Play Your Kids: A look at where the movement stands in 2019

The 2019 season in MLS has been groundbreaking in terms of getting young domestic players on the field. But ASN's Jordan Boddie goes deeper into the mix to give the numbers context and meaning as to the progress. 
BY Jordan Boddie Posted
July 03, 2019
11:50 AM
THERE HAS BEEN a lot of talk about young domestic players in MLS getting more playing opportunities in recent years, with that talk ramping up in light of the US failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. The ‘Play Your Kids’ movement has grown into a regular topic of conversation in American soccer circles. But have the kids actually been playing? I decided to look into it. Sort of like a midterm report on the 2019 season.

In 2008, Major League Soccer instituted the Homegrown Player Rule, allowing teams to sign players from their own development academies without them having to go through an allocation process. That year, 8 U-20 players played 4,664 minutes in MLS. This year, just through games played on June 30th, 34 U-20 players have already played 12,445 minutes in MLS. Based on how many games are left in the season, they’re on pace to play 24,064 minutes, which would be an MLS record. 

To also add context, last weekend (June 28-30, 2019) was an MLS record with a total of 42 players eligible for U.S. youth national teams making apperances. These players are all elgibile to play for five different major youth tournaments: 2019 U-20 World Cup, the 2021 U-20 World Cup, the 2023 U-20 World Cup, the 2019 U-17 World Cup, and the 2020 Olympic games. 

  • 2019 U-20: Omir Fernandez, Frankie Amaya, Sam Vines, Juan Pablo Torres, Justin Rennicks, Chris Durkin, Ayo Akinola, Griffin Dorsey, Edwin Cerrillo, Jesus Ferreira*, Brandon Servania, Paxton Pomykal
  • 2021 U-20: Julian Araujo, Cole Bassett
  • 2023 U-20/2019 U-17: Danny Leyva, Ricardo Pepi
  • 2019 U-17: Efra Alvarez*, Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez
  • 2020 U-23: Kyle Duncan, Matt Freese, Jerimiah Gutjahr, Sam Nealis, Josh Perez, Hassani Dotson, Mason Toye, Brandon Vazquez, Miles Robinson, Keaton Parks, Auston Trusty, JJ Williams, Danilo Acosta, Benji Michel, DeJuan Jones, Brooks Lennon, Sebastian Saucedo, Aaron Herrera, Justen Glad, Gedion Zelalem, Jackson Yueill, Tate Schmitt, Ethan Zubak, Jeremy Ebobisse

*denotes American players playing for other countries or players whose application for American citizenship is pending

BUT MLS isn’t the only place young players are getting minutes. In 2013, MLS and USL signed a partnership agreement to integrate the two leagues in the form of MLS/USL affiliations and eventually MLS reserve teams in USL. Since then, U-20 minutes in USL have grown, with that growth accelerating in 2015, when many teams decided to set up their own reserve teams in the league following the lead of the LA Galaxy.

The numbers are impressive. So far, U-20 players played 71,860 minutes in USL last season and are on pace to play a record 95,706 this season, thanks in part to the creation of third division USL League One. USL development is important for young players because, while not MLS quality, they’re still getting playing time against adult professionals, something they don’t get at the academy ranks.

Combining USL with MLS reveals the full picture. After playing just barely more than 4,000 MLS minutes a decade ago, American and Canadian teenagers are pacing to play nearly 120,000 combined pro minutes in 2019, an almost 30-fold increase. Driving this increase is of course mostly the MLS/USL partnership, but also the fact that at all levels, domestic teenagers are getting more playing time.

Perhaps the biggest increase this year as compared to previous years is the number of minutes U-17s are playing up and down the professional pyramid. Last season, American and Canadian players born in 2001 or later played 8,898 minutes in MLS and USL, the highest since at least 2008. This year, just through June 30th, American and Canadian players born in 2002 or later have played 8,903 minutes, 5 minutes more than last year’s record, with still 587 games left in the MLS, USL Championship, and USL League One seasons.  

Looking back at MLS specifically, we can also see the individual birth years that saw the most minutes by U-20 players. Here we see numbers rising from late 80s birth years to early 90s birth years as more players see more time in later seasons and then falling again as birth years become too young to have seen significant time in 2019.

But here we also have three notable outliers in 1989, 1994, and 1996. 1989 was Freddy Adu’s birth year. Even though he was in Europe by 2008, I still wanted to account for all U-20 minutes by each birth year. 1994 and 1996 on the other hand are outliers because of how few minutes they played.

These two outliers are also reflected in lower than usual playing times for young players in their U-20 seasons, 2014 and 2016. Both were part of the much bemoaned lost generation. Were the players just not good enough to earn a spot? The 1996 born players were the same ones who missed the U-17 World Cup, the first and only time in USYNT history.

Were the best players of those years in college at the time? Gold Cup roster players and 1994-born Nick Lima and Jordan Morris were, for example. Why these years in particular? Most likely it was a combination of factors that contributed to the lack of minutes for these two birth years.

So, youth players are getting much more playing time in MLS now relative to how much they were a decade ago, but how is MLS doing relative to other leagues around the world? Based on player ages at the start of the season, MLS gives 2.99% of all available minutes to domestic teenagers.

Top leagues in this area like the Eredivisie and Ligue 1 give 4.79% and 4.18% of available minutes to domestic teenagers respectively. On the other end of the spectrum, the Premier League and La Liga give 1.16% and 1.17% of available minutes to domestic teenage players respectively. Of the seven other leagues researched, MLS is a little better than middle of the pack in terms of playing time for domestic youngsters.

This is shaping up to be a record year for teenage Americans and Canadians in the American pro pyramid. More players are finding more opportunities in more leagues professionally than they have in over a decade. Especially for the youngest players, where American U-17s and even American players eligible for the 2023 U-20 team are trailblazing a path to pro minutes that hasn’t been seen in recent American soccer history.

Thanks to and for providing data for this story.

Post a comment