NASL clubs slowly shifting focus to youth, development



Ask the passing North American Soccer League fan to name a few international players that populate the league and most would likely struggle to utter the names of former Spanish national team stars Raul and Marcos Senna before falling short on players.

Understandably, the high-profile players always get the most attention — they wouldn’t be considered high-profile guys if they didn’t.

But now that both Senna and Raul have hung up their boots, where does that leave the league?

Quietly, the NASL has taken a different route, a younger path — one they hope can bring long term promise instead of short term gains.

The New York Cosmos, the team responsible for generating attention for the NASL by signing Senna and Raul in the first place, looked to have continued their strategy of signing veteran international players with the acquisition of Juan Arango; the most decorated player in the history of the Venezuelan national team.

Before the club locked Arango into a deal, though, it doubled down on its youth efforts by securing the services of U.S. youth national team members, Eric Calvillo and Alexis Velela. For Calvillo (18) and Velela (17), joining the Cosmos in the NASL rather than a MLS club is nowhere near as risky a proposition as it may have seemed in the past. However, the recent signing of Haji Wright has made the idea much more palatable. Last year’s experiment worked out well for both parties. For the Cosmos, the signing of Wright was certainly a smashing success. Wright departed the club on amicable terms and is now set to sign a contract with FC Schalke 04 in the Bundesliga, proving the organization’s viability as a waiting room for youngsters looking to make the jump to Europe.

What the Cosmos gave up in transfer money they made up for in goodwill. Drawing significant interest from overseas, Wright managed to avoid the more stringent contract ownership setup in MLS and gained experience in a professional environment while awaiting his 18th birthday to be eligible for a move to Europe. During his season with Cosmos, Wright was able to pick up minutes for the first team in two matches but earned significantly more time with the NPSL reserves squad, Cosmos B — a development whose importance is hard to overstate.

On that subject, there is a reason why five other NASL teams are fielding developmental squads in the NPSL this year. Having reserve squads makes NASL clubs exponentially more appealing to young players who, apart from mobility, look for a destination where minutes in a competitive environment are possible. The NPSL squads also provide flexibility to the clubs themselves, as signing a prospect is feasible with the knowledge that you don’t have to waste a first team roster spot on a player you know is not ready.

Relative to the MLS, the NASL’s more amenable contract system gives players signing their first deal a sense of control when determining their future, and the emergence of the NPSL offers a chance at minutes. Players aren’t locked in. Their rights won’t be owned by a club upon their return. They can simply enjoy the perks of a professional environment before deciding on their next career move — much like the case of Yohandry Orozco, 24, who joins the Cosmos after a difficult run overseas.

Considering the Cosmos generate the most media attention of any club (by far), it’s easy to neglect the moves other NASL clubs have made in recent years. Since their new ownership took control ahead of the 2015 season, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers have given the Cosmos a run for their money in the youth talent pool. The South Florida side picked up a U.S. youth international of their own last month when they signed 20-year-old Luis Felipe Fernandes. Felipe, coincidentally born on the Cosmos’ home turf of Long Island, came to the Strikers after growing up in the academy of Brazilian powerhouse of Cruzeiro and would have likely joined Calvillo and Wright at last year’s U-17 World Cup had it not been for an ankle injury.

Felipe said in an an interview with SBI that he is eagerly moving back to the U.S. in hopes of finding regular playing time and entrenching himself even more into the U.S. program.

Felipe has cause for optimism about his move to the Strikers. The club has expended a lot of energy since the ownership change on identifying young talent in the Brazilian leagues that has gone unexploited. It paid off in spades for the club last year with the loans of Stefano Pinho, PC, and Marlon Freitas. All three had standout seasons in 2015 after being underutilized by their parent clubs. Two of the three even elected to stay in the NASL. Pinho parlayed his NASL Golden Boot and Golden Ball honors into a significant payday with the MLS-bound Minnesota United FC while the Strikers were able to secure the dynamic PC to a multi-year deal after the attacker notched five goals and four assists.

Another club that’s taking a chance on youth is fellow Floridian club, the Jacksonville Armada. Tony Meola and his staff have looked far and wide, bringing in players like promising 20-year-old striker Danny Barrow to their ranks. Like Cosmos Velela and Calvillo, the West Brom product will struggle to crack the starting XI. However, the Armada provide a solid foundation for Barrow to hone his craft at a professional level instead of toiling in an Academy system. On the other side of the continent, defender Papa Diakite, 23, joins FC Edmonton from Belgium – another flier on youth.

Like most things in soccer, solving the youth equation will be a protracted process full of stops and starts. No one apart from FC Edmonton, whose academy has produced a handful of starters over the years, has made major headway on their own academy.

Still, the recent moves made in the NASL are encouraging signs that the league is not solely focused on the allure of fading European stars  to fill seats. The upstart league, with its more traditional model regarding contracts, has created an enticing alternative option for young players looking to break into the professional game in the U.S.

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  • Arsenal10023

    I like the move by NASL teams to field NPSL teams. It is a good start. Next the league should mandate that each club develop a youth academy program and enter the Development Academy league run by USSF. Cosmos just entered their U12 team, as example. Carolina Railhawks also doing great with their academy.

    Keep it going NASL!

    • Jspech

      NASL cannot mandate to individual clubs. They are not a centralized league

      • Larry\’s A Simpleton

        hows that working out? not so good. nobody wants to watch division 3 nasl

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