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.
This would more closely mimic the system employed in Europe, where it is customary for younger prospects to spend the majority of their time with reserve teams that are run by the top-level clubs but play in lower pro divisions.
The lower-tier teams provide an ideal venue for young prospects to get significant minutes in games. American Terrence Boyd, for example, has played in 63 games for Borussia Dortmund’s reserve team over the past two seasons in Germany. At age 21, he has yet to make his debut for Dortmund’s first team, but he started in a recent friendly for the U.S. national team under Klinsmann.
The goal is to “deal with the transition time from youth soccer to first-team soccer” more effectively, Durbin said.
Currently, the lower-tier leagues operate independently of MLS, though some clubs, such as D.C. United, have loaned players to NASL or USL teams. United midfielder Conor Shanosky, a homegrown player who has played for the U.S. under-20 team, is on a season-long loan to the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the NASL, while third-string goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra went on a one-month loan to the Charleston Battery of the USL.
“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.”
As it stands, many homegrown MLS players are languishing on the bench during vital developmental stages. Of the 27 homegrown players without a league appearance in the last season-plus, 20 are under the age of 21.
Former U.S. national team coach and current L.A. Galaxy boss Bruce Arena said it’s an issue that must be sorted.
“We’re inefficient in how we allocate resources in the academy,” Arena said. “There’s a likely argument where you can say we have improved the ability to move kids to the age of 17 or 18. Where do they go from there? It’s a black hole. It’s insane. We should have a USL-type of league [to develop players]. Right now, the kids would be better off going to college, and then we are back to the same thing again.”
Said Klinsmann: “We need to find a tier-driven environment because we need to give a lot of the younger players the opportunity to get enough games per year. . . . It’s really worth it to get everybody at the same table sooner or later and discuss all those topics.”
Staff writer Steven Goff contributed to this report.