Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Making MLS a 'Hotbed' for Young International Experience

Luis Gil
Article by Pedro Gomes

This morning began like any other for me. I started the ol’ desktop, fired up the web browser and began to troll my usual soccer news sources with a cup of Joe in hand.

The first story that caught my eye was one out of England, which doesn’t typically do it for me but this one had “U.S” in the title. Now I was interested. Apparently, Liverpool FC had made the long courtship of U.S. U-17 Captain, Marc Pelosi, official by signing the promising youngster. It later read that he would play for the Academy set-up but would have to wait until he turned 18 to play for the first team unless he can obtain an EU passport before then. 

Awesome! I was thoroughly excited for the kid and the possibility that a young US international could potentially be suiting up for one of the most storied clubs in all of England and Europe for that matter.

However, that excitement quickly faded. A few minutes later, I drove in my car and tuned the radio to The Football Show on SiriusXM. They had a special guest Pat Nevin on. He is a former Chelsea player and Scottish international. Pat was talking about the trouble England is having getting their promising young internationals competitive First Team experience (click here for interview). Long story short, due to the Premier League’s extremely high level of exposure and quality, clubs often times have to keep young English talent on the bench in favor of getting results today versus development for tomorrow.

At that moment it hit me, if the EPL is having trouble getting promising young Internationals quality First Team experience what does that mean for Marc Pelosi’s chance of seeing first team action any time soon.  What is his path toward development? Is choosing to sign with Liverpool at 17 with potentially years of Academy or Reserve Team action the best option for a promising young US international? Are there alternatives for better opportunities to earn the kid more First Team minutes?

Well, I believe so.

For me, that choice should have been MLS. I don’t fault the kid for making the jump across the pond mostly because I don’t believe MLS has gotten the formula for developing young international prospects right, just yet. All you have to do is take a look at my beloved Red Bulls and a certain young prospect, Juan Agudelo. He spent most of the season watching from the bench or from the end-line doing agility drills to stay loose. But for every Juan Agudelo there is a Luis Gill. It seems as though RSL and Jason Kreis have figured out a way to develop him into a young promising talent that the club seems to have in its plans for next season and beyond.  So it can be done, we just need to figure out how to do it better.

Although the MLS has made a couple of significant steps in the right direction, there are still things they can do to truly develop MLS into a “Hotbed for young international talent”.

Here are few thoughts in favor of doing so:

Financial Smarts: It just makes sense to sign young unproven international talent, give them First Team Playing experience and then try and turn a profit on them down the road. There is no reason to not want to find young talent, groom them into producing professionals and then sell them a few years down the road when they begin to hit their prime marketability age (Brek Shea style). While most of the top talent will most likely be under contract there might be a few players that could be available at a bargain or who have just fallen out of the plans of their owning club due to congestion in the senior team, especially big Euro clubs. If we can’t afford to buy them outright, then the league should consider fronting cash to subsidize the player’s salary or the like.

Use the Draft: Everyone has been talking about how the MLS Super Draft will be getting more of a young International flair to it well let’s start putting that into practice. I see the Super Draft as the main vehicle for getting these kids into the league. But in order for it to be successful the league must begin expanding, widening, and incentivizing young domestic and foreign talent to join the Draft. Associations with young developmental leagues abroad in South America, Africa, and Europe must begin to take shape. We must begin to market the Draft as a prime showcase for young talent across the world.

Could Juan Agudelo warrant a youth DP slot in the future?

Rebrand New Young DP Slot: The term Designated Player would not be a wise term to attach to un-proven player with tremendous potential. He doesn’t carry the David Beckham power, yet. So you would have to call it something different to clearly identify it as a young international slot. Maybe call it YP (Youth Player). Not terribly creative but it would clearly mark the player as someone to watch and something to follow. Either way provisions or enticements should be made for clubs to add U-23 level talent and recognize it appropriately.

“Fan Boy” Wagons: US fans are notorious for wanting to watch, follow, or talk about the next big thing for international teams. I would take advantage of that by marketing these young talented Internationals to the fans to get them following these kids early and often.

Growing Media Coverage: We should take advantage of the fact that the league is getting more and more Primetime coverage in Main Stream Media. We could market the league as a better marketed and covered league than any second division around the world. The players would be on national television versus getting buried in a much lower tier of soccer if they were loaned out in another European league.

The UN of MLS: MLS is very unique in that we have a multitude of national markets around the league. We have the heavy Latino influence in the Texan and Southern Californian markets. We have the French market of Montreal. We have the European heavy market of New York and the kaleidoscope of nationalities surrounding D.C. We should take advantage of this uniqueness to bring in young international talent catering to those populations in those markets.

A Market Exists: My final point is that the market exists. The top European leagues are over-saturated with peak performing talent that hovers in the mid-20s to early 30s. Their needs to be a top flight league in the world that could offer those teenage prospects a place to earn valuable First Team experience versus riding the bench of a Premier League club for years. They are losing time that could be spent in a day in day out professional environment.

I don’t believe Pat Nevin is alone in England, thinking that those talented youngsters just need minutes. Playing time as we all know is the most valuable time in terms of a player’s development. Let’s market our league as a top flight league where young international talent can grow and develop under a growing media spotlight. We have the basics already in place to do this. Let’s just fine tune them so that future Marc Pelosis have other options than possibly sitting and waiting during key developmental years for a chance to make the First Team.

Let’s build those sponsorships and integrate the already rich veteran international talent with young international talent and let’s do it right.     


  1. Great article. It makes sense for the MLS and it makes sense for our youth.

  2. One question: What do you think is the difference between Gil's Salt Lake and Agudelo's Red Bull in terms of playing time? How can we change the amount of playing time without changing the coach?

  3. In my honest oppionion (Disclaimer i am a die hard Red Bull Fan) i think it was a combination of things that were not handled properly with Juan. Continous US Call-Ups, MLS All-Star Game, Commercials. I personally think these things may have gotten to his head and his attitude my have put Backe off. That being said i think its situational. Gill didn't have that sort of stuff around him and Kreis was able to develop him properly. I am personally OK with a 1 for 2 ratio for young talent working out. Hopefully Salgado up in Vancouver pans out better with Rennie and he gets more playing time. Its always going to be a balance. But a gamble i think is worth taking. Clubs and Players just need more incentive to sign\play these young promising internationals

  4. I would also add, that although Juan Agudelo did not get continous playing time i would still consider his year a success for 18. He played about half or so of the matches. That to me is better than full Reserve league action or some much lower tiered Euro league first team action.

  5. Key to developing young players in MLS: don't let Hans Backe coach them. Jokes.

    I'd like to see more U.S. youth talent go the way of Dempsey and Holden, guys who proved themselves in MLS before heading across the pond. We're seeing Shea beginning the same process now (though I think he could do with one more season in Dallas). Like you said, you can't put enough emphasis on the importance of playing time.

    But agreed, Kreis is doing all the right things with Gil.