Major League Soccer teams play have to weigh trying to develop youth prospects and pursuing immediate success led by already established players. League rules reflect the balance that it tries to strike. For example, MLS has a salary cap, rules for allocating players, a designated player system, and the Homegrown Player contract. The later was created almost 10 years ago so that teams would have an incentive to develop youth players.
Youth players in the US have several challenges and must overcome many obstacles that are beyond their control in order to play in MLS. The youth system is less a verdant farm, logically laid out where the ripest bounty is harvested, and more a blind forage through a dense and vast forest. Finding what you are looking for is almost as difficult as knowing where to look. For young players hoping to reach MLS, the most likely way to get noticed is by playing in one of the US Soccer Development Academy teams operated by MLS teams or independently of the league.
Some academies require their players to pay to play which puts a financial barrier that players must overcome. In addition, though MLS teams operate Development Academies there are many more that are not a part of the league and players on those teams must be noticed by scouts which is far from guarenteed. The US soccer scouting network is tasked with finding new talent but with a giant geographical area to cover and insufficient resources, talented players are no doubt going unnoticed and unsigned.
One way that MLS has sought to give teams an incentive to scout and develop young players is with Homegrown contracts. This special type of player designation enables teams to sign players who have been with their development programs for at least one year. They can even go to college and still be guaranteed to stay with the team they signed with since they are protected from having to enter the MLS SuperDraft. Better still for teams who may be hesitant to spend money on unproven players in a league with spending restrictions, they do not count against the salary cap.
Despite this, young players in MLS have had a difficult time getting opportunities to play. Last season Homegrown Players accounted for 7.4% of MLS first team minutes as of September 21, 2016 according to Soccer America. While some players are getting significant minutes and have earned starting roles with their clubs, many, many more are missing out on opportunities for playing time. Several Homegrown players are on loan to teams in the second division United Soccer League while they further develop. Still, ten years after the contracts were invented by MLS, players on Homegrown contracts play less than 10% of overall minutes in the league.
One reason for this is that young players simply face a lot of competition in MLS for for playing time and roster spots. Major League Soccer tries to give young players more of a chance by limiting the number of high paid players MLS teams can have, incentivising teams with the Homegrown system, having a salary cap, and by limiting the number of international roster slots available in the league.
In theory, there are 176 international roster spots available in MLS, eight per team. While spots can be traded, teams found an innovative and less costly way to resolve the problem of having more than their original eight international roster slots by signing international players and then getting them a green card. This eliminates the need to trade money or players to other teams with unused international slots because the league counts players with a green card as domestic players.
Expansion side Atlanta United became the newest team to obtain green cards for international players. With less than a week to go before beginning the season, it looked like Atlanta would have to trade a player or allocation money for two international roster spots needed for players Chris McCann of Ireland and Kenwyne Jones of Trinidad and Tobago. Rather than making a trade, the team obtained them green cards. United is not alone in this tactic, the Seattle Sounders obtained a green card for Tyrone Mears and Sporting Kansas City helped Aurelien Collin get one as well.
While this practice seems like an innocuous and ingenious way to get talented players into the league without needing to trade for an international spot, it has a downside. Atlanta United has an impressive youth system. Before signing a first team player, Atlanta took over the Georgia United youth academy during the 2015-2016 season and began playing as the Atlanta United youth academy for the 2016-2017 season. So far the team has two Homegrown players, Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin, that it signed from the academy. Carleton looks like he will get first team minutes this year either as a sub or in an occasional start. Goslin is with the U-17s right now and will probably be loaned to Atlanta’s USL affiliate the Charleston Battery once he’s back, but he may see time with United later in the season.
This is an issue because having the option to bring in more international players than the league created spots for may push clubs to go that route at the expense of building a better scouting network and investing in their youth development academies. The practice adds another barrier to Homegrown players finding playing time in the league since having the option to take an established player means that Homegrown players will have fewer opportunities to make the first team.
While Major League Soccer is focused on becoming a top league by 2022, it also has said that it is committed to youth development. The Homegrown Player rule is an example of how the league hopes to give teams a reason to bring in young local players. On the other hand, this initiative is undermined by teams who work around the rules when it comes to building their rosters around international players.