagues are U-23 goal scorers eligible for the respective national team.  Here, MLS lags slightly at 3.5%.  Looking at the player list is also cause for alarm, as the leading scorers – Dillon Serna, Kellyn Acosta, and Marco Delgado, each with three goals – are not strikers.

The dearth of young American goal scorers in MLS should be a concern to US Soccer.  Almost by default, Morris will be one of the most promising U-23 strikers in MLS, particularly as Obafemi Martins’ transfer should lead to more opportunities.  So what can MLS and US Soccer do about this?

From a league perspective, MLS should remove any roster or salary restrictions around homegrown players.  MLS recently increased the amount of available money to spend on homegrown players, but why stop there?  If a team develops a slew of outstanding, young players, they should reap the immediate benefit of that work.  FC Dallas should be a beacon, not an aberration.

From a federation perspective, the USSF needs to further facilitate a professional ecosystem to support younger players.  Going back to the second chart, the Championship has twice as many English U-23 goalscorers as the Premier League; current top 10 scorers James Vardy, Harry Kane, and Jermaine Defoe all spent time in lower leagues.  Some MLS teams have formed USL teams, but the affiliations vary by influence and geographic distance.  It’s worth noting that the role the German Football Federation played in mandating German club teams focus on development.

MLS teams should be self-interested, and have shown when given more autonomy, as MLS mostly has with Designated Player signings, the focus is often in attack.  Paradoxically, MLS’ parity works against development; if each team is in win-now mode every season, all season, when does it make sense to play an unproven player?  Ultimately, this results in fewer chances for younger US attackers.  Through expansion, MLS will add at least 80 roster spots over the next few years.  The litmus test is how teams and the league will use these new spots.  Tottenham is showing the value of providing opportunities for younger players, and hopefully MLS teams follow their example.

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