More Conclusions In Progress: The State Of The Homegrown Program


Darius Tahir bookends John Parker’s piece on youth development with a closer look at the present-day state of the Homegrown Player program in MLS.

For the data review in Darius’s piece, please see this Google Spreadsheet.

After the Brazil loss we were told—as previous TSG writer Joshua Wells noted—that unless we found such results “unacceptable” the team would never become an elite one. Wells focused on the emotional response, but what about the strategy? Will loud, angry declarations actually work to improve a team’s performance over the long term?

The writer of the tweet, Michael Davies, comes from a nation—England—that’s a master of such angry declarations. Tournament after tournament, England have made loud declarations, taken umbrage, spewed bile, deployed sarcasm, black humor, rage, anger, derision, and resignation, as recommended. The results of this strategy are clear as England moves into Euro 2012, justly regarded as one of the top 16 favorites to win the entire tournament.

At best, anger is incidental to the ultimate fate of a national team. What really matters, of course, is youth development, and the problem with youth development is that you never see results until years later. The lackluster team against Antigua and Barbuda wasn’t the fault of youth development policies of 2012; it was the fault of youth development policies from roughly 2000-2005 or 6 or so. In other words anger might be counterproductive in sabotaging nascent policies.

For the U.S. it’s the move by the federation and MLS to improve youth development, specifically by signing players out of an academy. The hope is that more players will get better, pro-oriented training, which will either eliminate or reduce the need for college. The program has gotten quite a bit of hype since its inception in 2008, with, for example, writer Leander Schaerlaeckens musing that college soccer might become “largely irrelevant” in the production of MLS or national team players.

But how true is it now? Assessing the homegrown program at this moment is a difficult thing; instead of pinning a dead butterfly, you’re trying to pin a live one—it’s moving, fluttering away in a state of motion. Teams are expanding their programs, hiring new coaches, etc. Nevertheless we can make some conclusions.

While there hasn’t been an official list of “most valued young players,” one imagines homegrown players like Andy Najar, Juan Agudelo, and Bill Hamid are near the top of the list.

However, that’s a very partial way of assessing the program. I’ve put together some relevant stats for every homegrown player ever. With the recent signing of Karl Ouimette, there are 56 of them. What can we conclude?

Ajax, the football factory…

The Pace of the Program

Ajax, according to the New York Times Magazine article everyone consumed back during World Cup time, tries to graduate an average of a player and a half per year. How do MLS academy programs compare? Back-of-the-envelope calculations indicate a total of just around half that, with .74 players per team per year. (Expansion distorts the number a bit, so the “true” number is higher. Nevertheless MLS programs are not graduating players as quickly as Ajax.)

How many don’t make it? 

So far about 16% of signed homegrown players have been cut. This does not seem like an outlandish percentage.

How many are important players? 

In some ways this statistic will be a bit deceptive, but only three homegrown players have played more than half of available MLS minutes. Bill Hamid and Andy Najar, however, don’t make it because of Olympic qualifying and/or injury.

On the other hand, 56% of homegrown players haven’t played a single minute this season.

Is that because they’re young? 

Average age is 20.25 years in FIFA time.* So…maybe?

* (defined thusly: you’re whatever age you turn during the year. So…if you were born November 1992, you’re 20 for the purposes of this exercise.)

How big a break is the age thing from the past? 

Well, 25% of homegrown players (roughly) have played at least one year in college. So it’s probably best not to view the homegrown pool as a complete break from the MLS Draft college pool but as both as compliments.

In some ways that’s not a bad thing. If MLS academies were good enough at their job to, say, cut a year on average off of their top player’s college careers, that might well be a significant boon.

How do homegrown players perform in comparison to MLS drafted players? 

It’s an unfair comparison in many ways. The MLS drafted players are on average about a year and a half older than homegrown players. That’s quite significant at a young age, obviously.

With that noted, the answer is that of the college players in the league who were drafted, they are much more significant favors for their team. 18.6% of drafted young (which we’ll define as Olympic-eligible, i.e. u-23) players who currently in the league are playing more than 50 percent of their team’s minutes so far.

But the youth issue is pretty important—instead of playing occasionally in college they’re practicing every day and playing with the reserves? That’s surely a better experience. 


Here are the significant issues with the homegrown program—the reserve league currently is nowhere near adequate for the purposes of educating players.

There are 10 reserve league games per season in the U.S. Teams often schedule ad hoc games to supplement that total, but it’s hard to get to a really high total. That’s a big program. Homegrown players, so far this year through June 2, have averaged about 241 minutes and 65% of total minutes (counting official and unofficial reserve games.) On average, then, teams have played a little over 4 reserve games each this season. Let’s assume each team plays twelve per year and triple the numbers for the average player, meaning the average player will hypothetically play about 720 minutes or so. If a player isn’t a regular for his club, that’s nowhere near adequate.

Compare that total to what some European teams do. English reserve teams play 19 games a year and that’s considered inadequate. Dutch teams play 27 games per year. Spanish and German teams play full schedules against men—so they play 38 games a year. Take one of the latest batch of Barcelona, Tello. He played 39 games over a year and a half. It’d take three or four to match that total in MLS.

“Development can go that way…”

MLS coaches are likely in agreement. Both Jason Kreis and Bruce Arena have been scathing in their disapproval of the current structure. Kreis has called the schedule “ridiculous,” with the reserve league schedule often taking reserve teams far away from their managers, meaning that managers can’t easily watch what’s happening in the second team. “How’s that professional?” Kreis asks.

Kreis wants MLS reserve teams entered into other, lower-division leagues in MLS, in imitation of the German or Spanish systems.

Bruce Arena mostly agrees, and has even mused that “Right now, the kids would be better off going to college.”

Why don’t teams loan players? 

Don’t know. This isn’t a comprehensive solution, to be sure, but it would seem like more loans could be made. Currently there are two MLS homegrown players on loan—DC United’s Conor Shanosky and Houston’s Josue Soto. Both have gotten minutes. Shanosky has only missed 23 minutes for Fort Lauderdale Strikers; Soto’s been less successful at earning minutes but has still played more than 300 minutes so far this season.

Are any teams particularly bad at getting their players reserve minutes or other opportunities? 


Yeah, probably LA Galaxy and Chicago Fire. Both teams have two homegrown players each. LA’s Jack McBean  has gotten just over a quarter of possible reserve league minutes while Jose Villarreal has gotten just under. Chicago’s Victor Pineda has played 27% of possible minutes, while Kellen Gulley has gotten 10% of possible minutes. This is dramatically worse than the average percentage for homegrowns. All four are U.S. youth internationals.

Both teams are deeply mediocre, and so they are choosing to give minutes to mediocre veterans over promising young players. Both teams are sitting on some of the best youth hotbeds in the country; in this, Chicago comes out looking worse. Gulley is actually from Mississippi, meaning the team has somehow contrived to have all of one Chicago-based player graduate to the first team. Consider, however, the soccer history of Chicago. The Chicagoland area has produced, in recent years, Brian McBride, Michael Bradley, Eric Lichaj, Brad Guzan and Jonathan Spector. None of these players, to my knowledge, have a Latin background; Chicago is one of the most immigrant-heavy cities in the country. That means there’s a Basically, Chicago is failing.

Where are the defenders?

Opara where are thou?

Ready to bring up a bad memory? Of course you aren’t, but think of the Olympic qualifying fail. Caleb Porter came in for many a criticism, many of those quite justified. But Porter was unlucky in several important respects—neither Bill Hamid nor Sean Johnson have had such poor games before that nor since that—and, most importantly, his defenders. In central defense Porter was forced to rely on a once-promising player whose career had been derailed by constant injuries (Opara, who was once regarded as a similar prospect to Omar Gonzalez) and a converted defensive midfielder (Perry Kitchen). What’s worse is that these were likely Porter’s best options among eligible, healthy players.

The blame here quite likely lies with MLS. The league rarely signs defenders in Generation adidas, and even more rarely signs them as academy players. Of the 56 homegrown players signed since 2008, only four of them have been centerbacks. Unfortunately for Caleb Porter and the U.S., half of those centerbacks are Canadian. (Though Toronto’s Doneil Henry is a very good prospect and will likely be sold for quite a bit of money at some point.) Also unfortunately for Porter, both of the other centerbacks went to multiple years of college and the one that played significant minutes in 2011—Ethan White—was injured during qualifying time.

That’s the short term blow-by-blow, but the trend will surely extend forward. Either MLS academy programs are not producing particularly good defenders or MLS teams don’t take the opportunity to sign them early. Either possibility is not exactly encouraging.

(By the way, the picture for fullbacks is scarcely better. 6 fullbacks have been signed, of which one—Ashtone Morgan, Toronto’s very good left back—is Canadian and three spent time in college.)

How does MLS compare to other leagues? 

I looked up Australia’s A-League to compare the minutes given to young players. In some ways, this is a very fitting comparison—both leagues are young ones, set in wealthy countries in which soccer isn’t the number one sport. On the other hand, the A-League’s financial issues make Rangers look like a well-managed model of fiscal probity. There are only 9 A-League teams at the moment.

Whatever the financial issues, the A-League is on average better than MLS at granting minutes to young players. On average, each A-League team had 2 players under 23 getting more than 50 percent of minutes in its most recent season. MLS teams are currently just over 1 per team. It’s possible that the A-League is just concentrating all the best young players in a way that MLS can’t, but it’s certainly not encouraging for MLS.

So what’s your assessment? 

Work in progress.

32 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by John Parker on 2012/06/25 at 9:13 AM

    Wonderful piece Darius. My one concern is I think the Canadian teams skew these numbers quite a bit in terms of American development; Toronto FC has clearly been the most committed team to their HGP’s throughout the program’s existence.

    Do you happen to have the numbers of signings per year? There was a wave of signings in years two and three where clubs were trying to get that first player on the books, often leading to some reaches (Chirgadze in NY, Armstrong in Colorado, etc.)


    • Posted by JohnC on 2012/06/25 at 9:27 AM

      Im not sure it is fair to say Toronto has been the most dedicated or just a bad team that plays a lot of different players and was willing to experiment with young players. The DC guys got opportunities because those teams were awful and the same can be said for Toronto. However, some of those guys really panned out, so maybe this is a difficult chicken and egg thing.


      • Posted by dth on 2012/06/25 at 10:16 AM

        Would agree. It’s hard to distinguish between DC’s Academy program and Toronto’s, at least in terms of players produced. Both, interestingly, have hired ex-Ajaxiciens to head up their academy. So we’ll see who does better.

        It’s hard to find a homegrown player that didn’t get established without getting there by accident. Agudelo was the beneficiary of an Henry injury. DC United and Toronto FC got their guys in because of rampant ineptitude.


        • Posted by Jared on 2012/06/25 at 10:38 AM

          It’s tough to watch a lot of the young players in MLS get stuck behind veterans at most teams unless those teams are awful without any real chance of making the playoffs. Between the amount of journeymen that make up mid level teams in MLS and the lack of loans it seems that a lot of these young players get stuck.


  2. Posted by mdb on 2012/06/25 at 10:31 AM

    “In other words anger might be counterproductive in sabotaging nascent policies.”


    The last thing we want is a team (and system) so afraid of losing that they perennially resort to the kind of display we saw from England yesterday (or Chelsea several weeks ago). In that world, the world we’ve suffered through for decades, the national team (across levels) will continue to eschew players of technical ability in favor of obvious physical gifts (size, strength, speed, etc…).

    This is the road that England has followed, and we have seen the disappoint it has wrought.


  3. Fantastically detailed. Thanks for this.

    What complicates developmental matters, of course, is conflicting interests. U.S. Soccer, I think, would like to use MLS similarly to what the Dutch federation has perfected with the Eredivie – developing young domestic talent on a trajectory toward the national team, then selling off to the bigger leagues once the time comes for a nice ROI.

    Meanwhile, MLS is a growing business making a legitimate play for a market share in this country, and the best way to put new butts in seats is to field the best possible team RIGHT NOW and bringing in well-known veterans more casual fans may know. Such is the struggle of a non-“soccer country.”

    Obviously, this is a process that isn’t going to be perfected overnight, or even over five years. We’re certainly headed in a better direction than we were 10 years ago (when Bradenton was king), but perhaps things aren’t quite progressing fast as we’d like.


    • Posted by Jared on 2012/06/25 at 11:53 AM

      The problem isn’t with the well known veterans that are brought in, the problem is with the non well known journeymen who take the playing time from the young players because the coaches know what they will get from those journeymen. It will be enough to get them into the playoffs in a league that has so much parity.


      • Right, which is to my point about fielding the best team “RIGHT NOW.” The journeymen who are slightly better players right now are favored over the guys with potential.


      • Posted by dth on 2012/06/25 at 1:17 PM

        Well, I also think coaches can be ridiculously risk-adverse about it too. Take FC Dallas. Scott Sealy has been playing frequently for them. He’s bad. It’s hard for me to believe either Ruben Luna or Jonathan Top isn’t better than he is.

        Or take Amobi Okugo, who has tons of natural talent…but after the Union sign Bakary Soumare (assuming Ives’s reporting is correct), will chill out on the bench for a while.

        That sort of stuff kills me. And it’s not even about incentives, it’s about culture. English teams sign the Soumare equivalent without thinking about it. German teams might sign Soumare, but would always ask themselves first, “Do we have a young German player who could do nearly the same job?” And then they’d play their Okugo equivalent. German teams (and also Alex Ferguson) are also much better about affirmatively thinking out sub opportunities to bleed their young players. McBean, Villarreal, or one of Philadelphia’s homegrown players couldn’t have trotted out for a fifteen minute cameo during their respective team’s blowouts this week?


        • Results continue to be the American way, not development. Instead of playing to improve or win, coaches play NOT to lose, which is self-defeating theory (and, if we’re making comparisons, why the British game has fallen off the world pace). It’s the coaching equivalent of “when in doubt, get it out.” One thing I think is constantly overlooked in discussions about player development is the lack of coaches who preach the modern game. I think Kreis, Vermes and a couple others try to play more proactive, modern soccer (though via disparate tactics from one another), but I think they’re the minority. Getting young guys more training and minutes under these coaches may just mean we become the next England, not the next Germany.


        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2012/06/25 at 5:58 PM

          For the life of me, don’t try and copy England. There is zero connection between the clubs and National Team, as the clubs put their needs first, which doesn’t necessarily benefit England. Even more so in the money driven Premier League / Champions League era. Unfortunately, we created the beast (EPL) and is out of control…


    • *Eredivisie


  4. Posted by Jared on 2012/06/25 at 11:49 AM

    Isn’t more than a little ironic that Arena is one of the guys complaining about the reserve leagues while at the same time hindering youth development on his team? He’s a head coach in the league and one of the few that has the resume to get away with playing youth over journeymen. Yet he trots out Chad Barrett (15 total appearances this year) over and over again rather than McBean (1 subs appearance).


  5. Posted by Evan on 2012/06/25 at 12:39 PM

    anybody gonna checkout Earthquakes vs. Sounders @ Kezar tomorrow?


  6. Posted by Zack G. on 2012/06/25 at 1:21 PM

    Wonderful work.

    We follow a unique league that emphasizes the importance of slow growth. No great aspect of MLS was built overnight — and I’m convinced that not only will our HGP’s see more minutes (and meaningful minutes) in the near future, but that the entire system will undergo changes.

    I think a huge part of the discussion that often goes under the radar is the development of our second-, third-, and fourth-division sides in this country. We occasionally see promising young MLS players get loaned out, but more often than not clubs seem hesitant to engage in these dealings, fearing the worst could happen with their prized youth players out of their control. There is a sound logic to that — and there’s no question the same thing happens abroad — but I think we’ll see these young players get more integrated into lower-division sides as the years go on. As the infrastructure and competition levels of NASL, USL Pro (once they develop more sides on the West Coast), and PDL improve in the years to come (let’s hope), there will be more valuable opportunities for these players to grow away from their home clubs. I seriously believe that one of the biggest impediments to a symbiotic relationship between our top-flight and lower divisions is the fact that the USSF only loosely ties those leagues together in lieu of promotion/relegation (don’t worry, we won’t be going into that… just stating a fact). It’s hard to gauge and compare the competition and levels of professionalism between the individual leagues — and it’s even harder to sell MLS sides on loaning out their players to teams and leagues with shockingly high rates of attrition (not only losing their players to new teams and leagues… but new professions entirely). Integrating young players into MLS sides is important, but I think the process of loaning players out is a huge step in that process that needs maturation in our country.

    I think without that — even if the HGP infrastructure has vastly improved and a wider net is being cast — I’m not sure we’re doing everything we can do to get these players in the right situations to grow. It’s just one small part of the puzzle (I think the college discussion is a way bigger component, for instance), but it’s a discussion that I think gets lost in the shuffle.


  7. Posted by Eric on 2012/06/25 at 4:17 PM

    This is just my random thoughts after reading the article and the comments so I’m interested to hear any responses to this but here we go:

    First, excellent article which I think hits some key points. MLS isn’t getting enough minutes to young players in a meaningful capacity and I think that more of these players need to be loaned out (as mentioned with Shanosky for example) or the league needs to figure out what to do with the reserve league. I think the best solution would be to place the reserve teams in the USL/NASL leagues. Doing so would provide good competition while at the same time providing extra teams in those division which might actually help attendance (I’d go see more USL/NASL games if I knew some of the top prospects in the country were playing on reserve teams in the league). However, I can also see those leagues not wanting to have to deal with MLS like that and who knows what USSF would think of it.

    Also, I’ve seen in the comments several posters commenting about how coaches need to take more risks and play the inexperienced player over the journeyman more. I’ve also seen one or two saying that the problem is that the coaches are going for results rather than development (Jaredlaunius is the one that sticks out in my mind but there were others). I don’t think you can criticize the MLS head coaches here. Their job IS to get results. They don’t win, they get fired (See Winter in Toronto, Nowak in Philly, and we all know there will be another coach soon enough on the list). As the league gets more and more competitive, coaches are going to have to put more stock into regular season matches, which is good for the league as a whole. However, this might also mean that a coach is going to decide to play the more experienced player (albeit with less upside) over the young player with loads of potential (but less experience and more unpredictability in performances). As such, it has to fall to the player to develop quickly in practices and for the reserve league to become more productive as well. I think it’s a mistake to say that the Head Coaches should be worried about development over results. If they did that, they’d lose their jobs. The system around them has to change a little however.


    • Posted by dth on 2012/06/25 at 5:23 PM

      I don’t think the problem is that they seek results over development, I just think coaches are ridiculously risk-averse in pursuing results.

      Put it this way, the only results you should be getting when you start Scott Sealy is your firing. Especially when you have the best-rated academy in the United States.


  8. Posted by Nelson on 2012/06/25 at 5:38 PM

    On a different note: I would more so like to see a shift in college. College football-I live in the SEC-is bigger than the NFL. If we could get widespread acceptance from big universities and grow the game there, we wouldn’t have to worry about the youth getting time in lower tiers or the MLS. We would want them to play in college until they could go to the EPL or Bundesliga. I hope that we can realize soccer will make more money than rowing or some other male sports that the SEC has other than soccer. This may take thirty years but it’s a dream…


    • Posted by Zack G. on 2012/06/25 at 6:57 PM

      Not so sure it’s that simple, or ever will be. I think college soccer has its place (and likely always will), but so do academies and youth teams with professional ties. The latter is not going away and needs to be where most of the ‘shift’ takes place because (a) there are fewer barriers towards making those instrumental infrastructural shifts; and, (b) there are very few incentives for the college game to change in any way.

      I’m of the mind that there are actually dangers to having a particularly robust college game that draws players away from the academy system, but that the collegiate game should still be strong. Again, there are ways that these two things can work together — for example, college players who play for the PDL affiliate of an MLS team in the summer or who sign homegrown player contracts after school ends — but I still think we’re looking in the future at two very distinct pools of development, only one of which you can really make major systematic changes to (the professional realm).

      The college v. academies debate gets tired really quickly, so I’ll stop before someone makes sure I know Clint Dempsey went to Furman. Both have their place — but the important thing is to implement changes to the academy system while it’s still young and malleable. Everything at this point is still experimental, but we can all agree that the important thing is to get these kids not just a lot of minutes, but QUALITY minutes. That means playing outside of their age group and playing for first teams (or even premier-level reserve sides).

      In a perfect world for USMNT fans, we have a bunch of mini-Bradenton’s everywhere, where our best and brightest grow up together and mature at the right times by playing with the other stellar prospects from their region. That vision isn’t entirely conducive to the realities of what a pro academy is and why it exists. The question becomes how do we reconcile the needs and visions of individual clubs with what is best for the long-term growth of the player. There are logistical pitfalls there, but it’s not an impasse. Starts in a big way, in my opinion, with integrating youth team talent with lower-level pro teams at an earlier age.


      • Posted by Mike on 2012/06/26 at 4:42 AM

        If I was a high-school soccer player of solid repute, but was not attracting attention from well-financed foreign clubs, and I had a chance to go College on a scholarship, or go to an MLS academy, I’d be hard-pressed to pick the latter. You can play soccer for 10 years, and in the MLS that won’t be for very much money, in most cases. But a degree at a Division I school will serve you a higher paycheck over the long term while not killing your options for a pro career in soccer, should that pan out. Ultimately you want both options to be viable—look at minor league baseball and college baseball, which both produce great pro players. But right now, MLS is small potatoes, and that makes throwing all your apples in that basket a risk, as a player, I would think.


        • Posted by Hal on 2012/06/26 at 5:06 PM

          yeah i would too. The best case scenario there would be to take the scholarship and then find a PDL club. At that age its all about getting the playing minutes in. Just playing in college wouldn’t be enough.


      • Posted by Nelsonaoatl on 2012/06/26 at 9:59 PM

        I understand your points about player development. For selfish reasons I’d want soccer in the SEC and it to grow. I guess my feeling was more of wanting cultural development of soccer.

        One of the biggest sports conferences without the most played sport is an issue. A lot of my friends blame title IX. I just blame the schools for not being creative with solutions . Do any of y’all TSG people live in an area with this predicament? It irks me and my friends…


    • Posted by Hal on 2012/06/26 at 5:02 PM

      You can’t compare college football with soccer.The problem is that to be a great soccer player you must have learned technical ability well before the age of 18. During the college age 18-23, players should be getting lots of playing time in highly competitive environments. But in College players are regulated as to how many games they can play, how often they can practice with coaches etc. So College is actually detrimental to a players development.

      But like others have stated, so are our reserve league.

      Basically we’re screwed. We know what works but like Mr Parker said, we are just unable to follow the blue print.


  9. Posted by scweeb on 2012/06/25 at 6:40 PM

    I think this brings up the need for the second division league. Were teams can put younger players on loan to farm teams and know they are getting minutes. I also think that if we created a second division this would bring in allot more hype to the MLS cause america would see its first relagiton battle! And to be honest the relagtion matches are some of the best matches in the EPL.


    • Posted by Jared on 2012/06/26 at 9:31 AM

      There already are second divisions. Did US Soccer ever determine which one was the true second division? I know that there was one season where they allowed two leagues to function as a second division.

      Relegation is not going to happen in MLS any time soon. These owners bought into the league expecting to be MLS teams not MLS2 teams. If a team like the Revs were relegated there is a better chance of Kraft just dropping the team than supporting them in a second division with absolutely no money coming in.


    • Posted by Hal on 2012/06/26 at 5:10 PM

      i think not having promotion/relegation really hurts our player development and the growth of soccer in this country. This is because the pro/rel environment is a very competitive environment and competition is what we need. But sadly I don’t see promotion/relegation happening any time soon.


  10. Posted by Dan on 2012/06/26 at 2:45 PM

    Very good piece. Thanks for taking the time to write it. Definitely thought-provoking.


  11. Posted by matthewsf on 2012/06/26 at 3:18 PM

  12. Posted by 2tone on 2012/06/27 at 9:03 AM

    Loved the line ” Because both teams are mediocre they are choosing to give minutes to mediocre veterans over promising young players.” Yep, couldn’t have said it better myself.

    Case in point Mcbean and Villarreal with the Galaxy. While somehow Chad Barrett continue’s to get minutes.


    • Posted by Jared on 2012/06/27 at 10:27 AM

      Every time I see Barrett getting minutes it makes me want to not watch MLS for a few years. For all of the progress MLS has made those types of players show just how far MLS has left to go.


  13. […] que cela puisse paraître, pas moins de 56 % des joueurs formés par les clubs n’avaient aucune minute au compteur cette saison en date du 25 juin dernier. Et parmi les 56 joueurs formés par les clubs depuis […]


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