State of the league address signifies significant and positive changes for MLS
Normally a full-filled affair, the 2018 State of the League from Don Garber offered a lot more substance on potential philosophical shifts that will bring the league more in line with the global market.
BY Brian Sciaretta PostedWHEN DON GARBER gave his annual state of the league address, there was a lot of the usual fluff about expansion teams, stadium situations, growth, and other tidbits. There was also a lot that stood out.
December 10, 2018
December 10, 2018
“We want to be more of a selling league,” the commissioner added at one point.
For anyone that's followed the league for a long time, that’s huge. It marks a decided shift from the original philosophy of the league to only be reluctant in selling players. There is some skepticism as to whether or not Garber means what he says on this but I believe him. The reason is simple. This kind of a tactical approach is being made by powerful external forces pulling the league into the global market, and the drawbacks to going against these forces is too high.
These forces have always existed. Anyone who watched the league in 1996 will tell you that it is far different now. There are no silly shootouts, stopped clocks, or overtime.
Over its history, MLS genuinely moves in the direction of traditional leagues, although it is fair to argue that it doesn’t move nearly fast enough. In addition to eliminating shootouts and clock management, the addition of homegrown signings and academies were steps to fall in line with global player development.
The problem for Garber and the rest of the league is that player development is extremely costly and only works if clubs can reap the rewards of good development. In that sense, the league has been progressing well but has eventually become a victim of its own success.
When MLS academies weren’t producing great talent, there wasn’t much of a market from international teams. But as the talent improved, other clubs from abroad came swooping in and it really highlighted the structural flaws of MLS player development.
There are a lot of leagues throughout the world the emphasize player development. But for all of those clubs, the top players they develop are prime assets that can help fund the club’s operations. MLS was seeing the loss of its best players go for free. For most clubs that are serious about player development, the uncompensated loss of a player who would go on to start Champions League games as a teenager like Weston McKennie is catastrophic. And McKennie didn’t just pass through the Dallas academy, he spent eight years there. The same can be said for Richard Ledezma who joined PSV Eindhoven or Sebastian Soto who joined Hannover. Both those players spend most of their formative developmental years at Real Salt Lake.
These are not isolated cases. Big European clubs have been swooping in left and right to sign MLS academy players lately. Owners, justifiably, are left wondering why they should spend money to create academies if all they are doing is developing quality free talent for others and not seeing a nickle. Anywhere else, player development is a business, but in MLS it has become a charity. And it hurts American soccer development as a whole. The more good development goes uncompensated, the less good development you get.
MLS has found itself at a crossroads that leaves it with three options. The first is to keep going at the status quo where they see most of the top players go off for free, and sign second-level talent. That really isn’t desirable path and is probably unsustainable in terms of justifying the costs of pricey academies. The second is to simply close shop with academies and go back to how MLS used to bring talent into the league in the early days. Probably too regressive.
The third option is to fix the current development pipeline to allow teams to sign more of the top talent it produces. This is desirable but it also requires a philosophical change in the league on a few different fronts. Fortunately, it appears to be happening.
Here are the steps MLS looks to be taking, and why it could be promising.
Garber said on Friday that he wants the league to be a selling league. The global pressures have clearly forced the league’s hand. You can’t develop players and not sell them. Almost all players throughout the world want to be on a path that could eventually see them move to Europe's biggest leagues. Even in those big European leagues in the world, players have goals of being sold to the biggest teams of those big leagues. The reality is that ALL leagues are selling leagues.
Soccer is the world’s sport and only an extremely small percentage of clubs in the entire world are clubs that can be considered dream-like final destinations for players. If a club doesn’t want to be part of the pathway that leads players to these few elite clubs, then players aren’t going want to play there. They’re going to want to be part of clubs that put them on that pathway.
Of course, MLS has sold American players before but it needs to be more engaged in the global market of both buying and selling. It’s not hard. If they are part of that pathway, there will be far more players like Tyler Adams who stay in the league for a few years to use the Red Bulls to get to the Bundesliga (while also generating a transfer price) and fewer players that bolt for free.
And it's not always just about selling young players that come from your system, it also opens up opportunities to bringing in players from other leagues and then selling them on after a few years. Instead of being the first first link in the chain, MLS could be the middle link - as it appears it will be with Miguel Almiron.
With regards to selling players, it is not just about the money that it generates but it is also about giving top young players a reason to stay and play for a few seasons before moving.
Don Garber also indicated that he favors training compensation. This is an important symbolic step that would allow recouping of the loss of some players abroad, although it is typically the fraction of when teams sell for a transfer fee – like Matt Miazga or Tyler Adams. But it would be better for Real Salt Lake if it got something for the loss or Ledezma or Soto.
Garber said that the Players Union is the obstacle for this but it is something that league might be able to implement during for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Elimination of geographic homegrown restrictions
The elimination of the geographic restrictions for homegrown signings will force MLS teams to compete against each other but it does other things as well. First, it allows the best academies in the United States to flourish.
In the current system, if a young domestic player grows up in Portland, he essentially has to sign for Portland or move abroad. But what happens if the rules change and other MLS teams are interested in having that player join their academy? Then he has more options within the United States.
That also gives the best MLS academies more of a platform. The Red Bulls could then sign a player from Houston, for example. That would force the Houston Dynamo to improve. It would provide the clubs who are truly interested and effective in youth development an opportunity to perform on a national scale.
It would also not give geographic monopolies to those teams that don’t prioritize youth development. The Houston Dynamo have been poor at player development and as a result, young players in the huge city of Houston suffer.
It was reported by The Athletic earlier this season that MLS was considering getting rid of these restrictions. That news did not get nearly enough attention. It could bring about a lot of positive changes.
One of the better trends to come out of the past decade of MLS expansion is that the newer ownership groups seem inclined to want to compete with each other in a way that didn't exist in the early days of the league. Atlanta's MLS Cup triumph was refreshing because it showed the entire organization wanted to raise the bar for the rest of the league. Opening up the homegrown front to more competition will give a chance for teams to step up in that area and raise the bar.
The by products of these changes can yield significant changes. Teams would see the need to get young players on the field. Willingness to sell and a fair chance at playing time are the two biggest factors where young players base their decisions to sign their first professional deal. If MLS is willing to sell and plays young players, then it becomes an attractive place to start a career. It becomes part of the global pathway and not a dead end, as it is at some MLS teams right now.
As he announced his move to RB Leipzig, Tyler Adams said that signing for the Red Bulls was the best move he made in his career. If more teams handled players like the New York Red Bulls did with Tyler Adams and Matt Miazga, the incentive to stay in MLS for a few years before leavig for Europe would be very enticing - and probably in their best the best interests of most players because they would be more prepared to make the jump. The Red Bulls have shown the ability to complete the cycle of develop, play, sell, repeat - while also remaining competitive on the field.
Of course there are any other things the league needs to consider as well - things such as contracts that might be in shorter duration, offer buyout clauses, or sell-on fees. Other possibilities include more loaning and transferring between MLS teams, expanded free agency, but those will also probably come over time.
The news out of the state of the league regarding becoming a “selling league,” favoring training compensation, combined with the earlier reports of eliminating geographic homegrown restrictions is welcome and overdue but it could have a transformative impact. It was one of the most important developments in any recent state of the league address. It is the latest example of the global market pulling MLS in a direction that will really help it grow.