The Off-Season of Homegrown Signings in MLS

Homegrown signings allow MLS clubs to develop talented players within their own system.  This means a club like the New York Red Bulls can guide a player’s development from as young as 12 until he is deemed ready to join the first team.  While this is not remarkable within the context of the global game, a number of clubs depend on this type of growth from the academy (Athletic Bilbao in Spain springs to mind); academy signings are nothing short of revolutionary in MLS.  This off-season MLS clubs have combined to sign 16 players to Homegrown deals, 8 of whom are under the age of 20.

Traditionally young players have only been available to teams through a draft system or, in specific cases like for youth national team members, through a weighted lottery.  By design, drafts reward dysfunctional clubs by giving the lowest performing teams the highest picks.  An academy based approach allows clubs to establish a distinctive style of play in their youth ranks and to groom players for specific roles with the first team, while at the same time rewarding successful organizations.

Players can face a difficult transitional period in when turning professional.  There have been countless examples of collegiate midfield players having to adjust to playing the full back position for the first time in their careers when they are drafted.  This positional shift would not be as abrupt if a player grew up in a specific team’s tactical setup.  A larger example of the removal of player agency within the draft system is that a player, once signed to a contract with MLS, has no influence on the team in which he plays.  If a player wants to play in California because he has family there, but is selected by Montreal… he has to play in Montreal.

Impact on Draft System:
Gyasi Zardes was a projected top pick in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft before he was signed on a Homegrown deal by LA Galaxy.  Many mock drafts had Zardes as the number one prospect in the 2013 draft class by some distance.  HG signings allowed the reigning MLS Champions to steal the top prospect from this year’s draft class; a precedent that creates a chance to break the mold of parity and let teams invest in their own development.

In previous years, and to a lesser extent this year, the MLS SuperDraft was somewhat of a crapshoot.  Players may not have been scouted well, the college game was held to a lower standard,  and teams had less of a plan for player development.  All three of those factors have improved over the years to better understand a college player’s professional potential.  Consider that Gyasi Zardes sets the precedent for the best draft prospect opting to sign a Homegrown deal instead of going into the SuperDraft.  If MLS Development Academies continue to grow, we’ll see more players like Zardes who sign Homegrown deals after a few years of college ball, and like Michael Seaton, a 16 year old forward signed by D.C. United even though he likely won’t see much time with the first team this season.

League Flexibility in Favor of Clubs:
MLS has historically been a stubborn actor with regard to progressive reforms of their rules.  However, the league operates in a very different mindset with regard to Homegrown signings.

The Portland Timbers were allowed to sign Brent Richards outside of the HG rules because his youth club had ties to the Timbers before they joined MLS (when the Timbers were a USL club).  Zach Pfeffer and Jimmy McLaughlin signed with the Philadelphia Union despite the club not having a centralized academy development system like other clubs.  Jose Villarreal was attracting interest from clubs abroad, so MLS ignored the facts that the young forward had not spent the requisite amount of time with the LA Galaxy academy and he had earned his first youth national team cap prior to joining the Galaxy.

This flexibility shows a willingness on the part of MLS to bend the rules in favor of stronger development.  Signing young talented players is a strength that MLS wants to expand upon in the coming years.  By allowing clubs to sign promising youth prospects, MLS is opening an opportunity for clubs to grow and invest in development outside of the official purview of the league.

Below is a list of all 16 Homegrown Player signings of the 2012-2013 off-season.  Ages range from 16 to 24 and the players represent all positions on the field.  Even though some of these signings may not become impact players for their teams in the next couple seasons, this increased confidence in youth development is a progressive and positive step forward for the sustainability of MLS clubs.
Montreal Impact – Wandrille Lefèvre, 24, Impact Reserves (Canadian Soccer League)
Montreal Impact – Maxim Tissot, 20, Impact Reserves

Houston Dynamo – Bryan Salazar, 18, Academy

Colorado Rapids – Dillon Serna, 18, Akron

D.C. United – Michael Seaton, 16, Academy

Seattle Sounders – DeAndre Yedlin, 19, Akron

Columbus Crew – Chad Barson, 21, Akron

FC Dallas – London Woodberry, 21, Maryland

Portland Timbers – Steven Evans, 21, U of Portland & Portland U-23s

New England Revolution – Scott Caldwell, 21, Akron

LA Galaxy – Gyasi Zardes, 21, CSU-Bakersfield

FC Dallas – Bradlee Baladez, 21, University of South Carolina

Columbus Crew – Will Trapp, 19, Akron

New York Red Bulls – Santiago Castano, 17, Academy
New York Red Bulls – Armando Moreno, 17, Academy

LA Galaxy – Oscar Sorto, 18, Academy


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