Ricardo Pepi (Augsburg), storming Europe and symbol of the progress of American training


“Robert Lewandowski is one of the best strikers in the world, and I like to compare myself to him”. This little sentence, uttered by Ricardo Pepi at the time of his transfer to Augsburg on January 3, perfectly sums up the limitless ambition of the new generation formed in MLS. It must be said that the examples of success in Europe continue to accumulate, such as the Canadian Alphonso Davies, trained at the Whitecaps in Vancouver before becoming essential at Bayern Munich, Brenden Aaronson, prodigy of the Philadelphia academy and now a major player for RB Salzburg, or Juventus midfielder Weston McKennie, trained as Pepi at FC Dallas.

New academic path

“People’s perception has changed on MLS. We have definitely entered the global transfer concert and this is just the beginning”, explains Frédéric Lipka. Former coach of Racing Club de France then director of the Le Havre training center from 2008 to 2011, the Frenchman was recruited by MLS in 2013 for his expertise in pre-training and training. “A cultural switch has taken place in the United States. MLS realized it couldn’t grow based on the draft system alone, with players graduating from college at 22 or 23. As much as it can work in the NBA, as much in football, young people must be ready for the high level much earlier”.

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Faced with this observation, the league has invested heavily in a new academic course called MLS Next. “We have built a national competition system that includes pre-training and training with 133 academies and independent clubs from U13 to U19”, details the one who is technical director of youth development for MLS.

A third division professional league

The MLS projects do not stop there since the American league announced at the beginning of December the launch of a new third division professional competition, MLS Next Pro, which will serve as a bridge for young players between the academies and the MLS. The first season, scheduled for March, will feature 20 league reserve teams as well as an independent club, Rochester NY FC, one of whose owners is Leicester striker Jamie Vardy. “We must offer young people a consistent project between training and the professional world so that they are ready to play at the best level when they are called upon”, summarizes Lipka.

The launch of MLS Next Pro also responds to a broader objective, that of developing professional football throughout the country by welcoming numerous independent teams. “We are not an inbred league, we want to open MLS Next Pro to many local clubs all over the United States. The long-term objective is to have a system of regional divisions so as not to have to cross the whole country to play a match”.

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“Offering a high-level competition program is one of the essential pillars for the success of young people, in the same way as a professional environment and infrastructure, the quality of scouting and the training of coaches”. On this last point, MLS and the French Football Federation entered into a partnership in 2013 to support MLS academy coaches. “The FFF trains around twenty coaches a year on a course between Clairefontaine and the United States. They are taught how to develop better players on the field and integrate them into a return on investment sports policy”.

The choice of player trading

Still considered in France as a weak league for players at the end of their career, the MLS nevertheless looks more and more like Ligue 1, “a league of talents” which trains but also buys players with high potential in the hope of making a plus. resale value. “When I signed with New York City FC six years ago, I would say there were one-third very good players for two-thirds average. Today is very strong on all lines”, confided to us the Franco-Luxembourgish defender Maxime Chanot on January 2. “I played with Lampard, Pirlo and Villa. Today the club and the league are investing in younger players, often from South America”.

Among these, the former Atlanta United player trained in Paraguay Miguel Almiron was recruited by Newcastle for 24 million euros in 2019, the Argentinian midfielder Gonzalo Martinez left for Saudi Arabia for 15 million the following year. Last season’s top scorer, NYCFC’s Argentinian Valentin Castellanos, is also expected to leave the United States for a substantial sum this winter. Trained in Uruguay, he is notably on the shelves of Olympique de Marseille.

Renegotiated TV rights

Ambitious on the transfer market, MLS is struggling to establish itself in the hyper-competitive environment of American professional sport. The contract for his TV rights is currently starving, around 80 million euros per year, very far from the behemoths of the NFL (nearly 10 billion per season from 2023) or the NBA (2 billion currently) . “Our TV ratings are improving and the renegotiation of the contract is coming this year. This will be a determining factor in our development”, says Lipka, convinced that the next increase in rights will allow the league to offer better salaries to players.

The American media evoke a sum of between 180 and 270 million euros per season from 2023. “The problem we still have here is that the best athletes choose sports other than football. You can’t change a culture overnight, but it is happening thanks to the successes of our players in Europe and those of the national team. The United States is going to be a great soccer nation.”

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