I often receive questions and comments regarding my strong opinion on team development within the MLS framework. Often they follow the lines of: I over value the draft, I over value American players, why do I ignore academies, I devalue a large amount of foreign players who come into the league and I give a strong on opinion of who I think will succeed and fail. While it might appear off the cuff, my opinion is formed from closely watching MLS since its first season 1996, taking information from every game played in MLS history, analyzing the outcome, evaluating the success and failures, and having a history on every player who plays and is recruited to play in MLS.
To give a bit of background about myself, I've been involved in the collecting of statistical data for soccer since the beginning of the English Premiership in 1992. I worked directly with the largest betting companies in the world monitoring the data and examining for consistency and trends to help these companies create the betting lines as well make sure the bets they make available are fair and correct. I've expanded this database to cover 60 major leagues and tournaments around the world, which includes MLS as well as minor soccer in North America and the NCAA.
The betting industry is a results orientated business and has little to do with player development, although having access to such a great amount data and growing up a huge baseball fan gave me ideas to look beyond the traditional statistics associated with the sport. I believed you can do much more with this data and went beyond results and created stats for leagues, teams, players, goalkeepers, managers and referees and my current database has over 5,000,000 lines of soccer data. With this data I've done a variety of statistical based projects, and most recently I joined a company called Soccermetrics, whose goal is to expand statistical analysis in soccer beyond betting and concentrate on other aspects of the game.
Soccermetrics is an American based company, and as a result we do a lot of MLS-based work figuring out models such as: projected data, prospect reports, salary cap analysis, quality of play analysis, which is the background to a lot of my articles on RNO. I understand my pieces can be very opinionated, and although I give reasons why I feel a certain way, I may dismiss the alternative views. The main reason for this is that based on the history of team/player development, especially in MLS, I'm skeptical of the alternative view, especially ones sold to the fans by the league and individual teams.
There are a few ideas I'm motivated to write about, and may in the future, but I'm going to start with what I think is the biggest myth in MLS and world soccer player development and that is a team can create a squad by promoting players through an academy type system.
Even clubs known for their academy on average play a small role in the club's starting 1st team squad. Of major teams across Europe, Barcelona has the most successful, with nine current squad players from the academy. Ajax Amsterdam are also very well known for their academy and have six, while in England, Manchester United have four (Giggs, Evans, Welbeck, and Fletcher) Tottenham have only one (Jake Livermore) and Chelsea one as well (John Terry). Teams such as Barcelona and Ajax also have 100 academy based players within their system and academy/Reserves teams playing in full leagues schedules against other professional teams. The EPL has a reserve league and two academy leagues so academy based players could play 100 games before given an opportunity with the first team.
Around the world, the main reason to have an academy in professional soccer is for the purpose of generating money on the transfer market. Even then, the results are a needle in the haystack, although selling a player for $5,000,000 can cover the cost of the 100 players who failed to graduate the academy. However, with the increase in costs many teams academy programs are known for being loss revenue to the point where EPL clubs such as Manchester City and Newcastle United have considered eliminating them altogether.
Which brings us the to MLS. MLS clubs don't have the resources as a European/South American club, and not just financially but also in coaching, training, or culture. MLS teams also don't control the transfer of their own players as all of them are controlled by the league.
The biggest reason why an academy system will not be successful in MLS, in the European or South American sense, is because of how players are compensated in comparison to a team's overall budget. If a academy player is successful there is an expected timeline where he will be brought into the academy at 15, turn professional at 18, becomes an everyday 1st team player at 21 and becomes an integral part of the team at 24.
Currently, the only example of this in MLS is Chivas USA player Tristen Bowen. Bowen signed as a Academy player in 2008 and has total career earnings of $668,215 for a striker who so far has scored six goals in 68 career MLS games. Bowen, who is now 22 years old and earns $156,363 this season, if he remains on the club for two more seasons his salary expectation would be pushing and could go above $250,000, comparable to what Patrick Nyarko is making this season. Closer to home, Ashtone Morgan has earned in total $160,604 as homegrown player, and based on his MLS experience is in line to get a raise of over $100,000 a year next season.
In comparison, the average MLS drafted senior is 22 years old and will cost a team between $150,000-$300,000 in salary by the time the player reaches the magic age of 24. They will most likely qualify for a smaller pay raise than an academy player who has already played in the league four years longer. It also means that under the current system, if an MLS team was able to field a starting roster of 24-year old academy-based players, the team would actually be over the current MLS salary cap of $2,950,000.
I know this includes a lot of numbers, and is even more confusing under the MLS system, but if you want understand why the idea of a team loaded with academy players is unrealistic, it's because not only is it unlikely based on pure player development but also would be extremely difficult under the current league salary rules.