Young Players Benefit from No Relegation in MLS

Philadelphia Union’s young striker Jack McInerney saw a significant increase in playing time as the 2012 season wound down.  While this could also be attributable to head coach John Hackworth putting more faith in the youngster or injuries to his teammates above him in the pecking order, I see his playing time as a result of not having promotion or relegation in MLS.

In the 12 games since Philadelphia lost 2-0 to Montreal on August 4, Jack McInerney has been one of the most influential players for the Union.  With that loss in Montreal, Philadelphia’s playoff probability never rose up to 5% according to Sports Club Stats.  Head coach John Hackworth knew the team had little more than pride to play for and opted to bleed in young talent.  Jack Mack started 10 of 12 games at the end of the season and played a total of 906 minutes from 1080 possible.  The young striker repaid his manager’s faith by scoring 4 goals and notching an assist in a four game stretch that included two ‘man of the match’ performances.

When the New England Revolution lost to Sporting Kansas City 1-0 on August 1, their playoff chances never rose above 2%.  Since September, when the Revolution’s playoff hopes hung on a negligible decimal place,  Diego Fagundez played 520 out of 720 possible minutes in the final 8 games of the season.  Prior to that, the young Uruguayan youth international had only clocked 350 minutes in the league out of the 12 matches he featured in during the first 6 months of the season.

17 year old Homegrown Player signing, Marco Delgado made his debut for Chivas USA during a 4-0 loss to Vancouver after the team had already been eliminated from playoff contention.  You could argue that Delgado simply came on in a game that was a lost cause, but there were other games earlier in the season (namely 6 other times the team was losing by at least 3 goals after Delgado signed) in which they could have played the youngster but didn’t.  It was only after the team had their postseason hopes dashed that the U.S. u18 midfielder suited up for his club.

When the Impact’s mathematical chances of making the playoffs were barely above 1%, Jesse Marsch decided to play Karl Ouimette.  The young Homegrown signing played 64 minutes against Houston and featured late in a win against San Jose.  The first appearance, coming in a 3-0 loss, was facilitated by the fact that Montreal’s playoff hopes were far-fetched at best.

Only after the Timbers were all but eliminated from the postseason, Interim Head Coach Gavin Wilkinson elected to start Homegrown signing Brent Richards for two matches against Chivas USA and against FC Dallas.

All of these young players saw more time in first team matches towards the end of the 2012 MLS season.  While many factors could have contributed to the coaches’ decisions to play their youngsters, such as the athlete’s personal development or injuries to the first choice options, coaches are more likely to give minutes to young players because of “lame-duck” games in MLS.  At the end of seasons in other leagues, teams have to perform in order to avoid relegation.  Because there is no relegation in MLS, coaches are more willing to aid the development of their young players by giving them chances with the first team in late season league matches.

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6 thoughts on “Young Players Benefit from No Relegation in MLS

  1. I don’t see any correlation between lack of promotion/relegation and player development. After all, players in Europe regularly get ‘blooded’. The reality is few young players will get opportunities to play when something is on the line. But in Europe, there is usually more on the line than exists in a typical MLS fixture. In fact, I have come across quite a few instances of Euro players getting minutes in Champions league or domestic Cup competitions.

    • I don’t think I argued this piece well.

      All of the players I mentioned saw an increase in playing time after their teams were effectively eliminated from playoff contention. Playing time is beneficial to player development. Of course, this isn’t the best way to go about developing young talent on MLS rosters but this is what I see happening;.

      Those Champions League debuts are usually for the last five minutes of games or games that the team doesn’t need to win. High quality teams often have 16 or 18 year old players make debuts in the CL and that gets everyone excited, but those minutes aren’t necessarily meaningful. Similar situations arise in domestic cup competitions. Young players clearly are more likely to get playing time in non-meaningful games.

      What’s different in European leagues is the other quality options available for players. U18 leagues, reserve leagues, and lower leagues are all more professional and provide a better development in Europe than in the US.

  2. You’re right about coming in late in games. And often those overseas players get starts in games that aren’t must wins for their clubs. (League Cup matches and FA Cup matches vs weaker teams.)

    Germany’s reserve sides are essentially U23 teams. The EPL reserve league is essentially U21. Then there is the Next Generation Series. Essentially a ‘Champions League’ for top reserve sides.

    The reality is that 99% of footballers don’t truly establish themselves until they are 21 or older. Especially defenders and holding mids. The difference is that these players are brought along slowly. Getting meaningful games as well as training with the first team.

    The MLS reserve league just doesn’t do a good enough job. Most players are better off playing a year or two of college ball and summer PDL. They at least get more games that way.

    Hopefully MLS will collaborate with the lower leagues to give more players the experience they need.

  3. It doesn’t aid development to gain experience in a non-competitive environment, in fact it can be argued that this will hinder development.

    In a league with relegation young players will see more minutes earlier in the season, and this will be both more valuable to them because they have greater opportunity to make a difference.

    Playing in a ‘safe’ environment demotivates players, makes evaluation less relevant and harms the design of individual training plans for them.

    • In a league with relegation young players will see more minutes earlier in the season.

      How is that?

      And Diego Fagundez is a much better player for having played in MLS matches. I don’t follow.

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