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Searching for the Special Talent: Osorio still looking for the right Youth Academy signing


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Ever since Major League Soccer established the program that allowed MLS teams to sign players from their youth academy programs, Red Bulls fans have been wondering when some of their high-profile prospects would start working their way up the pipeline.

Despite the presence of highly-regarded prospects Matt Kassel and Johnny Exantus, the Red Bulls have stood pat rather than sign either of them to a Generation adidas contract, the only mechanism other than via a developmental contract that a team can sign a youth academy graduate. With Exantus recently being linked to a club in Belgium, and Kassel flourishing for nationally-ranked University of Maryland, the Red Bulls are facing more scrutiny for not signing one of their home-grown products.

Red Bulls head coach Juan Carlos Osorio insists that he understands the value of the youth academy, but also points out that the rules governing how teams acquire academy graduates are what has kept the team from signing any academy players to date.

"The rule says that once we sign one of those players basically we are closing the door to everybody else," Osorio said. "We try to make sure that, whoever we sign, we absolutely think that he is special because we, as a coaching staff, don’t want to fail as far as that."

"We are probably overcautious about the way we carry the selection and identify who the player might be," Osorio said. "If we were allowed to sign two or three players for the rest of the year, and then sign another two next year or whatever, then that would be a different story because then we can have those players here, they can play in reserves and then there’s no problem.

"When there’s no way to come back once you make the decision we need to make sure that we make the right decision," Osorio said. "So far, if I’m honest, there has not been one player that we are absolutely convinced that ‘this is the one’."

When asked about Kassel and Exantus specifically, Osorio’s comments seemed to suggest that Exantus isn’t a player the team is likely to sign.

"One of them we couldn’t sign because he’s a foreigner so it would be complicated because he would take up a spot as a foreigner and we can’t afford to do that," Osorio said of Exantus.

Osorio hasn’t ignored his academy either. He has had academy players come and train with the first team at various points this year, including earlier this week. While these chances to see academy players does offer him some insight into their ability, Osorio doesn’t believe such looks are nearly enough to gage whether the players are truly capable of making the jump to MLS.

"These kids are coming from the academy," Osorio said. "They’re not playing second division, they’re not playing against professional opposition. It’s one thing that they go and play well for us (in the academy), and I can understand that and am very pleased for that, but it is a huge jump going from the academy to the first team.

"It’s very difficult to judge and assess those kids on how they would do at the level we are playing unless they play at that level and it’s impossible to do that."

Osorio isn’t alone in dealing with the issues of the restrictions on signing academy players. No MLS team has taken advantage of the new academy graduate system since teams became eligible to start signing players.

"I can only speak for two or three coaches that I have talked to about this, but this is very difficult," Osorio said. "This is a job that is based on results and we cannot kid ourselves about that. You look at the rosters of every team in MLS and there is no one with a kid from the academy.

"Do we want to be the exception? Yes, we do, but provided we find that special talent. We’re working very hard on that but we haven’t found that player."

The scrutiny placed on the Red Bulls over its failure to sign academy players is magnified by the attention that has been paid to both Kassel and Exantus, as well as the story of Gabriel Ferrari, who signed with Italian club Sampdoria after coming through the Red Bulls Academy. Osorio is aware of the prospects the program has produced, but has yet to find the player he feels is worth the coveted Generation adidas contact.

"Certain people might think that the special kid is this particular player or that particular player," Osorio said. "My message to them is that once we sign one of those players we are closing the door to the rest of the academy players and I can’t do that. I refuse to do that unless I am absolutely, 100 percent sure that whoever we sign is going to be able to play in the first team in a year’s time. Maybe not on a regular basis, but is a player that can be coming off the bench and competing for a position."

Osorio also points out that bringing in a young player on a Generation adidas contract which would likely pay the prospect more than several veterans on the team is a unique situation that makes it even more of a priority that the team use the contract to sign a special talent.

"When you have, in your locker room, a player that doesn’t even play for the reserves, and is making triple the money that senior developmental players are making, that creates a completely different chemistry in the locker room," Osorio said. "I need to make sure that whoever is coming here, they all look at him and say ‘This guy deserves that’."

With teams being cautious about signing academy products with Generation adidas contracts, academy players are being left with the alternative of signing via a developmental contract, which pay below $20,000 a year. Kassel rejected a developmental contact offer from the Red Bulls, and most top prospects are more likely to accept college scholarships than take the low salary. Osorio believes that some prospects should consider the developmental route, but understands that the financial set-up is hardly appealing.

"That’s the only accessible way to bring players in but it would have to be a compromise by the kid’s parents because they would have to realize that their son would be coming here making this amount of money and starting from the bottom," Osorio said. "To be honest, that’s how it should be. You work your way from the bottom and develop into a player."

Unless and until Major League Soccer reconsiders the current rules in place for signing academy graduates, coaches like Osorio and teams like the Red Bulls will continue to bide their time, waiting for a Jozy Altidore or Michael Bradley to emerge from the academy system. In the meantime, there will be countless players who miss out on the chance to develop in a professional environment, and countless players that MLS misses out on because of rules that make the process more difficult than it should be.


  1. Hm. Seems like just the other day we were hyping these NYRB academy players to high heaven.

    Now the team is saying “We don’t want to actually pay competitively for an elite 18-year-old we trained ourselves” because there MIGHT be a better one in two years.

    This article doesn’t even name a single prospect the team MIGHT sign from its academy.

    Did someone put down the Kool-Aid?

  2. Alex, what are you agreeing with exactly? My point in the previous comment was that the fault is with the system, not the coaches who are choosing to pass on signing players now because they haven’t found the right player under the current restrictions. Could a player like a Michael Bradley fall through the cracks given the current restraints? Yes, of course he can, but that still doesn’t mean the coaches are handling things the wrong way. Osorio hasn’t found a player he likes enough to give that deal to and that’s pretty much that.

    And I’ll say it one more time. Michael Bradley does not apply to this discussion in any way. he wasn’t a Red Bulls academy player. he was a draft pick. he was a top prospect who probably would have attended college instead of entering the draft if not for his father being the Red Bulls coach. Even if that weren’t the case, and Bradley had been the draft without his father being in the league, he would have been passed over by several teams, so tit’s very misleading to suggest that Osorio’s approach to using the Generation adidas contract is flawed because he could miss on a Michael Bradley when people could and would have missed on Michael Bradley at age 16 REGARDLESS OF THE STRUCTURE. How hard is that for some of you to understand? This is why I say it’s apples to oranges. Now, if you want to use Gabriel Ferrari as an example then you could make a better argument (though Ferrari has yet to actually accomplish anything at this point in his pro career so I’m not sure how people can assume he owuld be a starting forward for the Red Bulls today if the team had signed him when given the chance a few years ago).

    Now Alex, you choose to bring up Kassel and suggest I’m changing my opinion of him to match the team’s. That’s a pretty lame shot, even if not intended (and please tell me what position with the club am I protecting exactly?).

    When Kassel impressed me, and when I praised him as a standout, was in the winter during practice sessions where many players were street free agents, players who had fallen through the cracks in the area and were being given looks. Not a single one of those players wind up making it to this point so the quality of talent in that mix wasn’t exactly top-notch.

    In that group, Kassel certainly excelled. Seeing him with first team players, back in the winter and afterwards, I thought he did well but I can say without reservation that while he has some nice tools and a good head on his shoulders, he isn’t stepping on the field and being a contributor before 2010. That’s the opinion the Red Bulls had and why they didn’t use the Generation adidas contract on him. Does that mean Kassel isn’t a great prospect? No, he’s clearly a quality prospect, but is he someone you have no qualms locking up your one mechanism to sign any academy player you want on? I don’t think it’s nearly that clear cut.

    I’m not sure how many other ways it can be said. Under the current league rules, with the roster size, salary cap size, limitation of one Generation adidas contract per three years for an academy graduate, it is not easy for a team to just pull the trigger on a prospect because he’s the best they have at the moment. It just isn’t. If you are dead-set on blaming the teams then go ahead. I just don’t see the point exactly when it’s clearly a league-wide issue.

  3. My point is merely that I hope the MLS rules wouldn’t inhibit a guy like Bradley from being signed. In my mind, he is the PERFECT example of what becoming a professional at a young age can do for a talented prospect. If my recollection is right, he was never one of the star players on the YNT, but he was able to flourish once he got into a professional environment (and probably grew physically).

    My take on reading Osorio’s comments is that someone like Bradley wouldn’t quite make the cutoff in Osorio’s mind because he was not a can’t miss prospect. Most peole would have viewed it as debatable at best that he would be capable of helping the first team one year after signing. Maybe I am wrong.

    Also, I am not criticizing RB for not signing Kassel. I have never seen him play. I just hope that they aren’t being too cautious and that they aren’t afraid to make a mistake.

  4. Sorry Ives, I have to agree with Marc and Brett. No one is saying Bradley did not have talent but he was not A “Jozy” either and under these current restrictions, or Osorio’s perceptions, no one will be signed.Bradley is a perfect example of how professional development would help young players. You pointed out in many of your past blogs on how well Kassel was doing and how you predicted him to be signed.In one article he was even considered to be one of the best at the January try-outs.Yes, he got hurt, but did his play do a complete 360 during that time. I know you have to protect your position with the club but your decisions seem to change based on what ever the club feels. I think one of the main problems is that no one is completely sure about the league restrictions and it is a shame that they did not do their homework before invoving any of these academy kids.

  5. No, Bradley was not a ‘super prospect” but don’t be fooled. He was a highly-regarded prospect and the reason he fell in the draft was because teams were basically told that he signed with the league to play for Bob. If Bob wasn’t the Red Bulls coach Michael Bradley would have been drafted much higher (if he had even signed with the league at that time.)

    As far as the notion that someone like Michael Bradley would be missed under Osorio’s current thinking, it’s not Osorio’s thinking, it’s the structure MLS has laid out. You’re pointing the blame at Osorio when he is simply applying the most practical approach to the current system.

    And there is no such thing as an absolute, can’t miss stud and I don’t think that’s what Osorio is looking for. I think he and his assistants are looking for a player who they can project being a year away from actually playing and contributing in MLS. It’s unfortunate that teams are limited in that way, but I don’t see how Osorio is going about it the wrong way. And yes, the Red Bulls could miss out on Kassel, but the fact remains (and I wholeheartedly agree) that Osorio didn’t see Kassel being an MLS contributor in the next two years. Does that mean they didn’t want him? Not at all. They would have taken him in as a developmental but Kassel rightly refused that and took Maryland’s scholarship instead.

    Marc, your impression of the academy system is what we all wish it could be, but the way it is now is the league’s doing, not Osorio’s or all the other MLS coaches who have chosen the same approach to dealing with the league’s rules on it.

  6. Ives,

    I recognize that its not an apples to apples comparison, but my recollection from the time bradley was drafted is that he was not a super-prospect the way some guys were. i think he was drafted in the fourth round and that most people thought he was only drafted because of his dad’s ties to the metros. I also think its unlikely (not impossible, just unlikely) that a team will ever sign a guy like bradley from their academy, because of the position he plays. its very hard to project a defender or defensive midfielder as a good pro when they are only 16 or 17.

    What I mean about Osorio is that it seems like he is waiting for an absolute, can’t miss stud before he signs somebody. I understand that he is sort of forced into this because of MLS rules, but my fear is that he isn’t pulling the trigger on Kassel because of this. My impression of the academy system is that its supposed to develop more than just the Jozy-type prospects.

  7. I really think we need to write to the MLS again. It seemed to work last time, when the RBNY were blocked from signing a USL player. This is the great thing about the MLS the league is small enough that it HAS TO react to the desires of their hard-core fans. write to MLS, let them know that these silly rules need to be changed for the long term viability of the league and for the improvement of the product on the field.

  8. Brett, I’m not sure how that is a good point because it assumes that Osorio wouldn’t have rated Bradley had he seen him at a young age. It also suggests that bradley came up through the Red Bulls academy, which he didn’t. It also implies that the mechanism that brought Michael Bradley (the MLS draft) is at all similar to the homegrown Generation adidas contract (which it isn’t). Bringing up Bradley on this subject is pretty much apples to oranges.

    And Marc, what exactly do you mean by “you have to trust your ability to evaluate talent”? It seems to be that this is exactly what Osorio does, otherwise he would have just gone out and signed either Kassel or Exantus based on the hype and accolades. He was pretty clear in stating that he has yet to see a kid he felt was worth taking under the current system.

  9. Under this osorio’s thinking, a guy like bradley would have never received the opportunity to develop. I understand osorio’s apprehension, but you have to trust your ability to evaluate talent.

  10. someone answer me this:

    if the team does not sign a kid as a Gen. Adidas player then could they simply sign them as a senior position?? or does it have to be Dev. Contract??

  11. Most of us seem to agree that the rule is silly. I’m curious…what is MLS’ reasoning of why it’s necessary??? Does anybody know?

  12. great work ives! really enjoy these type of articles. If im not mistaken, the red bulls still have the rights to matt kassel, so maybe after this freshman season they will sign him for next year….we all know the red bulls can use a good playmaking young midfielder.

  13. Parents aren’t putting kids in to be academy players from age 18-22. They’re putting them in to be academy players until age 18 and then get a scholarship. Or a lucrative pro deal.

    The coach at Maryland has little time to coach up high school kids. The Osorio complement was spot on considering nearly every starter at Maryland has become a pro.

    Guaranteed pan-out? Probably 2-3 per year. Good bets (to be career MLS players), probably 6-8.

    From 2007, 6/8 are panning out with Igwe doing ok and Colaluca struggling for minutes (so who knows). From 2006, 8/12 panned out already with Peterson and Zayner still seeming to have some chance. Arvizu (?) & Sims (Miami, USL) are gone. The 2008 class looks a bit weak, but it’s only year 1. I wouldn’t cut back the 8-12 spots just yet. The league has seemed to cut back some as instead of 12 we’ve gotten around 10 a year despite expansion.

  14. Absolutely outstanding, in-depth reporting, Ives. I am a reader form the very beginning and this was your best piece to date. Looking forward to more like this. This is why you are the best in the biz. Keep it up.

  15. perhaps each team who would choose to use their G.A player (assuming they pick one) from the Draft and use it instead on the academy?? kind of screwing over the college players, but how many of them are guarentee pan outs??

  16. To quote Ives,” Exantus being signed in Belgium and Kassel FLOURISHING with a nationally ranked Maryland,” make me wonder about his coaching abilities with the youth. Obviously, the coach at Maryland knows how to develop players!! Reading what Osorio said, would make me wonder why any parent would waste their time on the RED Bull academy. Shame on them!

  17. couldnt RBNJ simply sign the kid to a senior spot?? do they necessarily HAVE to sign him as a Gen. Adidas player?? if i recall there are other routes, he’s obviously denounced the idea of a dev. contract…. perhaps RBNJ could shell out 50k and a spot and pray he works out?? seeing as they have 1st hand look at him, i think bringing him up would be a good enough judge of character…

    i could have the idea of the academy rule wrong, but its 1 gen. adidas player every 3 years, and then they are aloud to sign 2-3 others?? and then more the next year?? what this is is RBNJ not wanting to shell over their only Gen. Adidas spot, not the MLS preventing them… cant be shelling out G.A contracts out n’ about to every academy grad that a team wants, otherwise it perverts the whole concept… sign him or move on…

  18. The reason GA contracts are limited are because they are expensive. They don’t count against the cap, so they represent an extra cost to the league. I’ve long advocated expanding the program, but MLS won’t do it for one team, it’d have to be for everyone. Each year MLS typically signs about 12 guys, historically around 1 per team. These guys are almost never waved and much of their contract is guaranteed (probably the first couple of years).

    So MLS is committing to a 60-100k salary that’ll be outside of the cap for 1-4 years. Probably an average of 150-200k per kid signed. Plus the scholarship money. Each kid signed is probably on average a 250k+ investment. Compared to the non-guaranteed 12-17k/yr contracts, MLS isn’t being cheap with GA. How many 18 year olds are ready to play in MLS? The MLS reserve league is ok compared to college, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it over college unless the player is at least somewhat close to competiting for first team minutes. Obviously this needs to change (academies/reserve leagues need to develop), but it won’t overnight.

    Originally the funds for this came from Nike as part of their sponsorship of national team programs. After MLS went Adidas exclusive, Nike’s no longer paying. I’d suggest MLS should consider expanding the program to 30 kids a year (2 per team) but it’ll take a long time to recoup that investment. The last couple GA’s signed each year are marginal (the Josh Gardner, Will John, Willie Sims, etc) so the odds of finding a long-term MLS player start going down dramatically.

    Perhaps MLS should let academy teams “trade” GA spots so bigger markets can sign more? The system is far from ideal but as it’s just started, let’s not forget it’s at least finally started.

  19. Well said, JL. And I agree. I can see where the rule has its own logic, except for the three-year element of it.

    It’s easy to beat up on MLS, and I’m not an apologist for the league in general, but a lot of the gripes about MLS that I read here and elsewhere seem to be the product of a young league that’s trying to establish itself in a market that views soccer as barely even a priority.

    I’m sure the league will address this eventually, and I see these as high-class problems to have. A few years ago clubs didn’t even have development academies, so I consider this progress, counter-productive rules notwithstanding.

  20. So I want to look at this from MLS’ viewpoint, why would they set a rule where you can only offer them either a dev or gen adidas contract? If you use the gen adidas contract, the option is burned for 3 yrs. I think the reasoning is so teams can’t fill their roster with these young kids that are roster exempt, allowing them to go all Galaxy, top heavy with big earners. However I think the better solution would have been you can only sign one guy a season, not one every 3 yrs. The 3 year thing makes no sense to me. I think this has to be one of the many things MLS will look at in the offseason, as it had good intentions, but clearly the rules have hurt any progress the program could have made in developing more American talent for the league.

  21. Clearly MLS needs to do something to change the system and incentivize teams to take chances on youth academy prospects. Perhaps it should be youth academy slots where non-American players don’t count for international slots. Or perhaps the league just needs to relax roster restrictions in general and let the teams have much more flexibility in determining their best rosters.

    It’s definitely in the league’s best interest to see it’s clubs promoting homegrown talent. The clubs will improve their roots in the community and it’ll encourage local players to think about professional careers in soccer and in MLS.

  22. Ives, great article! Do you think next time you could elaborate on the competition for talented youngsters the MLS is getting from American colleges (who offer scholarships worth more than development contracts, degrees for after-soccer success in life, and are parents’ favorites), overseas academies (where the players will probably receive better training), and foreign clubs (who actually make profits and can better afford to take chances on young prospects)? Maybe that’s another whole topic in and of itself.

  23. Like the idea Drew-ROC, unfortunately won won’t see that happening soon if ever. But good stuff.

    Of course, as it is, it’s the MLS’ fault. Trying to build itself but hindering itself at the same time.

    Money coming out of the owners’ pockets is of course the issue. The rules will definitely change. But the MLS has its plan to grow very slowly to ensure it builds a big enough financial foundation and survives.

    The problem is, just because you survive, doesn’t mean you will live.

  24. It is a good point that the MLS is competing with colleges for these kids signatures. That is something that other country’s academies probably don’t have to deal with. If a players goes to his parents and says he can go to college for free or accept a non guaranteed contract for less than 20k (or even 30k) a year that will exclude him from ever getting a college scholarship, is there really much argument on what he should do.

  25. I think it’s about time MLS teams got some USL affiliations. Buy a USL2 team and put it on Staten Island or in Jersey. Have them sign the Academy players, then have Red Bull sign them from the USL2 team.

    The USL2 season is ideal for MLS late season depth additions and it gives these amateurs a place to become professional players.

  26. MLS WAKE UP!!!

    The rules governing how teams acquire academy graduates shouldn’t be restrictive as long as the team fits under the cap. They should also allow more Generation Adidas signings.

  27. Ives, that is some really good stuff…

    I agree with coach that these kids need to start from the bottom and work their way up. It’s like that in everyother county!!!”

    You forgot to add with promotion and relegation…which every other country also has.

    How can these kids start from the bottom and work their way up when there is no official relationship or league structure between MLS and USL

  28. More MLS buffoonery.

    Leadership on this ship of fools has a good goal: limit expenses, growing slowly and surely, but zero plan for accomplishing it. They give hundreds of millions to Beckham but make rules discouraging teams from developing and signing cheap, homegrown talent. It’s like they’re making decisions by throwing darts at a board… and missing.

  29. Ives,

    Would it be possible to have Don Garber answer questions from fans via this site? Or for you to interview him with representative questions regarding the MLS? There are so many peculiarities of the league…perhaps somewhere behind the ridiculousness there is logic. I’d be interested in hearing Mr. Garber’s responses.

  30. I understand why he feels the way it does, but it almost seems like hes overly worried about the wrong choice. I hope its not a case of over cautiousness causing him to never take advantage because your always hoping to find something better.

  31. Nice report Ives. It brings to light another one of the problems that MLS will have to address if it ever wants to step up in class. Hopefully this is one of the issues addressed in the next CBA.

  32. Osario comments bother me .. this one …

    Osorio hasn’t ignored his academy either. He has had academy players come and train with the first team at various points this year, including earlier this week. While these chances to see academy players does offer him some insight into their ability, Osorio doesn’t believe such looks are nearly enough to gage whether the players are truly capable of making the jump to MLS.

    “These kids are coming from the academy,” Osorio said. “They’re not playing second division, they’re not playing against professional opposition. It’s one thing that they go and play well for us (in the academy), and I can understand that and am very pleased for that, but it is a huge jump going from the academy to the first team.

    “It’s very difficult to judge and assess those kids on how they would do at the level we are playing unless they play at that level and it’s impossible to do that.”


    is Osario questioning Mo Johnson judgment because Its was Mo Johnson who saw Exantus and wanted to bring him to the senior squad… at that time X-Man was 16 years old … If Mo was successful bringing X-man to play for the Senior team .. X-man would have 2 years experience with Senior, then you would have a better Idea or judgment whether he could play in MLS level or Not …. ..

    What the hell Osario is talking about? Kids may not be ready for MLS Level …

    the restriction place by MLS is making very hard to gage the Academy Success or Failure …

    How could evaluate an Academy player if the player cannot be given a chance at MLS Level

    MLS may need a minor league system just like Hockey & Baseball … and have team Academy play one another at the (at Giants Stadium – Senior against Senior and Academy against Academy as part of double header) stadium and around the league

  33. it’s sad to see the amount of money these developmental players earn per year. Hopefully the new C.B.A addresses this topic. Maybe an increase in the developmental salary(somewhere around $25,000-$30,000 a yr sounds reasonable. Preferrably more because who can really live on $30,000 a yr now a days) would encourage prospects such as Kassel and Exantus to agree to developmental contracts.

  34. Thanks, Ives. This is the best article I’ve read on the topic, and certainly clarifies the reticence these coaches have to signing the “wrong” guy. The penalties are just too high.

    Have you heard any discussion about altering the rules? You allude to the league needing to change the rules in the final paragraph, but I wonder if there’s any serious discussion to do so.

  35. It never ceases to amaze me how MLS continues to hamstring its own ability to succeed with illogical and restrictive rules structures, seemingly put in place to protect those organizations that are unwilling to compete.

    To my mind, there is nothing more important to the growth and future success of the league than the development of professional players by the clubs themselves, and yet MLS puts rules in place that all but directly punish clubs for trying to develop their own streams of new talent.

    MLS, open up! There needs to be somewhere in this system that will allow these clubs to truly compete and strive for success!

  36. This whole situation is utter SHITE!

    Ridiculous rules beget an even more ridiculous situation!

    If the kids are good, teams should be free to sign them and put them in the reserves, loan them to the USL franchises, etc. Very simple!

    MLS rules are truly ridiculous!

  37. Ives, that is some really good stuff…

    I agree with coach that these kids need to start from the bottom and work their way up. It’s like that in everyother county!!!

    Great stuff-see u at CUP.


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