MLS Academies Now Producing

Monday, August 16, 2010 | View Comments
WASHINGTON - AUGUST 14: Andy Najar  of D.C. United controls the ball against Eric Alexander  of FC Dallas at RFK Stadium on August 14, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Ned Dishman/Getty Images)

They're coming fast and furious now, MLS academy signings. Colorado announced their first today, DC United will sign their third, FC Dallas just promoted three at once to start the month, and more will undoubtedly make their way from schoolboy amateurs to MLS professionals in the coming months. Simply put, MLS academies are producing professionals.

Not all of them will be stars. For every Andy Najar, an underage dynamo impressing in his first year playing against grown men, there will be multiple players who never ascend beyond role player status. The importance of academies will vary from club to club, and each will succeed at turning kids into pros at different rates; this early in the process, with MLS academies still new, we might even debate how much the clubs themselves are responsible for the development of the players they're signing to pro contracts.

The benefits of the academy system are obvious, and training players in-house should help teams transition them from amateur to professional more quickly than they can players who make the same move from the much different environs of college. The draft isn't going anywhere, for now, but its importance is clearly on the wane; instead of bringing Andy Najar into an unfamiliar situation at 19 or 20 with the requisite personal adjustment period, United was able to put him into the first team smoothly and without worry that his support system would be lacking. Aside from the Danny Mwanga's of the world, there just aren't many players of similar age (i.e. under 20) who can step in and immediately contribute coming out of the college game.

More than the rash of DP signings, the increasing number of academy players entering the league intrigues me. I doubt we'll see a sudden explosion of players like Najar or Tristan Bowen, but the future seems bright; if clubs are able to find talent locally, bring it along in whatever way they see fit, and produce kids better prepared for the professional game than ever before, the quality of the league will only get better. If the process for introducing young American-bred players, the very type of player that makes up the bulk of rosters, into MLS improves, it should follow that the level of play will improve.

A noticeable difference might be slow in coming, and some clubs will undoubtedly miss on some of their signings. But the league is clearly moving in a positive direction; as more money is spent on big names, the growing number of academy players entering the league is a noteworthy point of balance.

Eventually, an academy player will be sold on to Europe. One or more will become contributors to the US National Team. Some might even threaten to win league MVPs, scoring titles, or show up on league Best XIs. In my mind, all of those milestones are certainties, it's just a matter of time.

One also must wonder if the clubs that are dragging their feet on academies will be left behind, or if the progressive attitude of a few teams (Vancouver, system established well before joining MLS, and FC Dallas, planning their own residential academy) will result in greater success on the field. If LA and New York are always going to have a leg up in the big-money DP arms race, it's incumbent on clubs in other markets to find different ways to both produce quality young players and leverage them as a means of increasing income.

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