Dallas, Red Bulls put faith in youth development to become model clubs
As MLS academies crank out more and more prospects, the mantra "play your kids" gets heard more often. It conjures up an image of a manager at the roulette wheel, one willing to risk results while throwing teenagers into the MLS deep end and see how they fare.
The reality, of course, is that it's not always easy to put "play your kids" into practice. Inexperience oftentimes leads to mistakes that can cost a team points in the standings and the manager his job. At the same time, today's mainstays will become tomorrow's has-beens, so there needs to be a conveyor belt of fresh talent coming through a team.
Where those players come from -- be it from abroad, an academy, college, the United Soccer League or another MLS team -- is the big question. Most sides attempt to utilize all of those pipelines, but a look around MLS sees teams like FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls using their academy products more than others.
Dallas manager Oscar Pareja has long been a proponent of playing young players, including those out of the team's academy (which last weekend won two titles at the Dallas Cup youth tournament). Already this season five different homegrown players have seen the field in a regular-season match for FCD. New York counterpart Jesse Marsch has seen his homegrown players log more minutes -- 1,272 to be exact -- than any other MLS side so far this season.
In talking to both managers, there is nothing impulsive or cavalier about how young players are brought along. In both cases there is granularity to the approach that looks to minimize the risk in an inherently risky proposition. But before any decision can be made about when to put a young player on the field, there needs to be an understanding throughout the organization that promoting young players is part of the culture. No manager will put a young player on the field if they feel that ownership lacks the patience to handle a few bad results that come from rookie mistakes.
"It's important to have a club and an organization and ownership that have the same mentality, and that they buy into the same idea," Pareja said.
"Fortunately in the club, we have been growing together in Dallas. We believed in the academy from the beginning, and we have an ownership who knew that was the direction that the club should go. I bet when I'm not there some day, some coach is going to be selected because the philosophy of FC Dallas is to give opportunity to the academy kids."
For Marsch, successfully bringing young players into the first team starts with having a distinct style of play that is instituted at every level, from the academy all the way through the first team. That helps establish an understanding of what's expected on the field. Then there are the different stages -- "platforms," Marsch calls them -- at which players prove themselves, be it the academy, Premier Development League, USL, or the first team.
"It's not like we've taken young players and just said: 'You're young, [you're playing]," Marsch said.
"They've been tested throughout our system. You see players grow in that, and then they train with the first team and they continue to establish themselves more. Then you have to do things to honor their development path by giving them opportunities with the MLS team. That's what happened with Tyler Adams, Aaron Long, Derrick Etienne. Then it's easy for them because they've basically executed the exact same tactics and the exact same style of play at that level and now it's just about adapting to MLS, the speed and physicality."
Once the player has established himself in training, the next step is to find, as Pareja put it, "the right scenario."
That means playing in a first-team match, but surrounding the youngster with players who will give him confidence. That doesn't necessarily mean it's an easy game, however. In fact, Pareja disagrees with the idea that early-season MLS games or the early rounds of the U.S. Open Cup are the perfect time to blood young players because little is at stake.
"I have been competing in a professional arena for 32 years, and I don't know anything else but competition," Pareja said. "The urgency to win, the responsibility to win, to avoid criticism, to avoid losing contracts, to avoid losing jobs, to get prestige to move to the next level has been there for all those years.
"I don't remember one day that I don't want to win with the same desperation or with the same urgency. Everything matters. When I give the opportunity to a player, it's not because it's an easy game. It is because I want to win. Now, I know the risk, but I want to win with him. That is part of the way I live this sport. I can't recall any time saying: 'This is easy. Why don't we call him in here?'"
Perhaps the most difficult part of the process is managing a player in the wake of the inevitable mistakes that get made. Pareja recalled that Dallas had gotten bounced in the playoffs the past two years on "two silly mistakes from rookies." The key is driving home to the player that a mistake isn't fatal in terms of his career.
"Oscar has played the game, he's a player's coach," said Dallas midfielder Kellyn Acosta. "He knows what it's like and that for a young guy, if we just sit on the bench, our play is going to go down.
"He doesn't try to baby us. If we make a mistake he lets us know, but he also encourages us. We can't dwell on what happened and there will be more important games in our career, and more chances to prove ourselves."
Pareja added: "The coach has to understand that it may not work, but that's his risk, his responsibility. You need to absorb the pressure in order for the young men in the field know that they have a coach that believes in you. If I as a coach give a debut to a kid, and tosses all the responsibility to him and then I'm saying, 'If you don't do good today you're not going to play anymore,' or if I make him feel all the risk is on him, it's not going to work. The youngster needs a coach that has big balls. That's what it is."
There are other pitfalls as well. There's the player's struggle to maintain consistency at an increasingly high level. More is asked of the players physically and mentally. Marsch indicated he had to be mindful of how much he threw at his players tactically.
"Sometimes you see that players are overwhelmed a little bit with information, but you try to support them and say: 'It's going to come. Don't worry. It's a lot of stuff, but it will come to you more and more," he said. "There will be more and more clarity as you continue along the path.'"
The payoff is when a young player begins to challenge a veteran for a full-time spot. Granted, the veteran is then looking over his shoulder, but typically that kind of competition is what strengthens a team. It also provides flexibility. In the case of New York, the progression of Sean Davis and Tyler Adams compelled Marsch to trade Dax McCarty to Chicago in preseason. The sight of young players breaking through gives the coach an emotional boost as well.
"There's a sense of pride and a sense of relief and a sense that we're doing our job the right way if we give these opportunities and if they succeed in doing so," Marsch said.
And if they don't?
"Then we have to look at ways to help them, to look at video, to look more carefully at things, to give them little tips to feed into who they are. Then you put into practice at training every day. You'll see how they do in the week and then you'll make a decision at the end of the week. Is it time for them to be back out there again or do want to look at something else? A lot of these guys have shown in training that they're ready. That's the basis of how they get opportunities."
Of course, Pareja and Marsch are managing teams that have had considerable success in recent years. Between them they've won three trophies in the past two seasons. For a manager of a struggling team, the pressure to get results can cause a fit of conservatism to dominate their thinking. The impulse to go with experienced players is often the result. But Pareja is adamant that the positives of going young, provided it's done correctly, outweigh the negatives.
"That's what I think this country needs, that the kids play and get experience," Pareja said. "I don't think there's enough of that. I think we hesitate. This year, I see it much more. But it's still the urgency to win is bigger and is a major feeling. I feel it, too. That's probably the reason."
For Marsch and Pareja, it's the reason for their success as well.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.