New sponsorship key to youth revival

So what does Major League Soccer‘s new eight-year, $200 million plus deal with adidas really mean for MLS?

At first blush, the nine-figure deal sounds like the kind of financial infusion that can push MLS to a new level, but the reality is that the most important aspect the new sponsorship deal is its emphasis on providing a sorely-needed boost to the league’s player development system.

The league has grown rapidly in recent years, and continues to grow, with teams 17 and 18 joining next season. With that growth comes a pressing need for new talent to keep filling the ever-expanding list of rosters.

That need won’t be addressed simply by signing high-priced foreign players (though it doesn’t hurt signing the likes of Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez). What MLS needs is a steady stream of young talent, something the league has only recently begun to tap into with its player development academies.

More and more MLS teams are signing players developed in their own youth systems, and when you couple that with MLS signing more top youth talent to Generation adidas deals, what MLS has now is an influx of young players who aren’t quite ready for MLS, but who need to be playing games.

Consider the fact that Dilly Duka, Juan Agudelo and Luis Gil are three of the most highly-regarded players to be in or have recently pass through the U.S. youth national team system yet none of them has played a single MLS minute in this, their rookie seasons.

That is why now, more than ever, MLS needs to bring back its reserve league, which should happen now with the help of this new deal with adidas. When it was first established in 2005, the MLS reserve league floundered because rosters simply weren’t big enough to make full use of it, and there wasn’t the amount of good, young talent on MLS rosters in need of playing time.

At times, MLS teams were forced to invite non-roster players to fill out lineups, and on other occasions teams would do whatever they could in order to push off scheduled reserve matches. It was that lethargy that led MLS to disband the reserve division after the 2008 season.

The need, and demand, for such games is much greater today, considering the large number of underage players being brought in via Generation adidas and the league’s Homegrown Player programs. The reality is that MLS teams simply can’t afford to play talented, yet inexperienced players (like teenagers and U.S. youth national standouts Luis Gil and Juan Agudelo) in MLS matches. They also can’t afford to miss out on helping them develop with game experience.

What the new sponsorship deal should do is provide the financial framework to bring back the reserve division, and potentially create more roster spots for teams to bring in even more homegrown talent. That is yet another incentive for MLS teams to invest more into their player academies, knowing they’ll have a place to play these young players they sign.

It also makes it even more enticing for youth national team stars to come to MLS, knowing there is a structure in place to get games even if they’re not quite ready for first-team action.

Will MLS fans benefit?

In the long run they will because it should help young talents develop more quickly and give MLS teams stronger rosters. In the short term, a new reserve division could have some fan interest as die-hards look to follow their team’s top prospects.

No, you aren’t likely to see big crowds at reserve division matches, but there is certain to be much more interest in a new reserve league than there ever was in the old reserve league considering the amount of quality young talent sitting on MLS benches and the considerable interest there is in youth national team players from fans eager to catch a glimpse of the next star in the making.

So while the new MLS/adidas deal isn’t going to mean a big bag of cash for every MLS team, what it will mean is a chance for every team in the league to develop its own stars more quickly and effectively. If MLS makes the most of this opportuntiy, its teams will be able to generate their own stars, and their own bags of cash, before too long.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.