The Present & Future of MLS (Part I): A Profile of Homegrown Players in the League

Producing homegrown talent is, and should be, a priority for any professional soccer organization. Busby’s Babes at Manchester United, FC Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, John Terry, Thomas Müller, Iker Cassillas, and Paolo Maldini are all fine examples of successful youth development systems and maybe one day we’ll be able to include Bill Hamid or Gyasi Zardes in the same conversation about the merits of promoting homegrown talent. Maybe they’re already in the conversation.

Whether or not clubs are utilizing their youth programs to streamline players into the first team, or as a secondary source of income, a proper assessment of a club still includes the impact and efficacy of their youth system and Major League Soccer is no exception.

Since David Beckham crossed the pond from the Galacticos to the Galaxy, a great deal of emphasis has been put on the big name players in MLS. So much so that the Designated Player (DP) rule is almost indistinguishable from its original 2007 incarnation.  While DPs may drive merchandise sales and attendance figures, it’s important for clubs to be consistently supplementing their first teams with youth players in addition to the big name foreign signings and inter-league trades.

Since 2008, MLS has had the Homegrown Player (HGP) program in effect as an incentive for clubs to invest in their youth academies and retain and develop their youth players. Signing a player to a homegrown contract has two major bonuses. The first is that as a qualified HGP, that player is not subject to the MLS Superdraft and as a result it keeps players at the teams that developed and trained them.  Additionally, per MLS Roster rules, up to two HGPs per year are allowed to be signed to contracts above the leagues base minimum and not count toward salary cap space. This creates an incentive for clubs to develop players via their academies as well as gives those players an incentive to stay with their local MLS club. A player can be signed to a homegrown contract so long as they have trained with that club’s youth academy for at least a year and trained at least 80 days with the academy during that year.

When looking at the HGPs currently in MLS at the moment, it can be a little difficult to tell whether the programs are working since it still seems like most team’s major players are foreign DPs.Consequently, Business of Soccer decided to profile the HGPs through multiple dimensions.

The first looks at HGPs going back to 2008 breaking them down into each individual year’s homegrown class and where they stand currently.  This profile does not include any players who have since left the league like Andy Najar or Juan Agudelo because the long term goal of the league is to be able to keep domestic talent and make it so MLS is as enticing, if not more, than moving abroad. While it may be a good sign that European clubs are interested in young MLS academy products, it’s more beneficial to look at those who are still here.

The second profile (which will be covered in Part II), which is also partially incorporated into the first, takes each club and looks at every HGP in the league that they’ve produced and compares them against MLS’ Castrol Player Ratings Index via those players’ MLSPU salary data to see which teams are using and getting the most out of their HGPs.

This is what was found:

In total, there are 80 academy products currently playing in MLS and there has yet to be a year that did not match or exceed the total number of new homegrown player signings from the year before.  Looking at the birth years of each player in each year we found that 2009 homegrown players had an average age of 19.6, 2010 had an average age of 17.4, 2011 & 2012 were both 19, 2013 was 19.31 and 2014 so far has an average age of 19.8.  This may seem slightly older when compared to European prospects signing pro contracts at 17, yet it is still younger than a college senior signed through the Superdraft.



MLS Homegrown By Class

Comparatively, the 2010 homegrown player class is getting the best bang for your buck this 2014 season as well as the most total minutes of any other, this based purely on Castrol Index ratings.  Despite this, the 2012 and 2013 classes have both accumulated more total Castrol index points than 2010 and have done so with less minutes and lower average salaries.

When looking at these numbers, another thing to consider is how many players are actually contributing. Some of these players are goalkeepers and will simply not get any playing time sitting behind a solid starting keeper, which means they’ll have no gametime contribution and no Castrol score.  Another possibility is if they train with the senior squad but don’t make the gameday squads they would have equally little game contribution, making a hard count of contributing players therefore important to understanding this data.

The 2008 class only has one member so obviously he is contributing, 2009 has two contributing players, 2010 has seven players,  while 2011 has four and 2012 has thirteen.  Compared to the total for each class only 2011 has less than a 50% significant participation rate with 2010 having 70% participation.

Statistics and analytics are two widely different concepts.  Statistics give a picture of what is, while analytics takes those snapshots and tries to figure out what will be.  With this data there’s hardly any predictive potential, if any, but it’s still a picture of what is and what has been.  It should be encouraging that so far there hasn’t been a regression over the years back into what has been and that the data exists.  It seems simple but the fact that we can look at this information means that homegrown players are being signed, they’re playing and they’re being relied upon by their clubs.  Bill Hamid would’ve been in the Chipotle Homegrown all star team except he was busy participating in the full MLS all-star game against Bayern Munich.

Tomorrow will feature part II of this investigation and will provide the club backdrop to these individual player and class numbers.  At the moment, overall it appears that MLS clubs are showing a positive increasing trend of introducing homegrown players into the league each year.  It seems intuitive that there would be an inversely related trend regarding newer homegrown classes and the average salary, but the reality is that the numbers are all over the place.  Ironically this makes sense considering that when a club signs a new player to their team, they do it as a function of both the player’s skill and the team’s need for the position and pay accordingly, not simply based on seniority, though salary figures could be indicative of some classes having more talent or improving at higher rates.

The fact is that this data is incomplete.  It lacks the backdrop nuance and filter of the the individual clubs that employ the players that make up these homegrown classes.  That profile will provide a context to this data and will be up tomorrow so be sure to check back here for the rest of the picture.


What do you think about MLS’s Home Grown Player program? Let us know in the comments section below, or via Facebook or Twitter.


Reporting on the business side of the world's game.