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Head abroad or sign with MLS? The answer for young Americans is elusive

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Go East (or South), Young Man

MLS: Portland Timbers at New York Red Bulls Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

A question that is almost as old as time - should young American players sign with MLS or go abroad? It was a topic of conversation often when Jurgen Klinsmann was manager of the USMNT where it was a low simmering controversy throughout his tenure. It also certainly boiled over after the USMNT failed to reach the World Cup as exemplified by Jermaine Jones going in on Jordan Morris:

More nuanced opinions about the topic might point out that this question should be answered by recognizing that players should do whatever is best for their specific situation and that they should find playing time regardless of where they go. Indeed, Europe and Mexico may offer a higher level of talent and better coaching, but without playing time youngsters can hardly be assured that their skills will develop just by the mere fact that they are on the roster of a non-MLS team.

Still, many are willing to take that risk. Recently a wave of youngsters have elected not to follow Morris’ lead. Weston McKinney, Keaton Parks, Shaq Moore, Chris Gloster, and Jonathan Klinsmann have decided to bypass MLS in favor of playing in Europe. At this point he is almost a veteran journeyman, but 22 year-old Rubio Rubin started his pro career in Europe and then signed for Club Tijuana after receiving interest from MLS teams following the USMNT January camp.

If there is one reason why so many promising teenage Americans are electing to go to Europe or see Mexico as an option rather than try and earn playing time in MLS, it is neatly summed up in this tidy chart:

There are a maximum of 3,060 minutes a player can record in an MLS season - only one team exceeded that number with their entire roster in 2017 for U-21 players. While that seems troubling and indicates that managers are reluctant to give minutes to young players, including talent outside of Canada and the US tells something of a different story. Including Anton Walkes for Atlanta United would push them to 1,710 minutes and Jack Harrison at NYCFC would move them to 3,122 minutes. So while the chart is telling, it doesn’t necessarily show that MLS managers are averse to giving young players minutes.

A recent example of how this is influencing players is shown by Josh Sargent who elected to delay signing a professional contract until his 18th birthday - a sacrifice he had to make due to European Union immigration regulations. The striker would have been eligible to sign with Sporting Kansas City as a homegrown in MLS, however with Dom Dwyer on the team it looked like Sargent would be fighting for minutes with SKC. Ultimately Dwyer was traded to Orlando City and Diego Rubio, who has never been all that promising and seems destined to be replaced, has been given the starting job.

Werder Bremen might have been the best choice for Sargent, but he will still have to prove to his coaches that he should start for the team. The choice American youngsters seems to have is - try to stay in MLS and compete for playing time against international and domestic players - or be an international player abroad and try and compete for playing time against international and domestic players. Neither situation is a clear path to competitive minutes but one could have a much greater payoff albeit with a much greater risk involved. Andrew Carleton, for example, has watched as his US U-17 teammate Tim Weah made his debut in Europe. Atlanta United gave minutes to Brandon Vazquez last season, but Carleton has seen just one minute in two games in 2018 for his club so far this year.

Still, not all opportunities are created equally. While it is impressive that Weah is seeing the field for Paris Saint-Germain, it is perhaps more impressive that the New York Red Bulls have shipped off Felipe and Sacha Kljestan in order to give the midfield over to Tyler Adams and Sean Davis. Adams helped New York completely shut down a very talented Club Tijuana team in Concacaf Champions League and seems poised to make an impact for the USMNT - and he did it without having to move abroad. Jordan Morris’ teammate Cristian Roldan similarly seems set to be a fixture for the USMNT and helps anchor a team alongside Uruguayan national team player Nicolas Lodeiro despite not having been groomed in a German academy.

Oddly MLS seems to be ineffective at developing young American players to sell to clubs internationally. Between wanting to keep interest in the league by attracting more developed players and a rule that was only changed this year that stopped teams from getting full transfer fees for Homegrown players, MLS is only now - in it’s 23rd season - seeing the value in developing players to sell abroad. This has been much to the league’s detriment as Will Parchman noted about the habit in this pithy and extremely accurate tweet:

This exemplifies MLS practices that exist to protect owners but are incongruous to how soccer has developed in other countries where selling young players and treating them as a resource is standard practice. That may be finally changing in what is a bit of a shocking admission from MLS Commissioner Don Garber from a recent interview with Philly.com’s Jonathan Tannenwald:

“Is the principle of selling more of a virtue to you now than it used to be?

Yes.”

That one word probably speaks volumes about why there has been such a lack of minutes given to young American players in MLS.

In the end though, the deeply unsatisfying answer to the question of if players should stay in MLS or go abroad is - there is no one right answer. Players all develop at different rates and will succeed or fail in different conditions that are subjective to their particular situations. Christian Pulisic, the current best American player, managed to go abroad and develop in a German academy while still finding himself fighting for playing time against the likes of Marco Reus.

Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, the best players of the last generation, followed a different path. Donovan thrived in MLS and with the national team while floundering abroad as his counterpart Dempsey went from college to MLS to a successful career in Europe and is now back in MLS. As their career paths illustrated, there is no question that the quality of training and competition is higher in Europe or Mexico, but a player needs to be comfortable in the situation he finds himself in and have his eyes open to the challenges and difficulties that playing abroad presents.

The debate being focused on individual player decisions is probably not as consequential as resolving pay to play, solidarity payments, and giving MLS teams incentives to play their kids when it comes to finding the best conditions for players to reach their full potential. These are deeper and thornier systemic issues that have a greater impact on player development as a whole and focusing on individual choices tends to miss the forest for the trees leading to conclusions based on limited successes or failures. That said, the emergence of players like Roldan and Adams getting big minutes for MLS teams is encouraging, almost as encouraging as the recent wave of players electing to start their careers abroad.