The Throw-In: True test of MLS youth dead ahead in Mexico

Throw-In: O'neill and Clarke

Photo Credit: 
Courtesy of CSA

Welcome back to Star Search, youth soccer style.

When the CONCACAF U-20 Championship kicks off next week, it’ll be another chance for young talent to show off potential and tantalize fans with possibilities of future pillars of the full national team.

Recent editions have been boons for both the US and Canada in identifying such talent: Eddie Johnson, Taylor Twellman, Brek Shea, Atiba Hutchinson and Patrice Bernier, just to name a few.

But there’s a new wrinkle this time around as teams chase a berth in the summer’s U-20 World Cup in Turkey: It’s no longer a showcase for US Soccer’s Bradenton Academy, or Canada’s fractured lower divisions.

Major League Soccer’s development system is taking a front seat in this tournament like never before. The American and Canadian rosters feature a combined 13 players who have been groomed by MLS clubs in their academies or as Homegrown signings. And that’s unprecedented.

If you look back across prior youth tournaments, most American products were either Bradenton grads – groomed by centralized US Soccer and Nike resources – or college kids. A few came from European clubs, but an overwhelming majority weren't being groomed in professional environments.

READ: Gringo Report: The biggest challenge of Ramos' career?

The same went for Canadian youths, most of whom either came up with amateur clubs north of the border or came south to American colleges to hone their games.

It wasn’t necessarily a bad system, as the talent pipeline was consistent, even if results varied. But what’s changed now is a reflection of the push to overhaul the development systems in both nations, leaning on the centralized USSF Development Academy system and the Academy structure that’s now in place for all 19 MLS clubs.

“The big benefit now with the development academies in the US is those players graduate into professional teams and now at least the players are constantly in a professional environment,” US Under-20 national team head coach Tab Ramos (at right) told MLSsoccer.com's Tom Marshall on Thursday from Mexico, where he’s readying his team.

Indeed, Ramos’ side features four Homegrown players in Columbus’ Wil Trapp, LA’s Jose Villarreal and Colorado’s Dillon Serna and Shane O’Neill (pictured at top, left) – all kids groomed by MLS academies. Nick Dasovic’s Canada side, meanwhile, has three Homegrowns in Toronto’s Doneil Henry and Vancouver’s Bryce Alderson and Caleb Clarke (top, right) – not to mention another six kids who are still within the academy systems of Canada’s three MLS teams.

In short, that makes this U-20 tournament somewhat of coming-out party for MLS’ academy system. And that makes it worth watching to see how these kids have translated what they’ve been taught by their clubs to the international level.

Will their performances be a litmus test to how the program is doing? Probably not immediately. For one, the Homegrown initiative isn’t perfect yet. Of the 43 such signings made between the program’s inception through the end of the 2011 season, only 28 are still employed by MLS clubs. Many others are still reserve players or on loan somewhere.

For every Bill Hamid and Juan Agudelo, there’s a Francisco Navas Cobo or a Donny Toia. So there’s still a question of how best to gauge whether an academy kid is truly ready for the first team.

But there’s also a sense of accountability now where clubs understand they’re going to have to identify and cultivate youth in their own markets, both to give them chances as professionals and, hopefully, a lifeline into their national teams.

“It is getting better,” offered Ramos. “Maybe the full result of what’s going on now will be seen in five or six years from now, but it’s certainly turning the corner.”

Next week’s tournament – which hopefully will wrap with the US and Canada booking spots in Turkey – is the beginning of the new era.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.