The Full 90

'Homegrown' MLS players could help club, country

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — Like a lot of teenagers, Victor Pineda works while going to school.

Only Pineda's job has put him on the fast track to a professional soccer career. And the program that got the 17-year-old midfielder there just might help the United States win a World Cup someday.

As part of Major League Soccer's "Homegrown Initiative," Pineda spent three years with the Chicago Fire Academy before being signed to the first team in August. Instead of playing dozens of games a month with various local clubs and travel teams, players who are part of MLS' homegrown program — done in conjunction with U.S. Soccer's Development Academy — spend more time training and play fewer, but more meaningful, games.

"For us to improve the overall quality of play and be competitive in this global sport, we had to get serious about player development," said Todd Durbin, MLS executive vice president for player relations and competition. "There's been an emphasis on winning. When we emphasize winning at a young age, it comes at a detriment to player development. We want players to experiment. We want players to take risks. We want them to develop technically.

"The goal is not to win on Saturday," Durbin said. "The goal is to have a player that can be a vibrant and long-term professional."

Kansas City signed their first "homegrown" player, goalkeeper Jon Kempin, earlier this year.

The United States has come a long way since ending a 40-year drought between World Cup appearances in 1990. It has played in the last six World Cups and advanced to the knockout round three times, including a run to the 2002 quarterfinals. But the Americans seemingly remain years away from winning the World Cup.

While Landon Donovan can hold his own against just about anyone and plenty of countries would gladly give up a prospect or two for Tim Howard, the United States still has a decided talent disadvantage compared with European and South American powerhouses. Some of the gap will be erased as soccer's popularity continues to grow; in a country of 309 million, there's strength in numbers.

But to see a significant change, player development has to improve — and that's where MLS and its homegrown program come in.

U.S. Soccer has had an Under-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla., since 1999, and there's usually a handful of "graduates" on each U.S. World Cup squad. In South Africa, Donovan, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Oguchi Onyewu and Jonathan Spector had all come through the program. Now imagine that MLS teams' academy programs turn out similar numbers of World Cup-caliber players and, well, you can do the math.

To get an idea of the potential impact, look no farther than world champion Spain.

Of the 23 players on its roster in South Africa, nine came through Barcelona's academy, including Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol. (Argentina's Lionel Messi is also a Barca product.) The smooth, possession-based game of quick touches and slick passing that has become Spain's trademark has its roots at Barcelona.

"We talk about big moments in soccer in America, the arriving of Pele or the arriving of David Beckham. This is equally important, if not more so," said Alfonso Mondelo, MLS' technical director. "I truly believe this will be a game-changer for soccer in the United States."

Each of MLS' 18 teams (Portland and Vancouver begin play next year) are required to have an amateur program that emphasizes skill development and training. The clubs are expected to field teams of up to 18 players at each of soccer's age groups. MLS lets the individual clubs decide the best model for developing players, but most of the 15-16 and 17-18 teams are affiliated with U.S. Soccer's Development Academy.

U.S. Soccer started the Development Academy three years ago after finding elite players were developing haphazardly, with too much emphasis on playing — and winning — games, and not enough on honing technical skills. Players on Development Academy teams — there currently are 78 around the country — train at least three days a week, and have a schedule of about 30 games that includes playoffs and winter and spring showcases.

Development Academy players can play on their local high school teams, but elite and travel teams are prohibited.

"There needs to be a good rhythm of training to games. Training is where players develop, and games are where you test out your skills," said Tony Lepore, director of scouting for U.S. Soccer's Development Academy. "If you have too many games, they lose their meaning."

Development Academy teams are also scouted extensively by U.S. Soccer staff. Not only does that help coaches and clubs improve their methods, but it helps funnel players into the national team pools. In the Development Academy's first three years, Lepore said almost 400 players have been called into national team training camps.

Of course, MLS gets plenty out of this, too.

While the league continues to improve each season, it has nowhere near the star power of the NBA, NFL or Major League Baseball. Get better players, and more attention should come. Might eventually attract big foreign stars while they're in the prime of their careers instead of at the end of them, too.

Individual clubs also have considerable incentive to develop their own players. "Homegrowns" aren't counted against the salary cap. If a homegrown player goes abroad, the MLS club gets three-quarters of the transfer fee instead of the regular two-thirds.

"My goal is, and the league's goal, it's still a business. There is a cap," said Frank Klopas, the Chicago Fire's technical director. "We're not going to be able to go out and be buying players every year and spending millions of dollars like the rest of (the world). At least not now. We have to start developing players.

"This country is big. Kids are playing soccer everywhere," Klopas added. "If you're doing the right things, from a numbers standpoint, you know you're going to have bigger and better success."

MLS only began the homegrown program in late 2006, but it's already seeing results. Seventeen players have signed with MLS clubs, including Andy Najar, D.C. United's leading scorer, and Tristan Bowen, a starter with the Los Angeles Galaxy.

"The starting point is placing more of our young, elite players in better soccer environments," Galaxy and former U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. "Ultimately, all this stuff, as it moves forward, will naturally create better players. It's a trickle-up effect."