Forget about expansion, put salary increase to the side for now, and lets talk about the lack of consistency among young stars in Major League Soccer. By young stars, I am referring to players that became a big playmaker before the age of 23.
Over the last few years, MLS has taken multiple steps to guarantee that it is producing quality youngsters. Every team has its academies and they can sign amateurs as Homegrown Players.
The MLS combine (currently taking place in Florida) and SuperDraft allow late-bloomers (players that couldn’t make the jump straight out of high school and had to go to college in order to improve their skills) another chance at a professional career.
And not too long ago, MLS teams started to affiliate themselves with USL sides in order to make sure players that can’t get minutes at the highest level get some playing time in order to keep improving.
And so far all these initiatives seem to be working.
This offseason alone, New York Red Bulls have signed over three Homegrown Players. The likes of Gyasi Zardes and Cyle Larin proved that their time playing at the collegiate level has molded them into good professionals. We’ve yet to see the affiliation between MLS and USL yield great results in form of an explosive young talent, but it’s only a matter of time.
Now that it has been proven that MLS is capable of producing talents that can stand out among its seasoned veterans, it is time to dive deep into the issue at hand; the lack of consistency among these young promising star.
One and a half years ago, I drank the Zardes Kool-Aid and declared the young Galaxy striker “the real deal.” The attributes Zardes brought to the table, coupled with his production at that point in the season (six goals and an assist in eight starts. He finished the 2014 season with 17 total goals) made me almost certain that he was the first top-class talent MLS ever produced.
I thought Zardes, in his second professional season, had learnt the tricks and secrets of the professional game. I was almost certain he would burst onto the scene, crushing records (maybe breaking the league’s 27-goal record) on his way to garnering interests from clubs like Everton, Stoke, and maybe even the likes of Valencia and Monaco.
Fast-forward to the end of 2015, and the club pursuing Zardes’ signature is Championship side Reading FC. The Championship is a very good league that has produced better players than MLS has right now, for example, Jamie Vardy and Odion Ighalo. But, it looked like Zardes was destined for something bigger.
However, his inability to consistently produced as shown that he might just be all hype. In 2015, Zardes spent most of his minutes on the flanks as Robbie Keane, Alan Gordon and Giovani dos Santos were deployed up top. Coming off a 16-goal regular season, the tall forward only managed six goals.
Because MLS fans are quick to jump to the defense of their league and players, it is crucial to point out that there are multiple inconsistent young talents in the league.
Jack McInerney, Dillon Powers, Darlington Nagbe, Walker Zimmerman, Juan Agudelo, Diego Fagundez, Tesho Akindele, Jose Villarreal, Darren Mattocks, etc. are all example of MLS young players that have, at some point in their young careers, failed to produce at a steady rate.
The second half of 2016 was very good for Nagbe, but the creative midfielder has been unable to string together extremely impressive seasons since his his rookie year. He looks really good in some games and then just disappears for a couple of games. His dribbling and ability to use his body to protect the ball draws the oohs and aahs from the fans in attendance, but besides that, he doesn’t consistently affect the game like his teammate Diego Valeri.
In fact, the five-year veteran’s best position is still up for debate. Most pundit agree that he is not a box-to-box midfielder, but can’t seem to decide whether or not he is a No. 10 or a winger?
Agudelo is a player with a lot of potential. We’ve heard that for years. He always finds ways to end up on highlight reels with spectacular goals like this …
— NewEnglandRevolution (@NERevolution) January 7, 2016
And this …
Spectacular backheel flick by Juan Agudelo! (Yes, the ball crossed the goal line) (Vine by MLS Edits) https://t.co/CRKqwI0Y51
— hunter bue (@hunterbue) October 18, 2015
And this …
And this …
You get the point.
It feels like Agudelo has been around for 10 years. He has been a professional since 2010 when he broke into the New York Red Bulls side as a 17-year-old. But since then, the U.SMNT forward has played for five clubs, excluding Stoke City because he never received a work permit to play for the English side.
A more worrisome stat is the fact that the highly rated striker has never hit double digit in scoring. The most he’s ever scored in a calendar year is nine goals in 2013 (2 for Chivas USA and seven for New England Revolution).
In that same year, another young forward named Jack McInerney was making USMNT and MLS supporters salivate by scoring 10 goals in his first 14 games. There was nothing really special about McInerney, but he was scoring goals and the poacher seemed untouchable. That is until the goals dried up.
In his next 17 games, he would only find the back of the net twice. And things got worst for him as the Philadelphia Union traded him early in the 2014 season. Since then, his playing time has been limited, he has donned the jersey’s of two clubs and has scored 14 times.
And now there are reports that he has signed for his third team in as many years.
All the aforementioned players all share the same story. They bust onto the scene and a season after that they underwhelm and never fully live up to expectation.
However, there have been a few exceptions. Former LA Galaxy center back Omar Gonzalez was extremely consistent season after season. Although he never took a step further to become a world-class center back.
Columbus Crew’s Ethan Finley, Vancouver Whitecaps’ Matias Laba and FC Dallas’ Fabian Castillo are players that have made it a routine to produce constantly.
But why can’t most promising MLS youngsters frequently perform at the highest level?
There are multiple answers to that question. It could be the coaching, the level of training and competition, lack of trust that eventually leads to trades, etc.
In Zardes’ case, some of the blame has to be placed on Bruce Arena’s shoulders. This isn’t an attempt to undermine the man that is arguably the greatest coach in MLS history. But as long as Zardes continues to play out wide, the forward will most likely never become the scoring threat that we all know he is capable of being.
It is obvious that Zardes doesn’t like playing out wide. He is subpar with crossing the ball, his first touch lets him down too many times, he isn’t a player that can easily lose a top fullback in one-on-one situations, and he just doesn’t know how to score from a wide position.
Everytime he is out wide, Zardes gives it his all, but he doesn’t look like he belongs in that position.
Whatever the reason behind the lack of consistency is, MLS youngsters, especially the ones that are preparing to enter the league in 2016, have to figure out a way to combat it.
In a sport that’s very impatient and unforgiving, consistent is key. MLS is playing catch-up with the rest of the world, which is why it is crucial that the league develop young players that can compete at the highest level regularly.
That is the fastest way to win over the rest of the world. Selling capable young players to the top five leagues will raise lots of eyebrows and make people interested in MLS.
And foreign clubs usually shop for young players when they look for reinforcements outside their league. They want players like Oscar, Anthony Martial, Felipe Anderson, etc., that they can fully develop and become long term employees or bargaining chips in the foreseeable future.
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