This is a debate that could go on for a while but it is one that I’m starting to lean heavily on one side. Since Major League Soccer increased the home grown player initiative to allow teams to sign as many home grown players as they wanted – you saw some clubs go all out on the deal while others held back.
The clubs that went all in for it had deeper reserves in their academy base to begin with. Teams like FC Dallas, Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps, D.C. United and even the New York Red Bulls had talent left and right. They all signed more players than most clubs in the league were willing to at the time. Other clubs like Sporting KC, the Chicago Fire and New England Revolution took a more cautious approach.
Some players were great off the bat like D.C.’s Andy Najar – while others just needed seasoning to get better.
But more and more, we’re seeing a long list of players go to college with MLS academy ties. Obviously this route isn’t for everyone but you do have to sit and wonder the ‘what if’s’ with guys like Ruben Luna of FC Dallas. What if they had gone to college for a couple years and got more games under their belts instead of wasting away on a bench, playing in friendlies or the tiny reserve league schedule.
One of the biggest problems associated with HGPs is their lack of maturity. These kids sign a contract and fail to push themselves once the checks begin to clear. There are very few young players out there that are really willing to push themselves and the ones that do even up being great.
I love to compare some of the current rookies to some of the HGPs around MLS. Guys like Austin Berry or Matt Hedges are miles ahead of some of the HGPs, not based on talent, but based on maturity and the sense that they are willing to put whatever on the line to get minutes.
Developing players need at least 25-30 games a year to improve. Right now HGPs and other young players are only getting anywhere between 10 and 15 games in a single season. So maybe a four-month college season is the way to go for many of them?
I know there are many theories as to how the league can improve the program and how to develop younger players in general. I’m not advocating that the college game is the best route for all of these HGPs but I do think for the vast majority it makes sense.
Look to guys like Scott Caldwell of Akron who is in New England’s academy system, or London Woodberry who is leading Maryland to an unbeaten season right now, he is apart of FC Dallas’ system. Both are seniors in college at the moment and both have probably played in more games than most of the HGPs in MLS right now.
I think the next wave of HGPs are going to be three and four year starters from the college game. The Woodberrys, Caldwells, and others in college are going to be more mature than the 16, 17 and 18 year olds that sign with a MLS team today. Sure, there will be a few Najars that sneak through and wow us early on.
Every player’s path to becoming a profession is going to be different. We continue to see which clubs do a good job of producing young talent and which ones are lost trying to get their players out there. It’s still a growing game in some respects and we’re still a long ways from being where we need this game to be in this country. But more and more we are seeing exciting young players come into this league from year to year.