The question around how best to develop their young, homegrown talent has plagued MLS teams for years, and perhaps none more so than Vancouver Whitecaps.
The ‘Caps may have brought 19 players through from their Residency/Academy program in the MLS era, but the number that have made a proper first team breakthrough and contributed significant MLS minutes can be counted on one hand.
Georges Mukumbilwa became the Whitecaps latest MLS Homegrown signing in August, taking the number on their 2019 squad to nine, eight of them developed by the ‘Caps and Maxime Crepeau by Montreal Impact.
That’s an impressive number. Third in the league behind Dallas’ 11 and Real Salt Lake’s 10, and ahead of Colorado, Montreal, New York Red Bulls, and Philadelphia, who have eight each.
There looks to be 138 players in MLS this season that were initially signed as a Homegrown player. Some have been in the league for a number of seasons, some have changed clubs over the years, and some are just signing their first pro deals this year.
Some are regulars in their team’s regular matchday squads, but the majority will see limited MLS minutes, if any, this season, loaned out instead to teams elsewhere in the North American football pyramid. On the one hand that’s great, it gets them some meaningful playing time in matches that matter, honing their skills at a higher level than they’re used to, but then you have the others.
The likes of the Whitecaps, who folded their USL team, ditched their affiliate in Fresno, and have ended up with a travelling U23 side that may be playing matches but are not being tested or developed the way they frankly need to be, demonstrated by only Theo Bair making the actual breakthrough to the first team.
None of this is ideal and MLS commissioner Don Garber noted as much when he paid a visit to Vancouver this weekend.
“I think the system is working well for where we are today, but I don’t think it is the right system for the future,” Garber candidly told reporters. “Now, 10, 12 years ago, when we had reserve teams that were playing against each other, it was the only competition that we could have for the bottom of our roster and for an extended roster, to allow players that we were signing that were not playing for the first team a chance to get competitive games.
“Then we went and met with the NASL (which is now defunct) and the USL, and we said, ‘Why don’t we create a relationship where we will buy and invest in teams in your respective leagues so that we could have those players play in a very competitive environment against guys who are trying to nick at their heels and win a game, who are mature players and who are playing in front of fans’. That environment is what makes professional football/soccer work all around the world. The NASL passed on it, and the USL said yes.”
The admission of MLS2 teams to USL has always been something that I felt devalued the league a little due to so many of them treating it as a development league. Some didn’t, and fair play to the likes of Real Monarchs and New York Red Bulls 2 who were competitive from the off, but they were few and far between.
But for all those flaws, the addition of those teams did the USL a great service, basically helping secure their tier 2 level status and kill off their rivals in the NASL. Now though, those teams are not fit for purpose for the ever expanding league and the 36-team USL Championship is no longer the correct environment for these reserve sides.
“Over the years the USL has continued to develop their model,” Garber acknowledged. “Now the question is, are MLS teams in the USL the right structure going forward for the USL or for Major League Soccer? And those discussions are going on as we speak to try to figure out what the best format is, or best structure is, going forward.”
Of the 36 teams in the USL Championship, 15 are either the direct second team of MLS sides or affiliations, including Montreal Impact with Ottawa Fury. Six USL League One teams have MLS connections including TFC, whose Toronto FC II team dropped down to the second USL tier from this season.
The Whitecaps, of course, have nada.
After some time initially with the MLS Reserve league, a format hated by players and fans alike, their two year affiliation with Charleston Battery was ditched to start WFC2 in 2015. Their much heralded USL team lasted three seasons and had a modicum of success before it was folded when costs and stadium requirements sounded the death knell for it.
Last season there was the awful affiliation with Fresno, an unmitigated disaster for the ‘Caps, although it did provide a couple of players for Pacific FC in the CPL. This year there’s the U23 development squad, playing games at home again local opposition, with a couple of tours of Mexico, Korea, and the UK thrown in.
Again, all of those environments are far from ideal for the three MLS Canadian clubs and the young talent they are all trying to develop into first team players.
“It is particularly challenging here in Canada,” Garber noted. “Because we have massive investments going on in Vancouver, and in Toronto, and in Montreal and we no longer have the same mechanism and the same structure to be able to have those players that we’re investing deeply in have a competitive environment to be able to play in.
“Now at some point that needs to be resolved or the Canadian player is not going to get developed as effectively as they need to get developed. Right now, the Whitecaps don’t have a USL association because they’re not permitted to have a USL team here in Vancouver. Toronto has a USL 3 team, and there are a wide variety of reasons for that, and Montreal they had an affiliation [with USL side Ottawa Fury].”
So what is the solution? Does one currently exist or does one need to be created?
With the reorganisation of the USSDA seeing the U19 age group split into two tiers, with the MLS academies in the upper echelon and playing more league and cup games against each other, a reworked MLS Reserve League could be some kind of option. But would it matter? Would the players feel they were in an actual competitive league environment. On past experience, the answer to that is no.
Then in Canada we have another option – the Canadian Premier League. There’s been a handful of MLS players loaned to CPL sides. I genuinely thought there would have been more. It seemed a natural fit. But there seems to be a mistrust amongst CPL powers that be of the MLS and getting too closely into bed with them.
The CPL is the top tier in Canadian football, with comments made by the likes of Cavalry FC head coach Tommy Wheeldon that the other Canadian clubs play in an American league. All true.
Initial comments surrounding the CPL were that it was not a place to welcome MLS2 sides, an argument too long to go into in this already long article, but one in which I do see both sides.
The rhetoric, implied or otherwise, is that the CPL don’t want much, if anything, to do with MLS. What is certain is that the Canadian Soccer Association only want any sanctioned Canadian teams going forward to play in a Canadian league. So no new Canadian teams in the USL, likely no sanctioning of Canadian teams in some new MLS league, and very little likelihood, for now at least, of MLS2 teams in the CPL.
It’s all a bit of a mess and whatever your thoughts on MLS, the main ones to suffer are the young Canadian players at MLS teams. And Garber had a stark warning for the CSA with regards to that.
“I am excited about the development of the CPL,” Garber said. “But we do need to work together to figure [things] out. The Canadian Soccer Association needs to figure out how they’re going to engage with Major League Soccer teams that are investing millions and millions and millions of dollars per team, not including what they’ve invested in their academies and in their infrastructure, to ensure that that investment is going to help develop the Canadian player, and help justify the investment that they are making, otherwise that investment is going to go away, because right now, it’s not making that much sense.”
Sadly it’s not. But equally sadly, that’s also the politics of North American football.