Recently, ESPN did a nice story on the burgeoning MLS academies and what it means for the future of MLS and US Soccer. The article is worth a full read, but there are some points I want to highlight:
First, this is the way forward, not fantasizing about "best athletes".
Take a look at the biography of almost every top player and it's the same. Talent is recognized early and trained by full-time professionals, employed by teams who have strong incentives to find and nurture the very best talent they can find, either to add to their first team or to sell on for cash for the organization. The fact that MLS has fully committed to following a similar path is a hugely positive step for US Soccer.
That's not to say there isn't room for improvement.
As it stands, huge swaths of the country are left out of the "catchment" areas that each club retains in a 75-mile radius around its stadium. In fact 32 out of the 52 metro areas with a million or more people fall outside the reach of an MLS club. This is important because each club can retain only two players per youth team from outside that area, and that potentially leaves a lot of players out in the cold.
At the same time, there's a lot of double coverage. Obviously, because they share the Home Depot Center, the Galaxy and Chivas USA also share the exact same catchment area, and therefore might come into conflict about who gets to sign some youngster or other. Similarly, The Philadelphia Union is situated almost exactly between the Red Bulls and DC United, with significant overlaps with both. All the better in my opinion, because an arms race in the development of serious youth programs is one of the best things that could possibly happen for US Soccer. Actually, it's the second best thing. The best thing would be to open the whole country to a free-for-all for all clubs, but socialist tendencies die hard.
Actually, there's something even better than that.
The best thing would be if that free-for-all to produces teams all the way down to age 8. No, I'm not kidding. Lionel Messi was already playing for Newell's Old Boys, a first division club in Rosario, at that age, and most teams around the world have teams starting around then. Here's Inter's youngest team. Those kids were receiving training before they even turned 9 from the club that won the Champions League this year. Will all of them make it to be pros? Of course not, but the ones who make it all the way through the 10 youth teams have a real shot at becoming top level players, having had 10 years of professional coaching.
What about the Sounders?
Joe Roth has said that one of the milestones of success for the Sounders, alongside the standard trophies, will come when an academy product steps out on the field to play with the senior team. Personally, I hope that he remains aggressive about this and pushes the organization to follow up with that goal. I hope that we're very aggressive with our two spots per team that we can fill with players outside our catchment area. A steady pipeline of young, skilled players who will play some of their best years here before moving on for big transfer fees would help make us an extremely strong club consistently, year after year.