Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Where MLS academies are in 2021 – and how they're fueling Canada, USA ambitions

There are only eight countries to have ever won the World Cup. Every single one of them had two things in common:

  1. They had a well-supported domestic league, and
  2. That domestic league churned out talent for the national team.

Forget about winning the World Cup: If you even want to get close to winning, you need to check those two boxes. The Netherlands’ national team, for example, was a big fat nothing and the league was a backwater throughout the 1950s and into the early ‘60s. But then methodology improved, and a commitment to youth development and integration was developed, and suddenly Ajax, PSV and the rest produced a generation of elite talent.

Just like that, the league was on the map and the national team became a regular contender at major tournaments. They actually won one – the 1988 Euros – and have been World Cup runners-up three times, and as the talent keeps churning through the Eredivisie, the Dutch continue to be a threat.

Or think about that Croatian golden generation that made it all the way to the final in 2018 before losing to France. Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic, Mario Mandzukic, Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozović; these guys didn’t appear out of the blue. They were crafted through their home country’s youth development pipeline before being sold off to top clubs around Europe.

With the advent of the Homegrown initiative nearly 15 years ago (in 2008), Major League Soccer took its first steps toward creating that pipeline. It was a commitment to actually crafting elite players instead of just finding and honing guys who’d come through college soccer. It is the difference between preparing for success and just hoping for it.

Don’t get me wrong: college soccer will always have a place in the US and Canada – there will always be Matt Turners or Tajon Buchanans who are not identified and progressed into elite player development pathways as early as they could or should’ve been, and there will always be late bloomers like Aaron Long or Richie Laryea. College soccer is an asset for the league and for both countries.

But it can not be the preferred path if either the US or Canada are ever going to seriously compete at the highest levels of the international game. I’d argue that what the US did from 1994 to 2014 (six straight World Cup qualifications with four advancements from the group stage; a runner-up and a third-place finish in the Confederations Cup; a semifinal finish at the Copa America) is the furthest you could go with college soccer as the primary player development pathway. To get beyond that you need a high-functioning, dedicated academy system. Period.

I would also argue that we are on the verge of having exactly that in a number of regions across both countries. Some (FC Dallas and Philadelphia Union, for example) are more developed than others, but over the past five years the players coming through MLS academies have been both better prepared and just plain better players at a younger age. It’s created an outflow of talent from MLS teams to the best clubs in Europe – just look at this breakdown of minutes played by Americans in Europe's top continental competitions:

The outflow of talent has created an upflow of more good, young academy players to take the place of their predecessors in MLS rosters and on MLS fields (think Reggie Cannon → Bryan Reynolds → Justin Che). At the same time it’s created a new revenue stream for owners to invest in better imports, which strengthens the overall quality of the league, which then makes for a tougher crucible for the next generation of academy kids.

And with MLS NEXT and the to-come MLS reserve league (in 2022), these efforts will be turbocharged. Layer in improved training facilities across the league, and a robust system is starting to appear in different markets around the US and Canada to continually develop players with first-team potential. These things don’t just happen, they take time and effort – replicated year over year, decade over decade.

Let’s put more numbers to it: This window there were 136 MLS players called into national team camps around the world. Four years ago in this window there were 87.

That is a massive cycle-over-cycle increase. Alphonso Davies and Tyler Adams don’t just beget more Davieses and Adamses, they make it easier and more sensible for MLS teams to sign Adam Buksa (Robert Lewandowski’s heir apparent for Poland) or Brian Rodriguez (a regular for Uruguay before he turned 21) because MLS is now the type of league that puts players into Champions League clubs.

It is a virtuous cycle for MLS teams, and if done well, it is a sustainable one that benefits them. At the same time, it obviously benefits both national teams. I mentioned Davies and Adams not just because they’re the two best examples of the Homegrown initiative working for Canada and the US, but because they are also the most important players for Canada and the US, respectively.

They did not develop by accident. Ricardo Pepi and Maxime Crepeau did not develop by accident, either, nor will the next generation of guys like Ralph Priso up north or Jack McGlynn down in the US. Even Mexico has taken notice, out-recruiting the US for a trio of Mexican-American academy kids in David Ochoa, Efrain Alvarez and Julian Araujo (who was more “academy adjacent” than a true LA Galaxy academy product, but still) to fill in some gaps created by their now-faltering youth development pipeline.

This is necessary progress in creating the type of culture that could, conceivably, produce a side that might win a World Cup some day. It is also the thing I was most interested in seeing MLS do back when I became a fan of MLS, which was actually before MLS existed. Watching the 1990 World Cup with my uncle, I was made to understand that there would be no American Maradona or Matthaus until there was a developmental system equipped to identify and craft players like that. They are not found; they are made, by themselves and by the developmental structure around them.

That structure has slowly evolved, and over the past five years or so it feels like it’s really snapped into place. Again: a necessary step.

Just remember, though, that necessary isn’t sufficient. Only eight countries have ever won the World Cup, and there are way more than eight countries with well-supported leagues that churn out lots of talent. Chances are none of us – you, me, the poor SOB editing this column – will ever see the US or Canada actually lift the trophy. Think about how close the Netherlands have come. Think about how far away they still are. That’s just reality.

But at the same time, the Homegrown initiative has moved the US and Canada closer than either country has ever truly been before. We are crafting players now, and they are reaching the pinnacle of the club game. So maybe there is a Maradona or a Matthaus in our future, and if that’s the case, well, we’re all allowed to dream a little bit, aren’t we?