by Paul Kennedy
MLS's Homegrown Player Rule was introduced in 2008 to incentivize teams to sign players from their academies and reward them for their investment in player development.
Homegrown Player policies are controversial. Players who come through MLS academies can only sign with the MLS team that developed them, and territorial rights prevent teams from signing young (non-college) players who grew up in the designated player markets of other teams.
MLS teams invest millions of dollars each year in player development and have built massive player complexes to operate their academy teams. Many teams also operate on-site residency programs or high school programs to house and educate young players, following the model of clubs in major soccer nations around the world.
But what return are teams getting for their investment? How many first-team regulars are they using and how many players are being sold or traded?
In the long term, MLS teams will only be able to compete on the field with teams from around the world if they can develop their own players to fill their lineups or sell them and invest the proceeds to buy other players. The alternative is to stock (at great expense) players acquired on the international player market.
A few teams have hit the jackpot with the sale of Homegrown players abroad and used the proceeds to fund other moves. After the sale of Ricardo Pepi to Augsburg, FC Dallas went out and acquired Argentine winger Alan Velasco from Independiente for what the club said was a record transfer fee and Paul Arriola from D.C. United for a record amount of allocation money. Philadelphia sold young stars Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie after the 2020 season and spent more modestly on Daniel Gazdag, Mikael Uhre and Julian Carranza, who have combined for 45 goals and 24 assists in 2022.
But Homegrown Players still make up a small percentage of players MLS teams are playing regularly. Of the players who played 1,000 or more minutes so far this season, less than 16 percent -- 59 players in total -- were Homegrown players or players whose territorial rights were held by another team when they entered MLS.
In 2021, NYCFC became the first team to win MLS Cup with two of its own Homegrown players in its starting lineup. But of the top five teams in the current MLS standings, only two have Homegrown players whom they developed and who have played 1,000-plus minutes.
Philadelphia, the Supporters' Shield standings leader, had four academy stars on the USA's Concacaf U-20 champions, but only Jack McGlynn has gotten regular playing time since their return from the 2022 Concacaf championship in Honduras. But the Union is in a unique situation. Jim Curtin has a set lineup that is breaking offensive scoring records just about every week and could also break an MLS season record for the stingiest defense.
It shouldn't be easy for young players to get significant playing time, especially as MLS sign players at younger ages, but just 17 Homegrown Players signed in the last three years have played 1,000 or more minutes. Four of them are in their first seasons: American Caleb Wiley with Atlanta United and Canadians Luca Petrasso, Deandre Kerr and Kosi Thompson at Toronto FC.
There are plenty of other domestic players MLS are using: almost 40 percent of players who have played 1,000 or more minutes are Americans or Canadians. Most are older players who spent time in college, were developed abroad and moved back home or didn't qualify for Homegrown status when they entered MLS. And that doesn't include foreigners who attended U.S. colleges. Going forward, fewer MLS players will have had any college experience, though.
Of Europe's big 5 leagues, France's Ligue 1 and Spain's LaLiga probably have the best reputation for developing homegrown talent with the percentage of Frenchmen in Ligue 1 and Spaniards in LaLiga exceeding 60 percent in recent years.
That should be MLS's goal. Needless to say, teams have a long way to go if they want their investment in player development to pay off.