A youth-focused philosophy
If the MLS has long been considered a league of veterans where the great European players offer themselves a jubilee by living the American dream, the truth today is very different. Major League Soccer primarily advocates the development of young players, through the creation of two secondary leagues: the MLS Next founded in 2020 for the academies and the hopeful teams (13-19 years old) of the professional franchises, and the MLS Next PRO, recently created in 2021, serving as a semi-pro league to develop young players (+20 years old) deemed still too frail for the high level. The first season in its history will take place next March with several teams affiliated with MLS franchises, allowing them to benefit from a reserve team.
“MLS is training more and more and better and better in view of the 2026 World Cup at home and inevitably that attracts the eye of European clubs. The level of the championship increases, that of the defenses also which means that the young people who come out there are taken more seriously. » precise Arnaud Salas, journalist specializing in MLS, contacted by The Team.
The Football section of the NCAA, the American university championship, is also developing in parallel with the MLS and is therefore participating in the rejuvenation of the American football league and in this common project for the development of young athletes. Each year there is a SuperDraft, divided into three rounds: the worst franchises select the best teams before, with the aim of leaving the best college players to the struggling MLS teams. The faculty of Saint Louis is renowned in the United States for not having a section devoted to US football, preferring to offer a high-performance and rigorous program in football (soccer). It is also the most successful university in NCAA Soccer with 10 titles won for its Billikens team.
The salary system of the American leagues imposes types of contract: in MLS, there are contractual statuses that facilitate the emergence and integration of young players into the workforce. The contracts homegrown that teams can offer to young people from their academy, avoid players having to go through the SuperDraft process. Since 2012, MLS has also changed the rules regarding contracts designated by putting in place special clauses for players under 23, 21 and 20 years old.
To attract the eyes of the Old Continent, the MLS had to grasp the ins and outs of European football, in a country largely dominated by the quartet: basketball, US football, baseball and hockey.
Asked by The Team, Fleck Scout, specialist in MLS and scouting of young players, recalls an important historical fact about the first hours of MLS: “The league was created in a hurry to host the 1994 World Cup because FIFA set the condition of having a championship. With players like Nesta, Beckham, Henry, Zlatan, today the MLS has assimilated this European know-how thanks to foreign actors present in the staffs and the management of the franchises. » he points out, before adding that « the infrastructures in MLS are on average much better than in France » – a major asset for the development of players.
“We have to understand what England, Germany and Spain are doing in Europe, then Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in South America”
The ambassador of this development of the MLS in Europe is the German coach Jürgen Klinsman, coach of the American national team between 2011 and 2016, greatly contributed to the development of the MLS teams, by establishing a Europeanized vision of football: “We have to understand what England, Germany and Spain are doing in Europe, then Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in South America. Our references are international. » affirmed the German technician to ESPN, in 2016.
Developing young players and supporting them in their professional journey, an objective that the former Bayern player was already aiming for in 2016 so that MLS can continue and evolve in the right direction: “We see a lot of young players develop at a specific point in their career. Our job now will be to help them build themselves as a professional player,” Klinsmann continued in the columns of ESPN: “You should never abandon players because they are going through a few complicated months. We have to help them through these bad times. It doesn’t matter the environment in their club. »
German coach Jürgen Klinsmann was the United States coach from 2011 to 2016 before returning to the European benches. (S. Mantey/The Team)
Based on the American continent, the MLS has also turned to South America in order to increase its attractiveness, by bringing back Brazilian, Uruguayan and Argentinian players… This marriage is a success for both parties: the players South Americans continue their development without pressure before joining Europe, while MLS improves its tactical and technical knowledge with profiles of young players different from Canadians and Americans. “MLS now has a real South American pool which represents for these players a natural gateway to Europe which can sometimes be too complicated for some young players. It’s a good stage of development. » confirms Fleck Scout, who cites as an example the Argentinian striker Valentín Castellanos (23), top scorer in MLS in 2021 with 19 goals, or even the Uruguayan Facundo Torres (21) who has just joined Orlando City.
The Bundesliga at the forefront
Influenced by German coach Jürgen Klinsmann and strong from the explosions of Alphonso Davies at Bayern and Giovanni Reyna at Dortmund, the Bundesliga has attracted many nuggets from MLS, even recently during the winter transfer window. Ricardo Pepi signed in Augsburg for 17 M€, a record transfer for the German club. Midfielder Kevin Paredes has left DC United for Wolfsburg and defender Justin Che has joined compatriot Chris Richards at Hoffenheim. Atlanta left-back George Bello signed up with Arminia Bielefield in the final hours of the transfer window. They join a long list of former MLS residents now in the Bundesliga: Tyler Booth (Bayern), Joe Scally (Mönchengladbach), Caden Clark (Leipzig) and Tyler Adams (Leipzig).
MLS takes advantage of this German attractiveness, accentuated by the Red Bull network (Salzburg, Leipzig, New York, etc.) and the partnership between FC Dallas and Bayern, to open up to other European championships. Italy, where Weston Mckennie (Juve) and Bryan Reynolds (AS Roma) play, is starting to see the potential of MLS: the American owners of Venice have campaigned for the signings of Gianluca Busio and Tanner Tessmann in the Venetian club the last summer. Great Britain, carried by the Emirati group City Football Group owning Manchester City, New York City FC and Melbourne FC, is also embarking on the conquest of young Americans like Daryl Dike, transferred to West Bromwich Albion this winter, or James Sands at Glasgow Rangers in Scotland. Belgium and the Netherlands are also active on the American market with the recent arrivals of Tajon Buchannan and Mauricio Cuevas in Bruges, as well as Cole Basset in Feyenoord.
Giovanni Reyna, one of the faces of the young American generation in the Bundesliga, in Dortmund in 2021. (Tim Groothuis/WITTERS/PRESSE SPORTS/Presse Sports)
« Last winter, seven players were sold or loaned from MLS to Europe, ten left this summer and I counted eleven during this winter transfer window, including Matt Turner who will join Arsenal. » to analyse Arnaud Salas, before continuing: « It clearly demonstrates a desire to recruit in Europe and that MLS players, mainly young Americans and Canadians, want to evolve in a major championship in view of playing for their selection in 2026 » he concludes.
Some franchises, such as Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas, DC United, base their internal policy on the training, recruitment and development of young players, which subsequently allows them to shine in Europe and confirm the potential of MLS in the international spotlight.