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December 4, 2012 at 11:46 AM

Sounders FC considers homegrown signings, MLS ponders changes to reserve league

Youth development.

It’s a topic MLS commissioner Don Garber spent a fair amount of time addressing during his State of the League conference call last week. He called it one of the league’s top priorities, but stated “that investment has not yet paid off.”

So what kind of investment are we talking about?

“It’s probably about $20 million a year leaguewide,” Garber said, “and there was a time when our salary budget wasn’t $20 million a year, so we are very focused on doing everything we can to build the pyramid and take responsibility for growing the game in this country.”

The commissioner added that developing young players also pays off on the national team level, and certain things like the Generation Adidas program provide MLS teams with incentive for having those types of players on the roster.

The Sounders have drafted a pair of Generation Adidas players in past years (Steve Zakuani, Michael Tetteh) but are yet to sign a homegrown player from their academy system. Coach Sigi Schmid evaluated the state of the team’s youth development program during an end-of-the-season press conference.

“I think our academy program has been solid over the years,” Schmid said. “I think our philosophy in regard to academy players is we want to make sure we see an opportunity for academy players to play if we sign them — that we see a path. As a coach, it’s a philosophy I’ve shared with (general manager Adrian Hanauer), and he’s agreed with me. We feel for the ultimate player development, it’s a matter of players getting an opportunity to play games. Training alone doesn’t do it.”

Schmid then passed along some stats that he had read, apparently in this Soccer America piece:

Of the 57 players MLS clubs have signed to homegrown contracts, only 29 played in the 2012 season. Of those 29, only six could be classified as regulars: Chivas USA’s Juan Agudelo, D.C. United’s Bill Hamid and Andy Najar, New York’s Connor Lade and Toronto FC’s Ashtone Morgan and Doneil Henry.

“We want to have a higher percentage than that once we start signing our homegrowns,” Schmid said, “and that’s because you have to give them opportunities to play. I feel our program is solid. I think we’ve encouraged of our homegrowns to move onto college, because we think that’s a good intermediate step for them. I think as we move forward you’re going to see some that are very close now, and maybe even this is the year that we end up signing one or two, but we’ve been very conscientious of making sure we present them with an opportunity and not sign homegrowns for the publicity sake of signing homegrowns — and then two years later release them. I think there have been some clubs that have done that.”

One of the leading candidates for a homegrown deal would appear to be forward Darwin Jones, who was with the Sounders in preseason camp and then for much of the year after being declared ineligible to play for the University of Washington.

How good is Jones? Well, veteran goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann made a point of praising the speedy youngster — unprompted — saying Jones would be pushing for a starting spot if he played in MLS back in 1997-99 (when Hahnemann was first in the league).

Jones, you might remember, was the fastest player in preseason and is in the Mike Fucito mold — short, quick, powerful.

Another leading option is DeAndre Yedlin, a local product who plays right back at collegiate power Akron. Yedlin has often trained with the first team, as well, and if almost always listed as a top option for the next homegrown signing. Nick Palodichuk (Duke) and Sean Okoli (Wake Forest) are a couple other top prospects playing NCAA soccer.

Back to Garber’s conference call, the commissioner was asked if the league has considered mandatory playing time for youth players signed to the first team. It’s a model that has been used in Mexico, where there has been great success at the youth level.

“We have spent a lot of time, as recently as two-, three weeks ago, where we had a competition and technical meeting down in Dallas, talking about the concept of mandatory play for young players,” Garber said. “We’ve done a lot of research on it and we’re certainly mindful of the success that Mexico has had. We’re not sure that that success is driven by the mandatory rule as much as it’s driven by just a massive commitment by the league working in partnership with the federation down there.”

Recently, MLS academies have gone down to the U-15 level, which is another sign of commitment, Garber noted, since there really aren’t any short-term rewards for such a move.

Overall, there haven’t been many tangible rewards at all, though Garber explained, “Just because they’re not being signed doesn’t mean we haven’t developed great players.”

“The fact of the matter is many of them are being nicked off by clubs around the world,” he continued, “particularly down south, and furthering their careers before they’re of age and permitted to be signed by Major League Soccer. Dallas has lost half a dozen players to Mexican clubs.

“Part of the issue is ensuring that we are providing (homegrown players) with competitive games at the reserve league, and we are working on ways to have a more competitive reserve league. Part of it could be a closer relationship with the second division and giving those players an opportunity to get minutes with the second division. Part of it could be incentivizing our teams for providing playing opportunities for those young players on their first team. Those three or four initiatives or even mechanisms we think will provide a greater level of value to our teams who are making these investments.”

Hanauer also weighed in during the team’s end-of-the-year press conference, and he said Garber’s comments were “spot on.”

“This investment that we’re making as a league I think it’s fair to say has not paid dividends to date — based on Sigi’s numbers and the fact that in some cases our academies are developing players that then get plucked and end up in Mexico or other parts of the world,” Hanauer added. “Again, in terms of these numbers that we’re talking about, this is a million-dollar-a-year investment that we’re making currently. It’s probably going up and probably going up relatively aggressively. It will continue to cost more and more money, and it’s an investment in the future. It really is. It’s players that are coming into our system at 11-, 12-, 13 years old today that hopefully we can develop in a more meaningful way and prepare to be professional players.

“That said, we do want to be good citizens as we develop soccer players, because there are European and South American countries littered with young soccer players who thought they were going to be professional and dropped out of school and now don’t have an education and are trying to figure out what to do. So certainly we want to develop those players into professionals, but if they’re not going to be professional, we want to make sure we’ve prepared them to be good young men and go to university and do whatever it takes to be a good person in society.”

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