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MLS shifting resources away from Generation adidas

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Ives Galarcep

Ives Galarcep is a 14-year veteran of the American soccer beat. He created and operates the popular American soccer blog, Soccer By Ives, which was voted Best American Soccer Blog by US Soccer in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Ives was also voted Best Football Writer by SoccerLens in 2010. 
 

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Major League Soccer had a clear strategy when it set about building the 2012 Generation adidas class. After years of escalating salaries and overspending, league officials decided it was time to rein in costs and shift more resources toward signing MLS academy talent. It was a sensible change in philosophy, but change is never easy, even if the league succeeded in building a Generation adidas class for less money.

There was nothing subtle about this shift in policy. When the latest wave of talented college underclassmen lined up for their piece of what had in recent years been a healthy Generation adidas pie, they found the servings to be a fraction of what previous classes had enjoyed. With little in the way of notice or warning that fiscal parameters were about to change, the same agents who had helped push the inflation of GA contracts suddenly found themselves having to explain to their new clients that the money that used to be there just wasn’t anymore.

Rundown: Generation adidas class


Andrew Wenger, Duke, Centerback/Defensive Midfielder

Widely regarded as the most talented player in the draft, Wenger flourished at multiple positions in college, serving as a dominant centerback, quality central midfield and goal-scoring striker in different years. He projects to be a pro centerback, where his size, speed and passing ability could make him an all-star. He should be the first or second player taken in the draft.

Darren Mattocks, Akron, Forward

The most dangerous striker in the nation in 2011, Mattocks followed up a stellar freshman season at Akron by finishing his sophomore season among college soccer’s top scorers in a year where Akron was rebuilding. His pace and finishing ability should make him a threat in year one, and he is projected to be the top pick in the 2012 MLS Draft by Montreal.

Kelyn Rowe, UCLA, Attacking Midfielder

A player who could have been a top five pick a year ago, Rowe boasts impressive vision, touch and an ability to go at defenders that should serve him well in the pros. He showed well enough to earn a look by the U.S. Under-23 national team. Has all the tools to be the engine of a pro attack, and should be among the top five players chosen in the draft.

Enzo Martinez, North Carolina, Attacking Midfielder

Another impressive attacking midfielder from the college ranks, Martinez boasts the finesse, passing touch and engine to fit right into the MLS game. He can not only deliver pin-point passes, Martinez can also be a threat to score. The depth of the attacking midfield crop could cause him to slip a bit, but it’s tough to see Martinez going any lower than the top eight picks in the draft.

Tyler Polak, Creighton, Left Back

A gifted left back who has been a regular part of the US youth national team set-up, he enters the draft as its highest-rated fullback. Boasting speed, solid defensive qualities and a strong ability to get forward and be an attacking threat, Polak is the best left back prospect to come through the draft in years. It’s tough to see him slipping much further than the top ten.

Dom Dwyer, South Florida, Forward

Combining strength and speed and a nose for goal, Dwyer is the type of physical presence at forward that pro coaches crave. He can make a case for being the most athletic of the top forwards in the draft, and his outstanding season playing in a conference as tough as the Big East showed the sort of quality he possesses. A sure-fire first round pick, Dwyer could force himself into the top ten with a strong showing at the MLS Combine.

Chandler Hoffman, UCLA, Forward

Though he’s not as athletic as Mattocks and Dwyer, Hoffman is an intelligent striker who makes good runs and proved to be one of the best finishers in the country. His outstanding form in the second half of the college season helped propel UCLA to the College Cup semifinals. He showed he can not only score goals but also pass well as a lead striker. A Top 12 prospect, Hoffman should go somewhere in the middle of the draft, unless he struggles at the Combine, which could drop him to the lower part of the first round.

Andrew Jean-Baptiste, UConn, Centerback

A physically-imposing central defender, he’s a strong 6-foot-2 and is still just 19, so he has room to grow. There are questions about his decision-making, as evidenced by his costly blunder in the Big East Championship game (his turnover set up the game-winning goal), but he is fearless, athletic and has the kind of upside that could lead him to being the first defender taken after Wenger. He projects to go in the middle of the draft, but he has the upside to be a surprise choice as high as the Top Five.

Sam Garza, UCSB, Forward/Wide Midfielder

A former US youth national team player who fell off the radar after being sidelined by a torn ACL two years ago, Garza has made a complete recovery to re-establish himself as a top prospect. He is a fast and technical forward who can also be deployed on the wing. That versatility should help him be a first round pick, though there is a good chance he could be the last of the Generation adidas players taken in the draft.

The days of big (by MLS standards) contracts were suddenly over, and all but the very top end Generation adidas prospects were left with offers far below what they expected to see. Even the top prospects, Andrew Wenger and Darren Mattocks, felt the impact of the new MLS approach. It's not that they didn’t secure strong contracts comparable to last year's top picks, but the league succeeded in putting a halt to the continued escalation of salaries for the top players in the Generation adidas draft class.

It was a risky approach, and MLS was willing to lose some players to other leagues and go with a smaller Generation adidas class if it had to. Those scenarios looked ready to play out when days and weeks went by with all of the league’s top Generation adidas targets refusing to accept the downsized GA offers. As December ticked away and the calendar passed by dates that had in past years served to mark the announcement of entire Generation adidas classes, the 2012 GA class cupboard stood bare.

MLS didn’t budge, though; at least, not in any drastic way. The normal process of negotiation went on while agents feverishly worked the international market, looking for alternatives - options that would give players some leverage. European interest, and offers, eventually did emerge, but MLS lucked out. The 2012 draft class lacked the kind of jaw-dropping talents that would have made foreign clubs open their checkbooks and make the kind of big offers that had previously lured away the likes of Marcus Tracy and Charlie Davies.

In the end, despite initial weeks of resistance, the 2012 Generation adidas class fell into place. With the exception of North Carolina striker Billy Schuler, who chose to take similar money (but more importantly, two fewer contract years) by signing with Swedish second division side Hammarby, MLS succeeded in signing all nine of its other top GA targets. The class was just as big as previous classes (if not bigger), but it was one that came in at a significantly lower cost.

So why the sudden change of tune by MLS? The driving force wasn’t about saving money, but about being able to offer more money to sign elite-level MLS academy players and make it more appealing for players to sign with MLS clubs before beginning college. In years past, top college underclassmen signed to GA deals were earning significantly more than the younger MLS academy prospects signing straight out of high school.

That approach wasn’t going to do in the changing environment of talent scouting, with more and more European clubs beginning to scour the United States for younger and younger talent. As MLS clubs prepare to see the benefits of investment in academy programs, and the league prepares for potential bidding wars to keep their very best prospects at home, the decision to spend less on college talent and more on homegrown players made sense.

The change sure looks like a success now, but MLS may not want to celebrate just yet. With the writing on the wall that leaving school early doesn’t offer the same reward it has in year’s past, some agents have already stated privately that there will be an increased emphasis on sending college prospects on international trials in the summer. It has already become clear to European and Mexican scouts that college prospects will be an even better value than they already were. MLS only lost two top-level college underclassmen to foreign leagues this winter (Schule and Virginia standout Brian Span, who signed with Swedish first-division side Djurgarden after MLS failed to make him an early a Generation adidas), but that number seems sure to rise in coming years.

MLS officials don’t seem too bothered by that, despite the fact that the college game is producing more solid pro prospects than ever before (though clearly not as many elite level prospects due to MLS academies and European clubs siphoning away top talent). MLS is clearly preparing for the day when its academies are producing enough players to make the college talent pool less of a priority, even if that preparation is coming a few years earlier than it should.

MLS better hope academies start producing talent fast, because just as the league appears to have succeeded in adjusting its business model to pay college talent less money, college players will now have plenty of time to find and develop other options. MLS succeeded in delivering itself a deep Generation adidas class on the cheap for the 2012 draft, but it is a safe bet that trick will be much, much more difficult to pull off in the future.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FOXSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the US National Team.

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