Top Stories

A closer look at the MLS player development program


Those of you who interested in the progress, or lack of progress, being made by Major League Soccer’s player development initiatives should read my most recent piece, which focuses on the program.

If you haven’t been keeping track, this year was the first year MLS teams have been eligible to start signing players straight from their academies. Heading into this week we still hadn’t had an MLS team sign a player straight from the academy.  Several MLS officials have pointed to the rules currently in place as reasons why we haven’t seen signings, but looming changes, coupled with some impressive prospects, should lead to a few signings from this day forward. In other words, the program should start producing soon.

In working on this piece I was able to clarify some rules regarding the signing of academy players that should help to shed some light on things.

Such as:

Teams can sign academy graduates through three mechanisms. They can sign them to a Generation adidas contract, which is a three-year deal. Teams can only have one such player on their rosters at any one time. So does that mean a team is locked in for the full three years? Not necessarily. If the player graduates from Generation adidas, meaning if they wind up playing significant minutes and turning into an MLS regular in the first or second year, that can cut short their Generation adidas status, thus allowing a team to sign another player through the same mechanism.

Academy Players can, in fact, be signed directly to the senior roster. The only issue with that rule, and the reason you won’t be seeing teams use it, is because a player signed through that route won’t be roster-protected, meaning their salary counts against the team salary cap.

Red Bulls head coach Juan Carlos Osorio isn’t the only person preaching patience with regard to pulling the trigger on the Generation adidas mechanism. Houston chief operation officer Chris Canetti and D.C. United general manager Dave Kasper both stated that their teams have yet to find the right player and want to be sure that the first academy signing is a quality prospect capable of handling the pressure of the title.

I should have some more developments on this topic for next week. For now, give my story a read and share your thoughts on it, and this subject, in the comments section below.


  1. The rules stay the same.

    We are where we are. Now we’ve just got to work out how to get where we want to be.

    The hard cap is the first measure as is increasing the roster size, but it needs to be done incrementally.

    So step one (at 2010 Philly expansion): max. 32 players, cap $3.2m.

    Then raise to max. 40 players with a $5m cap. After 2015 $10m cap.

  2. so…. why dont the teams get the academy teams to play some friendlies against some mexican academy or reserves squads?? this way the coaches can see how they vary compared to other talent?? host intl’ tournys, bring in some other academies and youth squads and see how they do against them??

  3. Sounds like no one will sign a player to Gen Adidas from an academy and take the chance that all of the players at said academy will instantly quit and look for greener pastures if there is no spot for 3 years.

    Alternatively, not signing anyone makes these kids think no one will ever get signed. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next year. If Red Bull doesn’t sign anyone after 2 years, what’s the point? They could have signed Cassel and had a spot ready to open for the next kid with just a one-year waiting period.

  4. Although the rules do not work, they will not and should not stand as they are, this seems to me to be nothing more than a model to build from. MLS is playing this to perfection i think, and is totally aligned with the long term business model that i know everyone is sick of hearing about, but should get over because its working (i know alot of us fans hate on the MLS, so feel free to disagree)… They are starting out ultra conservatively, and moving to a more free system as the picture becomes clearer of what this system is and should look like at the end of the day… For all those who criticize MLS for standing in the way of the clubs and micromanaging, I think it’s done for two reasons. One, this is not Europe, the American club development system will ultimately be structured much differently than in Europe simply b/c the US is a geographical monstrosity compared to any other country with effective youth systems. There are no models for what the MLS clubs will have, and it should not be created willy nilly, by letting teams blow their money away on kids brought up in a fledgling youth system. Second, look at the competition out there. This league must do everything conservatively (so conservatively at times it almost looks like they are purposely sabotaging themselves) b/c it doesn’t have the money or financial backing of its domestic competition (nfl, nba, mlb, nhl) or the foreign soccer leagues. i know its frustrating, but there has to be a foundation, and you must build it slowly and cautiously, or they are going to get crushed and we will have no league to complain about… thanks for the article Ives, its a topic difficult to find info on

  5. One last note: Please no “MLS doesn’t care about the Champions League” statements. When MLS is looked at UNIVERSALLY in the same way as, let’s say the Dutch 1st division or Ligue 1 is viewed, then I’ll accept that the treat certain competitions lightly. Right now MLS is like the guy who skips the early jumps in the Olympics only to fail on all 3 attempts when they get the height he deems worthy of his effort and skill. It is just embarrassing and they should be ashamed of their failure and overestimation of their stature and level/quality of play.

  6. One last note: Please no “MLS doesn’t care about the Champions League” statements. When MLS is looked at UNIVERSALLY in the same way as, let’s say the Dutch 1st division or Ligue 1 is viewed, then I’ll accept that the treat certain competitions lightly. Right now MLS is like the guy who skips the early jumps in the Olympics only to fail on all 3 attempts when they get the height he deems worthy of his effort and skill. It is just embarrassing and they should be ashamed of their failure and overestimation of their stature and level of play.

  7. “Unnecessarily byzantine rules.” KingSnake

    Great line/post and a fantastic article by Ives.

    I know right now the world is screaming for more oversight, regulation and caution because of Wall Street but the MLS is a great example of how stifling over regulation, caution and oversight when it is taken way too far. This article by Ives and the recent CONCACAF Champions cup are 2 of many examples of how the over regulated approach is significantly hurting the growth of the league and it’s much desired growth in prestige.

    Does anyone realize that the club Joe Public of Trinidad, a small semi pro club in a nation of 1.5 million people, achieved something last Wendesday night no MLS team has yet to achieve?

    A win over a 1st division Mexican opponent in Mexico in a competition.

    (I think I’m right on this but if not then there must be only a couple of exceptions and I am sure someone on this board will point them out.)

  8. Yea…what Stan said. Its the first I hear that an Academy player has to be 20. Here is the quote from the article:

    “…and also prevents teams from signing players younger than 20 to developmental contracts.”

    Ives, what goes? This would certainly prevent any signings for another year, they are all around 18. PUZZLED!

  9. exactly what are the byzantine rules everyone is talking about? Seems to me that clubs are free to sign academy players whenever they want, they just don’t have any players they want to sign. The GenAd rule helps clubs by allowing one player to be basically off the books (and have tuition if it doesn’t pan out) if there was a player worth paying like a professional, it would be done. Until a team wants to pay them like professionals, kids will go to college or Europe. Wouldn’t you?

  10. Until MLS stops micromanaging every little element of each team’s operation with these ridiculous and poorly thought out rules, it is hard to really take the league seriously.

    What is the purpose of youth development programs if teams aren’t free to recoup some of their investment into the program by signing players to professional contracts (specifically DEV contracts) whenever they see fit. The level of unnecessary bureaucratic oversight by MLS Front Office (who, I’m more and more convinced, know frighteningly little about what is good for soccer in North America).

    Here in Toronto, some players involved in TFCs Academy have decided to jump ship for the Vancouver Whitecaps residency academy program because the path to a professional career is far more clearly mapped out. Not all will make it, clearly, but the Whitecaps program is actually designed to serve the purpose of the club and the players, unlike the MLS program (which only serves NCAA, in my opinion). People interested in learning more about the Whitecaps academy should check out their website:

    Ives, are you sure players under the age of 20 are not allowed to sign DEV contracts? TFC has at least 3 or 4 players under 20 on such contracts (Melo, Gala, Attakora and Gaudet come to mind right away).

  11. At the very least, they should allow players to move up to the reserves. It seems silly to slap on rules to prevent growth.

    I thought the point of the academies was to give players an alternative to stringent NCAA rules on player development?

    I leave my judgement there, until I hear what they plan to do to lift some of the rules.

  12. Ives,

    Clarification from the piece. . . an MLS team can’t offer kids under 20 developmental contracts by rule? Or is it just that the rules make it next to impossible to do that?

    I just wonder because didn’t the Red Bulls offer Kassel the developmental deal and he didn’t take it?

  13. Still too complicated Nic D. Set the amount. That is all. Let the teams figure out what works best for themselves as long as they don’t exceed that amount. Simple.

  14. Yes KingSnake… you are a genius… everything is so simple. I can’t wait for the day when you run our American soccer league

    …into the gound.

  15. The owners set the rules of the league. If a majority wanted to increase the salary cap they would. If they wanted to increase their salary exposure by changing the academy rules they would.

  16. I’m very happy to read that MLS acknowledges that there are problems with the current rules and is moving to change them. That’s a very good sign. If they make the new rules much more workable, then I think Durbin is right that a team like NY will take a chance on an academy player or two next season.

    Part of the problem with the current system is looking for that high caliber player when they are just 16-18. It’s possible that we have that great player in front of our faces but we can’t recognize it because he needs to develop for another couple of years on the professional level — something he can’t currently do because of the restrictions and inability to convince that player to take a developmental deal.

  17. Set a HARD CAP! Period!


    34 Roster Spots

    23 Senior

    11 Developmental

    6 Senior Intl

    5 Jr Intl

    NO DP’s!

    No Allocations!

    No Gen Adidas! Well, Only if they are your 11 Developmental players. If they play 10%of your Regular Season games they are automatically counted toward your cap and Sr. Roster!


  18. John, I actually see MLS adjusting its rules on the fly as it figures out what works and doesn’t work. I also don’t think protecting the draft is a motivation. Everyone realizes the draft won’t be as important in a few years.

    And Brett, your suggestion is the definition of circumventing the salary cap, which isn’t allowed (outside of Los Angeles that is).

  19. Every owner in MLS can afford to pay at least triple the current salary cap. How can you possibly own and operate an MLS team without many millions of dollars behind you.

  20. ives- couldnt the league set it up to where the academy players could sign to a spot on the team through the pockets of their owners, yet dont count against their salary cap??

    so if the redbulls had a few superstar academy players, then redbulls could pay 100k out of their pockets for guarenteed X amount of years and not see it effect their cap?? this would allow academies to be deemed more benefitial then just scouting… also allows more money to flow into the team as a whole, making it more likely to have better reserves… i understand some owners dont have as deep of pockets, but some change needs to happen..

  21. the game is a risk… they need to start making the movement forward in order to create change and progress… yes you could fail to select the right player, but you should be confident in your ability to view talent and scouting…

  22. could a team trade away their first signing to an MLS team with out an academy signing of their own, then sign a second academy grad?

  23. Good piece Ives

    MLS needs to see the long term picture. They place all these restrictions to preserve their precious SuperDraft as a meaningful way of distributing talent. If MLS is serious about expansion then youth investment is the only way to safeguard the player pool for future generations without filling the league with foreigners. We need full residency academies with 2 a day practices and regular games with players controlled by the parent club. Right now some academy teams only practice a few times a week. How is that really of any benefit. Make the investment and give the clubs the incentive to develop talent and MLS will become a stronger and deeper league in years to come.

  24. Unnecessarily byzantine rules. It’s really simple (if you must cap expenses): 1) Set a hard cap. 2) Let teams sign whoever they want as long as 1 is not exceeded. Ta-da!


Leave a Comment