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Success reinforces youth investment
Every passing year establishes new milestones for homegrown players in Major League Soccer. The latest marker occurred when New England forward Diego Fagundez swept home into an empty net in the Revolution's 4-2 defeat to Montréal on Sunday night.
Fagundez, 18, deposited a deflection to earn himself a little slice of history: he is the first player cultivated in a MLS academy program and signed to a Homegrown Player deal to collect 10 league goals in a season.
“My goal was seven,” Fagundez explained this week. “Once I hit the five, José (Gonçalves, Revolution captain) goes: 'you need to go for 10, and once the 10 goes, I expect you need to go for five more.' It's tough. We have more games to go. We need to score goals to remain in the playoffs. I guess it's either me or someone else who needs to step up and score more.”
Most homegrown players adopt a similar approach as they try to carve out regular first-team minutes in a league where tight margins often force coaches to prefer established veterans instead. The budding stars want to push their bounds and strive to emerge as players capable of contributing on a regular basis. It isn't easy for them to fulfill those objectives. Many players have failed in their efforts for one reason or another, but the success stories reveal the growth within the system since MLS instituted the Homegrown Player rule in 2008.
Fagundez's 10-goal haul places him into a select group of players with tangible achievements to laud. Former D.C. United midfielder Andy Najar garnered MLS Rookie of the Year honors before procuring a reported $3 million transfer to Belgian giants Anderlecht in January. New England forward Juan Agudelo earned a free transfer move to Premier League side Stoke City during the summer. Seattle fullback DeAndre Yedlin took his bow as a MLS All-Star -- albeit one appointed by commissioner Don Garber -- this season. Several players -- including Agudelo, Najar, Bill Hamid, Doneil Henry, Ashtone Morgan and Russell Teibert -- made full international appearances as they found their footing at their clubs. Mexico youth international goalkeeper Richard Sánchez even won the 2011 FIFA Under-17 World Cup as a FC Dallas player.
The high points provide further encouragement for a program still in its nascent stages. MLS clubs rely on their academy setups -- now grounded in the Development Academy and supplemented in many cases by affiliate agreements with local youth clubs -- to identify and nurture players for potential first-team action. The inevitable culling process winnows the options significantly in most situations, though some teams in competitive markets -- FC Dallas and LA Galaxy, for instance -- adopt a more expansive philosophy to ward off incursions from elsewhere.
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At this stage, MLS clubs must now focus on obtaining a higher hit rate with the players signed to professional contracts to ensure those efforts produce the proper dividends. Too many homegrown players lack genuine opportunities to progress through the ranks and state their claims for regular playing time. MLS' renewed commitment to finding matches for reserve players -- first by the return of the Reserve League, then with the increase in lower-division loans and the partnership with USL PRO to foster deeper relationships -- bodes well for players rising through the system.
The goal isn't to ensure every homegrown player makes it in MLS. It simply isn't possible. The best youth academies in the world suffer through considerable attrition (Oriol Rosell's inability to meet the lofty metrics at Barcelona sure helped Sporting Kansas City, didn't it?) along the way. The expansion plans over the next decade, however, do place additional strain on clubs to establish cultures where players can rise through the ranks more frequently.
The examples provided by Agudelo, Fagundez, Najar and the other standouts offer inspiration to amend the standard operating practices sooner rather than later. Homegrown players present significant value to the first team -- they often draw comparatively modest wages in relation to most starting players and reap a larger return for the club if they are eventually sold -- if they thrive in MLS. The first crop of truly successful players reinforces the utility of investing in youth wisely in order to buttress the efforts elsewhere.
As clubs continue to chart their own courses and the league plunges more and more resources into youth development, the benchmarks will change. If everything follows according to plan, then the prospect of scoring 10 goals in a season or sealing a European transfer will transform from a unique occurrence to a fairly common standard for budding players to meet as they develop.
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