Stejskal: MLS clubs competing head-to-head for academy talent far from home

Luchi Gonzalez talking to his FC Dallas team at the 2018 GA Cup | Demitrius Omphroy

Sporting Kansas City, FC Dallas and a few other clubs have been recruiting out-of-territory players to their academies for several years, but both Parry and Gonzalez said the competition has increased recently. That’s partially due to MLS last year eliminating the cap on how many out-of-territory players could be in a club’s system. Prior to the change, teams in MLS’s biggest markets could only have a maximum of two out-of-area players in their academy, while smaller market clubs like SKC could have up to eight.

With that restriction gone, more teams are now working their way into open areas like North Carolina. That’s created some recruiting wars among MLS rivals. Parry said SKC recently lost out to Atlanta on a prospect from South Florida and Gonzalez said Dallas often compete with Kansas City and Atlanta for out-of-territory prospects.

The race for unclaimed academy talent has prompted some clubs to increase the resources they’re pouring into scouting. Kansas City have a network of six freelance scouts located around the country. They’re regularly in touch with Parry and travel to major tournaments to identify talent. Dallas have affiliate clubs in El Paso, McAllen and Tyler, Texas and in Eastern Tennessee that they use as feeders for their main academy. As of this year, they also have two full-time youth scouts that search around Dallas and in unclaimed areas for academy talent.

The recruitment process is different for each team, but they all share the same basic characteristics. Clubs identify potential academy players through their scouting networks and then they reach out to the player and his family. They pitch the prospects on their facilities, the pathway to the pros, the way they teach and view the game, their logistics for living and schooling arrangements. In some cases, they invite the player to come in for a trial. In others, the player is offered a spot without even having to train with the team.

Depending on the club and the player’s individual situation, out-of-territory players that move to MLS academies either come with their entire family, live with a local host family or are put up in a dorm or apartment with other academy players.

The bulk of out-of-territory players recruited to an MLS club’s academy won’t ever sign a Homegrown deal like Lindsey or Busio, but the practice does lead to generally positive outcomes. For MLS teams, recruiting players from outside of their Homegrown territory can lead to a better, more talented youth setup. For players, it allows more choice, though it does come with a major geographical move and offers no guarantees that they’ll stay with their new club for more than one Development Academy season.

But Parry and Gonzalez think it’d be better for everyone if the system is allowed to open up even more. Both emphasized that they’re committed to youth players in their own markets, but both indicated that they’d like to see Homegrown territories eliminated entirely. That’d create an open recruitment environment in which players could have complete freedom to join the club of their choice and would allow teams to openly recruit in the backyard of other MLS clubs. That’s not allowedin the current setup, under which outside teams must first gain permission from the local club before recruiting a player who lives in the local club’s territory. 

“I think if you have a kid and you live in, say, New York City and you feel that Kansas City or Atlanta is a better opportunity for him to develop as a player, you as a parent should be able to send your kid wherever you want to go,” said Parry. “For me, it’s plain and simple.”

Parry and Gonzalez both feel that the league is heading in that direction.

“I think everybody at MLS, all the academy directors, all my colleagues – unless they’re lying to my face –  they all say the same thing: they want open territories,” said Parry. “And I think it’s coming. We keep talking about it, but that’s our hope and we would love for the territories to be open.”

“If you go to Holland, [Amsterdam-based] Ajax have talent identification centers and youth programs in Utrecht, in Feyenoord, in Alkmaar,” added Gonzalez. “Ajax is going to do whatever they need in the whole country, which is a small country, but they’ll do what they need to get the top talent. That’s their mentality. The US is big, it’s spread out, it’s regional. OK. We’ve got these Homegrown rules. Great. But I do see in the future it’ll be more open and the best academies need to make sure they’re doing things well on and off the field to attract the best talent. I think that will make everybody better.”