Matt Kassell is one of ten HGPs no longer in MLS. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images for New York Red Bulls)
In what is becoming a familiar refrain, the Washington Post took a look at HomeGrown Players (HGPs) and how many of them never saw playing time. Much of the story revolves around the absence of a larger Reserve League (with larger rosters) or the need for a more integrated Reserve system within the NASL or USLPro. We'll get to that in a bit, it isn't a new idea, but it does seem to be gaining ground.
First though, let's ask an important question - why are teams signing these players to MLS contracts if they aren't MLS talents? The Post points out that 27 of the 55 HGPs have yet to play a minute in 2011 or 2012. A full 10 are no longer in the league.
In the story Real Salt Lake GM Garth Lagerway is quoted saying;
"Ninety percent of 18-year-olds aren’t ready to play for a first team in MLS," Real Salt Lake General Manager Garth Lagerwey said. "They desperately need games and training. We have to have some version of a second division. If that means partnering with USL and NASL with free player movement between [the leagues] . . . I think that would be ideal."
So, 90% aren't actually capable of playing in MLS. Again, why'd he sign Donny Toia if he isn't an MLS talent? Is it really 'the system's' fault that there isn't enough games and training available? This isn't a unique circumstance to RSL.
Within the story it is pointed out that "MLS teams have few options for top-flight competition other than MLS reserve league games, which have been canceled at times this season because of a lack of available players." According to the MLS Reserve League schedule only one Reserve game has been canceled. It was to be between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls.
That the Red Bulls lacked players wouldn't be a surprise. They've cut three of their five HGP signings. Another they traded away for much needed defensive help. United has two players (one HGP) on loan to lower level teams. Were Academy players really not available? While it may not work for each player, watching the successes of player's like Aaron Kovar with the Reserves points out his level of talent while also getting necessary games for the rest of the bench. Why wasn't this path taken?
Yes, there are systemic issues with how US Soccer and MLS work with player in the post-Academy pre-MLS period of time. College isn't the best solution for every player, but there are players where it clearly makes sense. But let's not overblow the issue.
Teams are responsible for their choices. While D.C. is loaning their HGPs down to lower levels (as is allowed) other teams are complaining that their HGPs don't get playing time. It is their fault. They signed a player that isn't ready and then refused to work within the current system to get said player time. If the player isn't ready now, maybe teams should develop an ecology with local colleges and some lower division teams to prepare the potential HGPs to be ready at age 20, 21, 22 when they can still be signed under MLS rules.
Yes, it would be great if MLS had more cooperation with the lower divisions as pointed out by the Post.
The MLS competition committee is looking into two remedies aimed at increasing playing time for younger prospects, the first being an expansion of first-team rosters and increasing the number of reserve league games.
The second option is to create something of a minor league affiliate system in partnership with the second-tier North American Soccer League and the third-tier United Soccer Leagues.
It is an idea percolating in the blogosphere for some time. It deserves a long hard look. MLS had a team that operated in the old A-League for precisely the reasons addressed here. There is not a need for more "First Team" roster slots though. Teams already aren't playing their HGPs. Having more of them not play will do what?
MLS doesn't do everything right, but it is quite odd for the GMs and Coaches that make up the system. Blaming the system for the players that they signed not being ready, refusing to loan to lower leagues and canceling rare reserve games are issues precisely because of the decisions made by leadership at the club level. They had options and ignored them.