Landon Donovan impressed by MLS youth, advocates for more playing time

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Landon Donovan was back at the helm of the Chipotle MLS Homegrown team for the second straight year, seeing his charges fall 2-0 to Mexico’s Under-20 national team in the third annual Chipotle MLS Homegrown Game.

But while he touched on the game itself in his postgame remarks, much of his session with reporters was spent discussing the ins and outs of developing the players that showcased their skills to the world on Wednesday evening.

Donovan, of course, is well versed in the pressure and challenges of being one of the brightest young prospects in a growing soccer nation, turning pro at age 17, earning his first US national team cap at age 18 and capturing two MLS Cup titles by age 21 on his way to becoming arguably the most iconic American soccer player in the modern era. But the landscape has changed in the 15 or so years since Donovan broke out on the North American soccer scene.

“I told them last night that they are so much further ahead at this point in their career than any of us, Stu [Holden, former US international and Homegrown team assistant] and myself, any of the guys that played for the national team for a long time,” Donovan said after the game. “A lot of them are not playing minutes with their first team yet, but they’re much further along. It’s much more difficult now.

“We had a little bit of an easier opportunity. It wasn’t as many good players, but if they really want this, the opportunity is there and they’re good enough to do it.”

The Homegrown Game is still very much a new phenomenon in MLS circles, and follows the introduction of the Homegrown Player rule in 2008, which incentivized MLS teams to develop their own talent and sign them to professional contracts outside of the league's other player acquisition methods like the MLS SuperDraft.

Though the Homegrown Player rule has introduced US national team players and prospects such as DeAndre Yedlin, Gyasi Zardes, Juan Agudelo and Bill Hamid into the league, some players signed under this mechanism have not succeeded in breaking through as regulars on their MLS teams, something that Donovan pointed to when asked what some of his Homegrown charges needed to do in order to take the next step in their careers.

“A lot of them just need a chance,” he argued. “Our league has sort of shifted to GMs and coaches taking chances on bringing in foreign guys versus giving young guys opportunities. And that’s why when I see Dallas do well and give these guys chances, the [LA] Galaxy to a little bit less of an extent, New York Red Bulls giving these guys chances, that’s the only way we get better as a soccer country.”

Donovan, who coached the Homegrown side for the second consecutive time and will start studying for his US Soccer ‘B’ coaching license in August, acknowledged that head coaches in MLS do have an obligation to win as well, but used his own career as an example of what can happen when a coach sticks by a young player.

“If I’m a coach in MLS, I understand – I’ve got to win on Saturday to keep my job,” said Donovan. “If it’s the choice between playing an 18-year-old who has more potential than the guy who’s playing but right now the guy who’s playing is a little better, you’re probably going to take the safe bet."

Youth development has always been a hot-button topic in US soccer social media circles, and ideas are always being floated as to how teams around the nation can start to harness the soccer potential that exists in a country of over 300 million.

To that end, Donovan praised the vertical structure that some MLS teams are starting to implement, where players who are in their academies can now earn professional minutes with USL teams owned and operated by MLS teams, even if they are not quite ready to earn regular minutes with the first team.

But when these prospects eventually graduate to the first team, Donovan advocates for the younger guys getting more and more opportunities. 

“The good situations are the situations where coaches are secure in their job, where they can take a chance on a player," Donovan continued. "My first year I was in San Jose I played 12 straight games without scoring a goal, but [former San Jose coach] Frank Yallop said, ‘The team’s winning, you’re doing well in other areas, we’re going to let you play.’ Now, had he not given me that chance, who knows what happens?”