With expansion one of Major League Soccer's highest priorities these days, it has become very clear that the league must find new sources of talent to stock the league's rosters. Scouts have begun scouring the globe, and coaches have even begun taking longer looks at the USL for talent.
As promising as these developments are, there is perhaps no more important program for stocking the league's talent pool than its two-year-old player development initiative, which has been designed specifically to push teams to develop and sign their own homegrown talent.
This year was the first in which MLS teams have been eligible to start signing homegrown talent directly to their own rosters from their youth academies, and while there has yet to be a single player signed through the program this year, there is a belief that the program could be ready to bear fruit in 2009.
"I do believe in the next year or two you will start to see the benefits of the program," said Todd Durbin, MLS executive vice-president of player relations and competition. "I think it's off to an unbelievable start. You're talking about teams that weren't in this area of the business and are really starting from scratch, who have now established programs.
"If you look around and see what we have achieved, especially with U.S. Soccer and the Development Academy system, I think it 's pretty amazing."
Established after the 2006 season, the player development initiatives were set up to encourage MLS teams to start their own high-quality youth academy programs, with the benefit being that teams could sign players from those programs. There was some belief that this would lead to a rush of young players filling MLS rosters, but that has been far from the case. In fact, only Chivas USA has signed a former Academy player, Gerson Mayen, but he was signed via a discovery option and was not actually a graduate of the academy program.
So why has there been a delay in the integration of academy graduates into MLS rosters? Some teams point to the league's rules regarding player signings as being too restrictive. Rules currently limit teams to signing one academy graduate to a Generation adidas contract every three years (unless the player graduates from the program sooner), and also prevents teams from signing players younger than 20 to developmental contracts. The first rule means that, theoretically, a team could be prevented from signing a high-level academy graduate because its Generation adidas slot is already occupied.
It is that scenario that has kept New York Red Bulls head coach Juan Carlos Osorio from signing any of the high-profile players that have recently passed through the Red Bulls Academy program.
"The rule says that once we sign one of those players, basically we are closing the door to everybody else," Osorio said. "We try to make sure that, whoever we sign, we absolutely think that he is special because we, as a coaching staff, don't want to fail as far as that.
"We are probably overcautious about the way we carry the selection and identify who the player might be. If we were allowed to sign two or three players for the rest of the year then that would be a different story because then we can have those players here, they can play in reserves and then there's no problem.
"When there's no way to come back once you make the decision, we need to make sure that we make the right decision. So far, if I'm honest, there has not been one player that we are absolutely convinced that 'This is the one.'"
The Houston Dynamo has found itself in a similar situation. The defending MLS champions have a successful academy team program, with several quality prospects, but have yet to find a player they feel should make the jump to the senior team.
"If we can ever sign a kid out of our system, that's going to be huge, so we don't want to rush and make the wrong decisions," said Chris Canetti, chief operating officer of the Dynamo. "We have a real desire to sign a player because the credibility it will bring to the program will be great, but the way the setup is now, we can't bring in young players through a developmental roster spot, which would probably be a more ideal situation.
"We would like to bring kids in on a developmental program, because it's like an internship," Canetti said. "You don't know what you don't know until you're in the professional atmosphere and play against pros. We realize the decisions players have to make with regard to choosing between college and potentially signing a developmental deal, so we're trying to move things along within the current rules."
As more academy standouts become well-known to fans and the public, the call for seeing these players graduate to the senior team becomes louder. This is already the case in New York, where well-known Red Bulls Academy players such as Matt Kassel and Johnny Exantus have drawn considerable attention.
Osorio is careful to point out that people demanding academy players join senior teams should realize that the jump from youth soccer to the pros is a steep one.
"These kids are coming from the academy," Osorio said. "They're not playing second division; they're not playing against professional opposition. It's one thing that they go and play well for us [in the academy], and I can understand that and am very pleased for that, but it is a huge jump going from the academy to the first team.
"It's very difficult to judge and assess those kids on how they would do at the level we are playing unless they play at that level, and it's impossible to do that."
Help could be on the way. According to Durbin, the league has been carefully monitoring the progress of the academy system and is thoroughly analyzing the rules and setup in order to find the best way to improve it. This should lead to tweaking some of the very rules that might have kept teams from really diving into the signing of academy players.
"We are examining the rules, and I do believe that we'll be making some adjustments in the offseason to address some of these concerns," said Durbin, who also sounded confident that MLS should start seeing academy graduates joining senior teams very soon.
"I do believe that you will see a pick-up of signing players out of our academies in the offseason and into 2009."
That is music to the ears of MLS teams and fans, because whether it starts next week or next year, MLS needs its academies to start producing talent to keep up with demand. MLS expansion won't wait, and the league's talent pool is in dire need of fresh blood.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.