Complexities In U.S. Youth Development Structure At Heart Of Klinsmann/MLS Debate


Staff Writer

About a month ago, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber went on a public tirade against Jurgen Klinsmann. Garber was upset about comments Klinsmann had made about the league, and urged the USMNT head coach to support MLS’s vision for growth. Notably, Klinsmann had remarked on the form of Michael Bradley, which he felt had slipped since the midfielder left Serie A for MLS.

Now, Jeffrey Carlisle is reporting that Klinsmann has been nudging not just star players, but youth prospects in MLS academies, to explore their options in Europe. Several MLS owners are “irate” with Klinsmann for advising that young players bypass the domestic league entirely.

It is understandable that MLS would be upset about academy products never seeing the field. Academies are an investment, and the ideal is for that investment to eventually pay off via an impact on the field. The players capable of going to Europe are also the ones most prized by MLS clubs, furthering their frustration. But in most countries, clubs would be compensated when their youth talent goes elsewhere. In the U.S., a couple of forces make it more difficult for clubs to receive financial rewards for their youth development.

Firstly, NCAA eligibility rules prevent players from being paid for their play, by anyone. MLS clubs can’t pay the college players who are in their academies without those players losing their scholarships. Furthermore, the league can’t pay 16 and 17-year-olds who might go on to earn a college scholarship.

Even at the level of an MLS academy, the majority of players are not going to be able to make a significant career out of playing soccer professionally. A college scholarship is the most important thing many will get out of playing soccer, and even for successful players, it is a good fallback option. The low salaries for most MLS players leave them needing jobs after their playing careers. A talent like Harrison Shipp, who might win Rookie of the Year, spent four years at Notre Dame before going pro.

So where, in other countries, players are signed to professional contracts from a young age, MLS academy products are not. And it’s worth noting that MLS saves some money by not paying them under this arrangement. But when a high profile foreign team comes calling, MLS doesn’t get a transfer fee when their un-contracted academy prospects sign elsewhere. Real Salt Lake won’t see a dime from Manchester United, who just signed 17-year-old Josh Doughty from RSL’s academy. If Jordan Morris, who Klinsmann has brought to Europe twice with the national team, were to sign elsewhere, the Sounders would get nothing from it.

Even with the NCAA preventing MLS clubs from getting their academy players under contract, there are rules in place to reward academies and other such sides. Clubs who play a part in a player’s development between the ages of 12 and 23 are entitled to up to five percent of his future transfer fees, under article 21 of FIFA’s transfer regulations. If Morris signs in Europe and were to one day be sold for the $4 million that DeAndre Yedlin was sold for, the Sounders could in theory pocket up to $200,000.

But the Sounders can’t get that sort of money from a future sale, for Morris or any other player they’ve developed. The USSF does not follow FIFA’s regulations in providing solidarity payments to developmental sides when one of their players is sold. U.S. law, it seems, prevents youth clubs from profiting off of foreign transactions. In the past, this quirk in the rules has worked in MLS’s favor, as the league hasn’t had to share transfer fees with the amateur clubs who helped to produce players like Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard. But as the league takes an increasing role in the development of youth players, it may not get its just rewards.

There appears to be no easy solution to the conflict between MLS and Jurgen Klinsmann. The USMNT coach has every right to advise American players on what he feels is best for their careers, and it’s clear that Klinsmann believes Europe is best. Owners rightly frustrated by a system in which outside forces make it more difficult for the league’s investment in development to pay off financially. But until MLS can provide more of its academy players a worthwhile professional alternative to college, the league’s problems are going to continue.



  • Anthony

    Dave, you didn’t touch on this but let’s not forget the total hypocrisy of MLS crying about compensation for “their youth players” when MLS academies routinely poach youth players from other youth systems without compensating them…typical MLS caring only about themselves and their money and not the system as a whole.

    • Ryan Brister

      Those youth systems are hurt by the same dumb NCAA restrictions, and yes, MLS benefits when it doesn’t have to pay a transfer fee for those kids. I think MLS understands that poaching will happen, but they’re frustrated when it seems like USSF’s technical director is actively working against the domestic league’s developmental interests.

      • that’s MLS fault & the board of US soccer’s fault, fix the system & it all falls into place. Let’s stop with the Jurgen is working against the domestic league when he’s done more for it by having MLS players on the USMNT & even showing love to NASL by bringing Ibarra. The narrative in this country set forth by MLS/SUM is disgusting.

  • Excellent article, now let’s move on to the biggest problem of all > MLS & the current system we are under that causes all these problems. US Soccer is currently acting as a branch of SUM/MLS which is why we are having all these issues with our USMNT & it’s coach > who i might add is just trying to do the best for the Team & trying to place youth players in the best position to succeed. We have a huge conflict of interest in all this & it needs to be fixed for the benefit of all of US Soccer not just SUM /MLS !

  • Anthony M.

    If this is the case than Klinnsmann needs to learn how to work within the US system to improve the quality. He constantly puts down how we do things and offers little other than saying Europe does it better. He needs to be more productive and having players play in the US will not only help young players get more on field time but also help them potentially make a career in MLS.

  • First things first – The comment box does not work very well on Google Chrome, so the web editor will have to redo the CSS for Browser cross-compatibility.

    Let me correct a few things here:

    1) The statement that Real Salt Lake will not get a dime from the transfer of Josh Doughty, is not correct – They can and likely will. All transfers of such youths are subject to TRAINING COMPENSATION and SOLIDARITY COMPENSATION. It is a very open and shut matter, and I have resolved such matters before involving foreign clubs between two continents.

    2) The transfer of Josh Doughty (like many others) could likely contravene the transfer of minors. UNLESS the youth is turning 18 very soon (i.e. within this calendar year), the transfer can be stopped dead in its tracks. Players get messed about by clubs too, and clubs (and agents) are not always good actors, so the transfer of young players has to be monitored. I am speaking honestly on this. FIFA rules are explicit – International transfers of players are only permitted if the player is over the age of 18 AND the player must live within 50km of the border of the EU nation. The USSF can simply refuse to release the ITC, and raise a fuss. The way clubs get around this by sending the minors to their academies (an amateur transfer), but even Barcelona got in trouble for this. If this player has bona fide family living near Manchester, then that would be the justification, but the rule is clear, he must be relocating for ‘non-footballing’ reasons. Hence the transfer of young talents often come with very long interesting stories. I would guess (without knowing the facts) that the player is about to turn 18 and/or he is a real English-man, hence his transfer is moving forward.

    That said, this rule is flouted willy-nilly, and this is the truth. A European club signed a kid from Australia who had a Maltese background (Malta is 50km near nowhere), there are many other cases like this published in the media, I don’t know what else to say. We can all play dumb. I do not want rain on anyone’s parade – But the truth is that Barcelona was punished for transferring non-EU minor’s, a practice that seemingly continues unabated.

    For American soccer, the problem is the mish-mash of rules that hinder the development of youth soccer. The mish-mash of rules as well as other barriers filter out players at every gate. Whether it is pay-to-play, or stratification, or lack of resources in poorer communities, pay-to-play combines … it is really hard (and costly) to wade through all this.

    Furthermore, the NCAA structure and the USSF structure (and FIFA structure) are not in harmony with one another. At the NCAA level if you are in D-II or D-III or in NAIA, you are effectively “filtered out” of professional consideration.

    The structure of youth soccer, NCAA soccer, PDL and NPSL should be harmonized. FIFA rules say that pro teams can call up amateur players. It happens in Europe. In America, if an ‘amateur’ or ‘academy’ player gets a few minutes for the 1st team, he loses his academic eligibility (really at such a point, I think a player like that would be thinking of going pro).

    It is hard for a D-II or D-III player to get an invite to the MLS combine, unless he has an influential coach backing him, beyond that he could be scoring 100 goals on the moon, and not get noticed.

    There could also be more effort to organize the many disparate youth tournaments (there are so many of them) in the country to help properly identify top talent.

    4) On MLS owners getting mad. Well … they created this restricted employment market in the first place. The MLS Roster Rules and Regulations was something like 24 players – AND-THAT-WAS-IT. You had like a $ 2 million dollar cap and 24 players and you-do-the-math. The DPs were created, the roster space was increased to 30 players, but still the rosters numbers were FIRM. I understand this, you don’t want to carry 30 guys on roster (another 10 on loan) and blow your salary cap (the Specters of the old NASL, and 2 NHL lockouts – which resulted in the Stanley Cup never seen Canadian lands again have informed sports owners what can happen IF you don’t put a girdle on the team expenses).

    I think if the team owners create some provision for player loans (don’t allow loans of young players to count against the cap) that will help. The USLPRO affiliation thing will HELP keep some guys in the farm, but you will ALWAYS lose a few – It is a free market.

    5) After alll I have said I must state – The whole STUDENT-ATHLETE thing is NOT a bad idea, because I meet European players who really really wish they had a college degree, and there are many Europeans NOW coming to America to specifically play NCAA soccer, and a good number do go back and play professionally in Europe. I do not subscribe to the 23 is too old. For SOME guys, 23 is just right, and that is when they hit their stride. For others, they can go pro at 16 or 18 (and you have these cases too).

    6) Lastly, the one thing I can say is the NSCAA is a well organized body. If you meet coaches that are active in the NSCAA, they are a passionate bunch and they love what they do. I think that there should be more REWARDS or ways for them to get recognized. Lower tier teams must really strive to turn the pyramid upside down by winning the US Open Cup. Coaches at D-II and D-III teams should have some venue or tournament to try and wallop a few D-I teams – If these type of things can happen, we would see more of the good coaches getting noticed instead of many of them being UNKNOWN.


    • Ryan Brister

      Thank you for your insight.

      1) This runs contrary to other things I’ve read. For example, Brian Straus’ recent story about Fulham mentions “a U.S. law forbidding domestic clubs from receiving compensation for players who move abroad.” And I’ve read other articles suggesting that U.S. clubs don’t get these solidarity payments. But I expect that you would have a bit more expertise on the matter than I do.

      2) Doughty’s parents are British citizens, and MLS’s story on the move says that allows him to join United despite his age. You raise a good point, though, that 16-17 year olds who can move to Europe are in the vast minority.

      4) Agreed; MLS is straining against its own limits on a number of fronts. The USL Pro teams some are creating are a useful work-around that might help bridge the gap that’s perceived to exist in development.

      5) I tend to agree. The NCAA, with its restrictions on training and all, may not be the best system for producing top-tier talent. And so MLS and the USSF will always have issues with it. But for the majority of athletes, especially in a sport like soccer, the opportunity to go to college on scholarship is a huge deal and highly beneficial.

      6) I have no doubts that college coaches and those further down the line are doing the best they can, and I think MLS would be wise to give more of them a shot.

      • I just want to add to two of your counterpoints on FIFA/USSF regulations.

        1) There is a law preventing USSF from enforcing training compensation, but if you want to know precisely which one it is you’ll have to ask them directly rather than speculate as most people do. Not their fault really since USSF doesn’t seem like they want people to know.

        2) A 16 or 17 year old with an EU passport can to move to a European club if additional welfare requirements are met. It has to be a top-class team and the club must make adequate living and educational arrangements. If Doughty has English parents, he’d be eligible. IMO this law is incredibly discriminatory to non-Europeans, but as Concorde points out FIFA is hardly consistent in their application of the ban.

  • Dan

    This idea that NCAA amateurism rules are keeping MLS teams from signing their academy prospects is inaccurate. It’s true, in order to maintain their status as amateurs and NCAA eligibility academy players cannot be paid. But that means paid by ANYONE, not just by MLS teams. Doughty gave up on NCAA eligibility when he signed with Man U. If he was inclined to not play in college RSL could have signed him. (If he only decided to bypass college when Man U. came calling, well that’s his decision. He probably would have left RSL regardless in that case.) There are young players in MLS who decided on a pro career instead of going the NCAA route.

    Regarding Klinsmann, while I appreciate what he’s done for the USMNT, he’s really dead wrong in this case. I don’t believe that playing in the European leagues definitively makes you a better player. Sure, the top end of La Liga, BPL, Serie A etc. are better than any domestic clubs, But you’re only going to play those top-end clubs twice a season, and can anyone really say that he rank-and-file clubs of those leagues are light years better than MLS? At least the competition in MLS is reasonably balanced. You might not get the same formidable challenge you’ll get from playing Barcelona or Bayern or Juventus, but on a week-in, week-out basis you probably get a more consistent one.

    More importantly, players going to Europe for their careers doesn’t help grow the game in the United States. American kids grow up wanting to play sports in front of their friends and families. They want the people in their home cities and states to see them. Most 8-year-olds aren’t dreaming of growing up and moving to Dortmund or Lyon. Kids respond to what they see locally. What they see in the US is football, basketball, baseball, and hockey in Northern places. Soccer has been gaining more popularity, but the Euro leagues just don’t have the mindshare here to make a kid deciding what sport he wants to focus on pick soccer. That will only happen as MLS (or pro soccer in general) gets closer to equal footing with the big sports here, when kids go to games in person and see their heroes play live and on TV. So telling young players, “go to Europe” actually hurts the growth of soccer in the US, because young fans will never get to make a connection with those players that could lead to them becoming star prospects in their own right.

    • Ryan Brister

      “More importantly, players going to Europe for their careers doesn’t help grow the game in the United States. American kids grow up wanting to play sports in front of their friends and families. They want the people in their home cities and states to see them.”

      This is a very good point. As coach, Klinsmann’s job is to have the best USMNT possible on the field. If he feels going to Europe is the best way to produce that, it can be debated, but that’s his perogative.

      But as technical director, Klinsmann is responsible for the long-term growth of US Soccer and its developmental structure. Here I agree with you that his actions undermine that goal.

  • After Germany got blown out in the World Cup in 2000 the DBF assumed responsibility for quickly and effectively turning things around. To my understanding they developed a comprehensive plan that included:

    1. Establishing Academy programs with every Bundesliga Club in the two two divisions.

    2. Implemented a scounting system with 1,000 professional scouts to watch youth games starting at the Elementary School ages to id potential players, track their progress and refer them to the Academies being run by Bundesliga clubs.

    3. Implemented a national program to teach physical education teachers in the 47,000 schoolls in Germany how to introduce and teach soccer in the school’s soccer module in physical education.

    Soccer in Germany is the most popular team sport so games can be seen on TV all the time and soccer is a part of many business’s corporate advertising program, as it is in many nations. Soccer would become more popular with kids, children would learn more from TV etc. is M&M, Nike, Swiss Milk and many other ads like their’s ran in the United States. It marketing and the more ads that show anything about the soccer the more established the game becomes. To see many of these creative ads enter soccer ads in YouTube.

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