Photo by ISIphotos.com
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.