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Homegrown US plans have ways to go

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Kyle McCarthy

Kyle McCarthy writes about the beautiful game for FOX Soccer, the Boston Herald and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter.

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KANSAS CITY, KAN.

Clint Dempsey inspired plenty of chatter about the future of Major League Soccer when he sealed his lucrative move to the Seattle Sounders earlier this month. His arrival offers the league a much-needed publicity boost -- and a reminder of how vital homegrown players are to this league’s development.

Dempsey, of course, is a purely American product -- but he is an outlier, the rare player wholly nurtured by a team that went on to great success overseas. MLS and its nineteen clubs have shelled out millions and millions of dollars over the past few years to try to replicate the Dempsey effect, starting academy programs to identify talented players and usher them through to the first team. (New England, in fact, funded its program with a portion of its share of Dempsey's $4 million move to Fulham in 2007.) It is a painstaking, time-consuming process to build youth development structures from scratch, but the emerging prominence of homegrown players -- combined with the continued influence of Generation adidas stars primarily signed out of college -- shows these expenditures are starting to bear some fruit.

The proof comes from the returns. A couple of early products -- future Stoke City forward Juan Agudelo and Anderlecht midfielder Andy Najar -- earned moves abroad, while Mexican teams continue to pursue FC Dallas goalkeeper Richard Sánchez. Several more – including D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid, New England midfielders Scott Caldwell and Diego Fagundez, Colorado Rapids defender Shane O'Neill, Vancouver Whitecaps winger Russell Teibert and Dempsey's teammate DeAndre Yedlin -- feature regularly for their club teams.

These are the successes. The wider landscape reveals plenty of work still to do. The opportunities for other, less flashy players, remains limited in a first-team setting, restricted by the league's roster limits and the inherent need for managers to win games. The culling process may weed out too many players before they can find their footing or receive the matches required to determine whether they can make the leap.

MLS executive vice president, player relations & competition Todd Durbin said clubs must devise their own priorities as they determine how to nurture their young players and use their roster to produce first-team results at the same time.

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"It's a difficult balancing act," Durbin said during a roundtable discussion prior to the MLS All-Star Game last month. "The challenge that you have is when you're looking at a young player that is 17 or 18 years old, what you're really trying to do is forecast forward in terms of where you think he's going to be in three or four years."

Most MLS clubs try to gather more evidence by deploying younger players in reserve team matches and monitoring their progress during training sessions. Each outfit possesses its own preferences in these areas: four teams established partnerships to send players on loan to USL PRO clubs, a few more ship selected prospects on loan to NASL clubs, while others lean primarily on their own reserve structures and matches against USL PRO teams.

This ad-hoc approach may dissolve over the next few years as MLS guides its teams toward stronger links with USL PRO. Durbin said he expects the number of partnerships with USL PRO teams to increase next year and thinks a couple of MLS teams will eventually field their own entrants in the third-division competition. By the end of 2015, the league plans to have all of its clubs either partnering with an affiliate or managing a team of their own, according to Durbin.

Clint Dempsey's transfer move to Fulham funded New England's academy program  (Photo:  Brad White/Getty Images).

It is a decision borne primarily from the need to test younger players in a competitive environment against more seasoned professionals. Reserve league matches now often include a raft of younger players and several academy players to gain experience. Those affairs have their own modest merits (particularly for those academy products), but they do not compare with the blended model used elsewhere in the world.

“When you're competing in a reserve league environment, you're often times playing against other players who are in the development cycle,” Durbin said. “What we really want is to have those players competing against players who may be older, so if you're playing against a traditional USL PRO team, maybe against players who are 28, 29, 30. Those games really matter. They're trying to win championships.”

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The vast majority of homegrown players won't reach those heights during their careers, but it is down to MLS to provide the best possible platform for them to thrive. That point has not arrived yet. There are still concerns to weigh and courses to chart about how to shepherd players properly. Several league initiatives -- including a partnership with the French Football Federation to provide academy coaches with extensive training at Clairefontaine over an 18-month period -- will help along the way and the prospect of adding four more teams by 2020 might pile on additional pressures, but clubs must strike their own balance to ensure they mine talent for the future without sacrificing their present.

“That's a dynamic that's going to exist whether we have a 30-man roster or a 100-man roster,” Durbin said. “That's not going to go away. What we need to do is make sure is wherever we land in terms of the budget resources we have associated with it and the number of roster slots we have associated with that, we are optimizing and that our strike rate with signing those players is where we need it to be.”

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