MLS Homegrowns: The Beast Within

For every Gyasi Zardes, there is a Victor Pindea.
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Zach Pfeffer

When Major League Soccer crafted its Homegrown Player Rule in 2008, the American soccer scene entered a new era. Phrases such as “U.S. Soccer Development Academy” and “MLS 2.0” fused into the sport’s lexicon, and the focus switched from immediate results to long-term development.

So, how does this whole system work? In simple terms, MLS clubs can sign anyone who played for their youth teams for a distinct period of time. There are geographic complications, but the logic is that elite-level training during the teenage years ultimately cultivates a local primed for the professional ranks.

It’s by no means a foolproof plan, but countless teams are riddled with success stories in which a boyhood dream became a reality. Just look at Kevin Ellis of Sporting Kansas City, a defender who signed as a 19-year-old and gradually progressed to a starting role in 2015.

Kevin Ellis

“It wasn’t about money because I didn’t make a lot of money when I first started playing, it was more about the opportunity,” said Ellis. “It’s rare for anybody to get an opportunity to play a professional sport, let alone for your hometown team. For me, it was something I was dreaming about since I was young and I didn’t want to take the chance of never having the opportunity again.”

As Ellis alluded to, Homegrown Players usually pounce on their first contract, eager to progress towards their goals and aspirations. It’s an entirely understandable reaction, as it allows them to stay close to home, bring family and friends out to games and train alongside the guys they grew up supporting.

However, for every shrewd signing, there are investments that don’t go as planned.

“Scouting, identifying and training is a whole different science, and you think some different players might be ready,” said Thomas Rongen, a former coach for the U.S. Under-20 team. “... It’s really just the nature of the beast that some players are going to fall by the wayside.”

As is the case in any profession, one reason things might not pan out is expectations, largely buoyed by undeniable talent and potential. Honing and translating those skills, however, to an elite level is an entirely different proposition.

“Expectations are really everything when it comes to these Homegrown Players, regardless of whether they’re 18 or 22,” said Brian O’Connell, the New England Revolution beat writer at ESPN FC. “If you have a player that comes into a role that’s basically his for the taking, the expectation is high. More often than not they’re not ready for it, and it’s sometimes they’re tasked with something not at their level.”

In a perfect world, Homegrown Players receive heaps of patience from the coaching staff and learn from the veterans ahead of them, all so they eventually become indispensable. That’s exactly what Conor Shanosky planned on doing when he joined D.C. United as an 18-year-old.

What followed, though, was only five games played over five years, four loans to three different teams and now a spot on Louisville City FC, a lower division team founded in 2014.

Conor Shanosky

In many ways, Shanosky signed with D.C. full of hope and promise, only to learn that moving on from your hometown team is sometimes the best option.

“I learned a lot in D.C., but now is also a time when I need to move on and need to get out and fend on my own a little bit without the Homegrown cap and tag that I had for so long,” Shanosky said. “Everyone wants to play, especially when you’re young, and you don’t feel like you’re fully developing just in practice. You want to get competitive and get in the games, so you take whatever positive experience you can.”

Shanosky has no regrets of signing with D.C., as he capitalized on every experience and lesson when they arose. An even broader look at Homegrown Players reveals tales like Shanosky’s as often as someone rises from the ashes.

For every Gyasi Zardes there is a Victor Pindea. Both talented in their own ways; the former is a L.A. Galaxy Homegrown Player with nearly 20 appearances for the U.S. National Team, while the latter only made four appearances as a Homegrown Player for the Chicago Fire.

They’re two drastically different fates, and with development on the minds of coaches and executives alike, domestic and foreign loans present ideal solutions. Challenging environments vault a career forward, and, for Zach Pfeffer, that came in the form of a year-long spell at Germany’s TSG 1899 Hoffenheim.

The Philadelphia Union Homegrown Player used that time to mature, moving from a 15-year-old prospect to a dependable starter.

“It really allowed me to take steps forward in my development and career, and I think I’m certainly a better person and player for that,” Pfeffer said. “They really know what they’re doing and know how to develop and produce players. They hold you up to high standards and you just have to make sure you go and fight for 90 minutes or the whole training session.”

Not every Homegrown Player can mimic Pfeffer’s path, though. That’s where the United Soccer League—which is essentially the third division—comes in. Through affiliations with preexisting teams or newly founded reserve sides, Homegrown Players have a place to develop their skills, adjust to the speed of play and broaden their tactical understanding.

This setup allows someone like Tommy Thompson of the San Jose Earthquakes to get loaned to Sacramento Republic FC, or Victor Mansaray of the Seattle Sounders to simply play for the Emerald City’s reserve side.

In both cases, players are put in a situation to succeed and make the jump to MLS.

“It’s really important to have those proper second teams so you not only have a full team of products that are under the umbrella of that MLS team, but you’re also getting consistent instruction,” O’Connell said. “That way, these kids that graduate from the academy as teenagers or when they’re in college, they’re not being thrown into the proverbial fire right at the start.

“Now, they can get those meaningful minutes against talent their own age and have the atmosphere to get fully integrated into what the first team is asking from them,” O’Connell added. “There’s greater opportunities for guys who might have been cast as failed Homegrowns, but now they’re getting the opportunity to nurture their talents.”

With all of this in mind, there is no blanket solution to the Homegrown Player conundrum. A bright, young talent stands out and one can only hope it translates to the professional ranks. And, as obvious as this sounds, no MLS executive is a fortune teller or can guarantee a loan is successful.

It’s a fickle process, one in which development leads to future national team stars and others wondering what could have been.

“It’s part of the parcel and something that will continue to happen with MLS, and historically has happened with the rest of the world,” Rongen said. “We invest and there’s some return, but I don’t think we’re ever going to get to a point where the whole team is Homegrown Players. That doesn’t even happen with Ajax and Barcelona.”

However, the infrastructure is in place for American soccer to continue on the path towards producing week in and week out starters, much like European powers do.

Most importantly of all, the ups and downs of the Homegrown Player system have allowed hindsight and perspective to settle in. Coaches better understand how to vertically integrate players from the academy up to the first team, all while allocating resources towards more purposeful development.

There will hiccups, but Homegrown Players will also shape MLS for years to come. Continued progression will only raise the quality of play, as well as the league’s profile throughout the world.

“I think in terms of the U.S. as a soccer nation as a whole, the way we’re going to catch up to the rest of the world is through the development of players and Homegrown Players,” Pfeffer said. “It’s a positive sign that a lot of players are coming through the system and starting to make a big impact in the league. Hopefully that’s going to continue and will be a big factor in the national team moving forward.”

The key, however, is harnessing their talents and understanding development systems are not infallible. MLS teams haven’t perfected the ins and outs, but they’re sure getting there.

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