Christian Pulisic's rapid ascent from USYNT prospect to starter for the USMNT and Borussia Dortmund by the age of 18 has rightfully spurred forward the conversation on youth development in the US, Canada and MLS. Teenagers have traditionally found it difficult to earn minutes in this league, and hope among many is that time-etched pattern will begin to change.
What have been the usual barricades against time for youngsters here? There were two big ones:
1. MLS teams, coast to coast, didn't really jump into the fray with full-time, fully invested youth academies until this decade. Some (New York especially) had been pushing for integrated academies since the 1990s, but the gears of progress turn slowly.
The US Soccer Development Academy was only founded in 2007, and there were just six MLS teams participating that first year. This year there will be 20. Toronto FC have gone their own way – and who can argue with them, given their youth development results? – while Minnesota United are in the process of booting up their academy.
When clubs invest in developing kids, there is more financial incentive to play those kids, and there's more trust from the top down that those kids won't play like "kids" when they step on the field in a professional environment. You're relying upon talent you've created rather than talent you've found
2. The USL partnership has provided professional minutes for players at a younger age. There will still be the occasional Jack Harrison to come out of college at 19 and light up the league, but last season's most consistent teenager was RSL's Justen Glad. He signed a pro contract at age 17, then played his first pro game in USL for Real Monarchs at age 18. He got a handful of games with them before making his MLS debut in the summer of 2015, and by 2016 he was a starter.
I'm certain that's the path we'll see most prized talents take in the future. And in fact, all six teenagers who've seen 100+ minutes thus far in the MLS season are Homegrown products.
Let's take a look:
Alphonso Davies (MF – Vancouver)
The youngest player on this list is the one, I think, with the most potential. Davies is a 16-year-old, Liberia-born winger who's been a constant for the 'Caps in both MLS play and CONCACAF Champions League play. His end product isn't quite there yet – he'll often overhit passes, and "finishing" is not a thing he does particularly well.
That said, he's already got one pretty big professional goal to his name:
Even when he's not finishing he adds a ton of value for this team when he's on the field. Davies has soft feet and very good vision, receives the ball well in traffic and is very, very difficult to knock off of it once he gets possession. I think his biggest asset is the combination of that first touch and his agility, which he uses to create instant separation from defenders. This makes him very useful on the wing, but I suspect that his long-term home will be in central midfield.
Davies and his family moved to Canada when he was five years old. He joined the Whitecaps Residency program at age 14, then signed a pro contract with Whitecaps 2 at age 15 before moving up to an MLS deal a couple of months later.
Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla (W – Montreal)
Tabla got on the board this weekend, burying his team's second goal in their 2-2 road draw at Chicago:
Like Lennon he's almost certain to be with the US at the U-20 World Cup this summer, and was a starter in qualifying.
Marco Farfan (LB – Portland)
The first Homegrown to be signed directly from the Timbers academy has looked to be worth the wait. Farfan's gone the full 90 in his two appearances, and has seen his club get a win and a draw with just one goal conceded. Not bad.
Farfan is that rarest of breeds: A true left back! He played 1500 minutes at that spot in the USL last year as a 17-year-old, and was remarkably consistent on both sides of the ball for a player of his age. He lacks the usual naiveté you'd expect for someone taking his first steps into pro ball.
He's also does some fun stuff on the ball:
Paxton Pomykal (MF – FC Dallas)
The 17-year-old has played a bigger role than most expected, earning 140 minutes thus far as Dallas have juggled their lineups and rotations in a bid to keep fresh for CCL play and the regular season.
That's seen Pomykal called into service as an inverted right winger. He hasn't played scared at all:
Looking at Paxton Pomykal's time on the pitch thus far this season. Kid hasn't found the game but doesn't play scared. pic.twitter.com/l02s4qA4uQ— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) April 3, 2017
There's simply been less of Pomykal to see against professional teams than the other guys – Dallas still have no USL team – so it's harder to pinpoint either his ceiling or ultimate position. Sometimes he looks like a No. 10, others like a No. 8, and others like a wide player.
Thus far for Dallas he's had a little bit of trouble finding the game, but that's probably more due to circumstance than anything else. He got 80 minutes on the road at Sporting in a clear "let's bunker and play for a point" game, and then 60 more at home against the Revs in a "hey let's skip the midfield and just go straight at the New England backline" game.