It's extraordinarily difficult to be an American soccer player. Only a few thousand of them exist in the world. The precise number does not matter. Of the over 400,000 boys high school soccer players about 100 wind up drafted. A few dozen more join teams prior to being drafted (to MLS via GA or HGP programs, to Liga MX or Europe by just dropping out of college). A couple dozen skip the college step entirely, and of those most make little money in their profession.
That leaves many players behind. Their educations are incomplete. Only about 40 MLS players have scholarships to complete schooling.
The LA Galaxy just started to change that. Galaxy II are offering a route to become a professional, one without an HGP hybrid contract or GA deal that results in some funding for college. It is revolutionary in American soccer.
This week, the Galaxy took yet another bold step on the front of player development when they announced the signing of Ryo Fujii, an 18-year-old Galaxy Academy alumni, to a USL contract. What made the signing unique was that Fujii had spent the previous year playing and studying as UC Santa Barbara and the Galaxy would be providing Fujii with the financial resources to enroll at Cal State Dominguez Hills to continue his education.
As LAGII started the trend of MLS teams owning and operating their own USL affiliate, hopefully this starts another trend. The stipend they are providing helps toward part-time enrollment in a non-premium school. It is Cal State-Dominguez Hills -- the campus on which StubHub Center also happens to be located -- not someplace like UCLA. Their goal is within five years to have a majority of LAGII be composed of players from their Academy that are not on NCAA scholarships, but directly signed as pros.
Seattle is again behind LA on this. There are players at community colleges or NCAA programs without soccer "names" that may be a better fit playing on S2. At this time, S2 does not have a stipend program. Local universities are a lot pricier than those in the California State University system, where tuition starts at less than $4,000 per year. They also don't share the grounds with those colleges.
That may be an issue, but there are other options for Seattle Sounders FC to catch the LA Galaxy. City University and University of Phoenix both offer distance-learning programs. Highline, Green River and South Seattle Community Colleges are in similar cost range as well. An Associate's degree has a certain utility. Renton has a Technical College that may be the right educational answer for some players.
The answer probably lies at Bellevue College. The former CC offers some Bachelor degrees. It has a distance learning program, offers an AA for those where that degree makes the most sense and offers 4-year degrees in a wide range of programs on their own or through Eastern, Central, the UW or WSU.
Giving those who only spend a few years as a pro soccer player making less than six figures a path to financial success is not just morally right for a club that takes in tens of millions, it is a path toward creating a future full of Sounders players in many walks of life.
Take someone who recently went through the Academy. Maybe they didn't have the grades to go to an NCAA school on scholarship, but are already of marginal pro quality. Currently the system says "go to a CC or ju-co" and maybe they stick to it, and maybe they get the grades and then maybe they get drafted.
That's not a great path.
A new path, one borrowed from, but expanding on what the LA Galaxy just started would take that player and put them at the lowest level of pro soccer in America. They would still get to work toward a degree path as appropriate for that portion of their mind and soul that is not related to soccer. Such a player could prove themselves on the field and earn an MLS contract; they could play well and continue on the USL side while going to school; they could discover that professionalism is not the right path and still have some post-secondary education.
There is a cost. LA is bearing that cost because the chances of gaining a great player makes sense and it is a right and proper thing to do for people. Sounders FC can not afford to keep chasing LA. The smaller catchment area already does not have the quality of youth soccer player that Southern California does.
Seattle, by MLS rule, already has the ability to bring in more out-of-catchment-area players to the Academy system. Giving those players a path to professionalism that does not ignore education grants a leg up on slower-moving MLS sides (the 12 sides that don't have their own USL teams).
The ownership may be cautious by nature and avoid the cutting edge. They must run in the bevel/grind as early adopters. Developing local talent, even if the locale is small, while also carrying a massive financial advantage is how a team from outside of a nation's largest markets can dominate soccer.
It's time to stop chasing LA and lead this new path.