How to Fix Youth Development in Major League Soccer

Tyler Adams in his final season for New York Red Bulls before being transferred to RB Leipzig.

Tyler Adams in his final season for New York Red Bulls before being transferred to RB Leipzig.

In the past decade, Major League Soccer has sunk plenty of cash into various attempts to increase youth development. In that same period, however, American starlets have begun to populate the landscape of International Football. Christian Pulisic at Dortmund and now Chelsea, Weston Mckennie at Schalke, and Josh Sargent at Werder Bremen highlight a few of the budding American players that will lead the next generation of the national team. Now, contrast their reasons for traveling abroad to expand their development with the MLS’s pitch for them to spend their younger years in their home country. Overseas, such players can play a high level of football in a league that offers wealthy contracts, greater recognition, and established means of producing talent. In the MLS, these same players have their contracts restricted by a salary cap, receive equal if not fewer minutes due to the demanding travel and compact schedule, and are separated from the clubs of their dreams by an entire ocean. What promising talent would evaluate both options and choose to stay at home? That’s right, no one. 

The MLS, therefore, must reevaluate what it can offer to young, American talent. With the right offers of development and incentives, MLS could become a dynamic breeding ground for the future of not only American but also European football. In the style of both the Netherlands’ Eredivisie or even the English Championship, the MLS could become a league that allows young talents to prosper. Currently, however, that vision looks decades away from being realized - decades the MLS cannot afford to waste by merely bloating the league with expansion teams and pitching themselves as a resort at which the stars of yesterday can rest their worn out legs. The MLS must act quickly to become a league on par with the mid-tier European leagues and provide the youth prospects of the United States with a defined platform to flaunt their talent. 

 

Becoming a Development League

For Major League Soccer to serve as an attractive launch pad for young talent, they must first decide what type of league they want to be. In recent years, commissioner Don Garber and many MLS owners have insisted on establishing the association as a “league of choice.” This model, Garber insists, allows European veterans and players of lower quality from across the Americas to coexist within the league. Though this model supports the inclusion of a wide range of players that boost the league’s profile, becoming a “league of choice” has occurred at a massive detriment to the league’s quality of play. With Garber’s model for the league-leading the same sluggish and outdated brand of football that has seen the MLS lose respect from its European counterparts, youth prospects become inclined to take their talents to the more demanding and serious leagues of Germany or England. 

Major League Soccer must adjust its aim from becoming a “league of choice” to a “league of development.” This alternative requires the prioritization of youth talent and progressive football over catering to the choices of the game’s elder statesmen. Becoming a development league would allow MLS to accept its position in world football and provide young American players with a clear path to the elite leagues of Europe. By marketing the league in such a way, clubs could potentially receive large transfer fees for their younger players that they could reinvest in their lineup or training and managerial facilities, thereby improving the quality of their team and the league. Imagine if Christian Pulisic had played for an MLS team like the Philadelphia Union for two seasons until he was 19 or 20 years old. Even if he had only performed at a fraction of the quality he has shown in the Bundesliga, he would have without a doubt made himself known to Europe’s biggest clubs. Currently, Pulisic is set to join Chelsea this summer as the result of a deal in excess of $60 Million. Now, though Philadelphia would never see a transfer fee that great, it is entirely possible to assume that, had Pulisic spent a season tearing through the US, he could be traveling to a Chelsea or Borussia Dortmund for a fee of $30 Million. It may be only half of his current, but it would be almost record-breaking for Major League Soccer. American prospects are among the most valued in all of world football. Not only to the represent quality talent for the future, but they are a marketing department’s dream. A Christian Pulisic or Weston McKennie opens the door to a third of a billion potential fans, lining up to buy a jersey. 

Weston McKennie fights off Kevin De Bruyne in the Champions League Round of 16. Not bad for a 20 year old American.

Weston McKennie fights off Kevin De Bruyne in the Champions League Round of 16. Not bad for a 20 year old American.

If Major League Soccer stops betting on older legends to fill seats and instead focuses on their youth, the league could earn respect, money, and higher quality football while becoming a platform for young players to leap to the heights of European football. Currently, however, the league’s rules and tendencies remain entrenched in decades-old philosophies of football management. Frequently, the MLS loses out on the profits of players they developed. As players reach the point of earning professional contracts from their parent club, they are increasingly likely to move overseas. These players make the intelligent decision to move up the food chain instead remain in a league that sits far down in the pecking order of feeder league’s for Europe’s greatest competitions. 

American prospects that have made such moves have revealed their two most significant incentives as the lack of teenagers playing in the MLS and the nagging question of potential success in Europe. In an interview with the Bundesliga, Weston McKennie pitched Germany to the American Youth stating, “You don’t want to start in the MLS and always have the question in the back of your head if you could have made it over there?” Similarly, Josh Sargent mentioned the startling lack of game time for American prospects in the MLS: “When you look at MLS, you don’t see many young players getting minutes. But Weston and Christian are getting minutes. I don’t know how you can refuse that.” 

Josh Sargent scoring his first goal for the USMNT.

Josh Sargent scoring his first goal for the USMNT.

If Major League Soccer remains stuck in its archaic modes of development, there is nothing to stop players like Josh Sargent from buying a plane ticket to Germany. Moreover, for the future of the National Team and the increased talent of American emigrants, who would want to stop them? Major League Soccer has a chance to keep American talent in America, but to do so means sacrificing immediate profit for future investment. Is that a risk that the owners and league managers are willing to take?

 

Overhauling Major League Soccer’s Americanized Salary System

Major League Soccer treats the salaries of a club like Sporting Kansas City the same way the National Basketball Association handles the salaries of players for the New York Knicks – with an increasingly restrictive salary cap. Have these salary budget rules been effective in other American leagues? Yes. Does that mean it’s the right model for a soccer league that’s playing catch up with its parallel leagues in Europe? Hell no. 

MLS’s current limitations and restrictions on spending mean that for a team to create an effective roster, they must prioritize the effectiveness of a player based on his potential salary. See, if a club is saddled with a young prospect of extremely high quality whom they are paying low wages, they are incentivized to hold on to that player for as long as possible regardless of how lucrative of a transfer fee they receive.  

For context, this exact situation played out last year when New York Red Bulls sold then 19-year-old American National Team starter Tyler Adams to Leipzig for $3 Million. This transfer was the result of a difficult decision for New York. Adams came up through New York’s development system and reached the point where he impressed on the international stage for the USMNT. His success, however, was not matched by his salary – a rather meager fee that mirrored his age and experience rather than the talent he possessed. So, if New York decided to sell him, that would mean that – though they would receive a decent transfer fee – they would lose a significant amount of quality from a small salary position within their roster. After New York decided to sell him to Leipzig, they were tasked with the difficult job of finding another young player with undiscovered potential whom they could pay the same salary as they did for Adams and who would also provide the same talent on the field as Adams. Players like that are rare to come by. Also, if such players were available, they’d be headed to Leipzig on the same plane as Adams. 

Tyler Adams playing for his new club RB Leipzig.

Tyler Adams playing for his new club RB Leipzig.

These salary restrictions massively hinder the ability for Major League Soccer to retain talented players and fund rosters capable of competing in other CONCACAF competitions such as the CONCACAF champions league. For example, Atlanta United recently lost its CONCACAF Champions League Quarter Final to Monterrey – a club from LIGA MX – by a score of 3-1 on aggregate. Atlanta United won the MLS Cup in late December of 2018. In their two short years of existence, Atlanta has become arguably the greatest MLS club in existence. Why then are they getting boosted from competitions by a team that finished third in LIGA MX last season? One reason may be that Monterrey’s salary budget is three times the salary budget of Atlanta. In a sport that depends heavily on competitions between leagues and nations, the MLS has tied one arm – or one leg – behind its back. 

By removing the salary cap and following the model of almost every other European League and South American League, the MLS would allow its teams to compete in the madness of the global transfer market while offering their star prospects and players lucrative contracts to keep them tied down. 

Improving Youth Development Facilities Within the United States

Ultimately, Major League Soccer will play, for as long as it exists, an integral role in the development of American prospects. Players like Sargent, Pulisic, Mckennie, and Adams have found good developmental systems abroad. However, these players represent a minority of American talent. Thousands of young players within the United States are unable to travel overseas for financial, physical, or emotional reasons. To these players, Major League Soccer must lend a helping hand. This position is a role that the USMNT and the MLS must play in tandem. The reality of football is that no successful international team does not have an equally successful development system back at home. 

Major League Soccer can provide this development by prioritizing the hiring of quality coaches and professionals that can shoulder the burden of seeing youth prospects from extremely young ages into becoming mature young adults ready to take on professional football. 

Currently, Major League Soccer has two eyes on their profit margins. With dreams of becoming a top-league throughout world soccer and having decided on inner league expansion and marketing as their path to the promised land, the MLS seems to have placed youth development on the backburner. This article is not intended to trash the MLS’s lofty goals as unattainable or foolish but rather to insist that the MLS management and Club ownership realize the potential of focusing resources on youth development. If Major League Soccer can balance the promotion and marketing youth players with progressive tactics and philosophies of the game itself, the league will have a serious chance at becoming a bona fide contender in world football. Even if the league is not able to reach such heights in the next decade or so, focusing on the strength of the youth and overhauling their salary models will allow Major League Soccer to carve out a respected and prosperous niche within the diverse canvas of global football. For a league that is still in its infancy compared to other league’s around the world, that’s not such a bad option.