In the fourth in a series of posts on the future of U.S. soccer, Andrew Lewellen looks at Major League Soccer's hotly debated Homegrown Player rule. For Part I of the series, on the recent changes in high school and youth soccer, click here. For Part II, on the 1990 World Cup's impact on the U.S. soccer psyche, click here. For Part III, on the state of the college game, click here.
On November 17, 2010, Juan Agudelo made history for the United States Men’s National Soccer Team. You might know one of the reasons: That day, in his international debut, he became the youngest player ever to score for the USMNT when he netted the winning goal against South Africa in the Nelson Mandela Classic. He was six days shy of his 18th birthday.
But Agudelo made history for another reason that day: He became the first MLS Homegrown Player to appear in a USMNT game. At the time, he was a member of the New York Red Bulls and was one of 18 Homegrown Players in MLS.
A Homegrown Player — or HGP — is a player an MLS team has signed from its club youth academy. MLS initiated the program in 2008 to encourage clubs to give players in their academies an optimal training environment and retain their top academy talent. League roster rules state a club can sign a player to an HGP contract if "the player has trained for at least one year in the club’s youth development program and has met the League’s Homegrown Player criteria." What that criteria is, well, that can be hard to determine. Some sources say the player must have played 80 games with the team’s academy, some that he must live within 75 miles of the city, others that clubs may have "satellite territories." Several HGP signings, however, have contradicted these parameters.
The first Homegrown Player was Tristan Bowen, who signed with the L.A. Galaxy in November of 2008. Since then, 54 more players have signed HGP contracts. The best known is probably Andy Najar, a Honduran-born winger who signed with D.C. United in March of 2010. That season, as a 17-year-old, he won the league’s Rookie of the Year award. Last month, he was called up to the Honduran Olympic Team.
Danny Califf, a teammate of Agudelo’s at Chivas USA in Los Angeles and the team’s captain, sees promise in the HGP program: "I think Homegrown Player development is the future of the league. For a good majority [of players] in the future it’s going to come down to stepping into the academy system and coming up through the ranks and then clubs being able to hold onto those guys and sign them."
In a way, HGP contracts are a revised version of Generation Adidas contracts (previously called Project-40), the very type of contract Califf signed when he joined MLS in 2000. Generation Adidas contracts, funded by Adidas, are given to top college and high school prospects. Those players are automatically entered into the MLS SuperDraft, are guaranteed a salary higher than the league’s base minimum (which is currently about $34,000), and earn an education stipend.
MLS wants young players to aspire to play for their local team. Ali Curtis, a former MLS player and current director of Player Relations and Competition for the league, put it best: "Having dreams of playing soccer in your backyard has a big change on players. One of the best things you can have as a professional team is have someone from your home area grow up and play for your club."
Jack McBean is one player who did that. A Los Angeles native, he signed an HGP contract with the L.A. Galaxy in January of 2011, when he was just 16 years old and a sophomore in high school. Last season, his first year with the Galaxy, he was a part of the team that won the MLS Cup.
"Most of the veteran guys," McBean said, "were telling me just enjoy the season because you don’t win every year."
According to McBean, one of the most appealing factors to signing an HGP contract was that it allowed him to be close to his family while he transitioned to a professional environment. McBean's still attending high school; he recently finished his junior year. His guaranteed salary this year is $91,000. Not as much as elite young players in foreign leagues, but still not bad for the now-17-year-old.
MLS provides a few key financial incentives for clubs to sign Homegrown Players. One is that HGPs don’t count against a team’s salary cap. Another is that if a club sells an HGP to a foreign team, it keeps 75 percent of the profit, rather than the customary two-thirds. MLS has a unique ownership structure: The league owns the teams, and team owners are shareholders in the league. So when a club sells a player — for instance, when the New York Red Bulls sold Jozy Altidore, who they signed in 2006 as a 16-year-old, to Spanish club Villareal in 2008 for roughly $10 million — the team keeps a portion of that money while the rest is distributed throughout the league. If Altidore had been an HGP, New York would have made almost $1 million more, which is not chump change for an MLS team. The league does require that that profit be reinvested into the team’s development via facilities, gear, youth academy, and so on.
This past Wednesday night, the Galaxy’s other HGP (besides McBean), Jose Villarreal, proved how valuable these young players can be. With five minutes left in a road game against Vancouver and the Galaxy down 2-1, the 18-year-old — playing in only his second MLS match — scored the game-tying goal on a left-footed rocket from the edge of the penalty area.
When L.A. signed Villarreal last December, MLS allowed the club to bend some of the Homegrown Player rules so they could protect him from being bought by a European club. Now the Galaxy can develop Villarreal to become a key part of their team. Or, after he’s matured, they may end up selling him to a European club for a hefty transfer fee. This is similar to how things work at European clubs with top youth academies — like Ajax in Holland — where selling good young talent to other clubs for profit is an established practice.
Not surprisingly, the Homegrown Player initiative is not without its issues, the most significant of which is that many HGPs don’t see much game time. According to a Washington Post article from June, 27 HGPs hadn’t played in an MLS game in 2011 or 2012. Agudelo experienced this with the New York Red Bulls. One of the team’s starting strikers is Thierry Henry, formerly a French National team player and one of the best strikers in Europe. While in New York, Agudelo struggled to find playing time behind Henry, and in May, the Red Bulls traded him to Chivas.
European leagues maintain reserve leagues so developing players can compete in games. MLS had a reserve league from 2005-2008, and then reopened it in 2011, but teams only play about ten games.
Another issue facing HGPs is that, once they sign a Homegrown contract, they lose their amateur status. So if a teenager signs an HGP contract but never develops, he might end up spending his college-age years bouncing around a lower-division league, rather than getting an education and playing in college, where — though he might have less training time — he’d be playing in competitive games and learning how to lead a team.
Though the Homegrown Player program has been criticized for not achieving enough results, it’s important to remember that the program is only 4 years old. The players who could become the most valuable prospects may not be current HGPs but younger academy players.
Jovan Kirovsky, an assistant coach for the L.A. Galaxy and former U.S. National Team player who was the first American to sign with Manchester United’s youth program, said: "Over time, you’ll see the kids that are now about 12, 13, 14, those kids that are getting this training, those are the kids that we’re going to see in our national teams, in our MLS teams, and the quality will definitely get better.”
While Agudelo is blazing a path and making history for himself, it might be those younger kids, the ones following in his footsteps, who end up making history for the national team.