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MLS shifting resources away from Generation adidas
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.
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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