From College to the Pros - The US soccer ladder

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

MLS Expansion and the Effect on American Soccer Player Development and MLS quality…

Earlier in 2007 we learned that San Jose will rejoin MLS with a new franchise starting play in 2008. Today the worst kept secret around MLS becomes official and MLS will expand to Seattle in 2009. The news means two new teams over two years. It means thirty six new senior roster spots of which eight may be foreign players. It means a potential for two more designated players. It means twenty more developmental players playing soccer in MLS. The 2009 MLS SuperDraft will need more players to be available for selection.

If you go to and search through the MLS discussion areas you’ll find plenty of topics going over the pros/cons of expansion. One of the biggest issues people point out as a con is talent pool dilution. So let’s take a closer look.

First off, lets look at the make up of the team in terms of the current MLS rules (keep in mind, current MLS rules are different for FC Toronto):
• 28 total players on the roster
• 18 senior players
• 10 developmental players
• 4 senior international players who are foreign
• 3 youth international players who are foreign and must be 24 years old or younger.

Based on the above seven out of twenty eight roster spots may be filled by foreign players (25% of the roster). The other 75% must be American players. Right now there are twelve American MLS teams and one Canadian. As stated above the Canadian team plays by different rules. FC Toronto has four SI spots and three additional American SI roster places. The rest of the team is made up of players eligible to work in Canada. I am going to go through the remainder of this analysis assuming FC Toronto’s roster is the same as an American MLS side since the number of players isn’t going to create a huge disparity.

In 2007 there were 364 players in MLS (assuming each team has all twenty eight player spots filled). 75% of those were American and 25% were not (assuming teams maximized the number of foreigners they had on their roster). That means 273 Americans and 91 foreigners on MLS rosters in 2007.

In 2008 the addition of the San Jose Earthquakes will increase the total league roster size to 392 players, an increase of 7.7%. 294 of those players will be American and 98 foreign.

In 2009 the addition of Seattle will increase the total league roster size to 420 players, an increase of 7.1%. 315 of those players will be American and 105 will be foreign.

The league has stated their goal is to grow to 16 teams in 2010. Adding a sixteenth team in 2010 will take the total player count to 448 players of which 336 are American and 112 are foreign.

With the addition of two teams there will be 56 new players in the league; 42 Americans and 14 foreigners. In my opinion it doesn’t seem too hard to find 14 new foreign players to join the league. As the league grows and revenues increase, salaries can go up and more players will be interested in playing in MLS. The bigger issue is American talent which is compounded by the 2010 potential expansion. Growing by three teams over the next three years will require 23% more players or 63 Americans and 21 foreigners.

Where will the 63 Americans come from? To this point a majority of American players are joining MLS through the SuperDraft and Supplemental Draft. In 2007 103 players were selected through the two drafts. Many of those players are not on MLS teams’ rosters today and only a handful contributed to their teams this season.

As the league expands so too will the number of drafted players. In the 8 round draft one new team in 2008 will add 8 more players selected. In 2009 we’ll see the same additional 8 players selected and again in 2010. So that is 128 players drafted in 2010 and increase of 25 players over 2007 (an odd number because New England passed on their final pick in the Supplemental Draft). We are a long way from the draft being able to yield enough quality players to make up for this expansion.

Each expansion year a team will fill eight of their roster spots through the draft, but they need 28 players. Where do the other 20 come from? They’ll get one from each other MLS team via the expansion draft and then the rest will come from other countries or the lower American divisions. Heck, by 2010 one or two home grown players may make it onto the field. But that won’t be enough to bridge the gap.

At the same time that MLS is expanding their player roster, American players playing well in MLS are leaving for foreign leagues. Not only does the league need to fill more spots through expansion but they have more spots due to attrition (retirement as well). This type of attrition will compound the problem. Imagine, Cobi Jones just retired from the LA Galaxy. Landon Donovan could leave for San Jose or Europe since LA will need a second designated player slot to pay for his high salary. Between the two of them LA is potentially losing 50 games played in 2007, 12 goals scored and 18 assists. Then they’ll lose another player through the expansion draft in 2007, another in 2008 and potentially a third in 2009. That is a huge drain on a struggling team. Trust me, LA is not going to be able to fill those holes through the draft and signing players from the USL. Foreign and American talent currently playing abroad is going to be needed to backfill.

I am not convinced that American college soccer can produce the additional soccer players at the rate that MLS will need to keep the current level of play. The league is going to have to work hard to retain quality players, find higher quality foreigners and do a better job scouting college players to ensure the quality of play in the league doesn’t drop. Additionally, MLS teams will need to sign the cream of the lower division crop to help backfill.

Friends, look for MLS’ on field quality to suffer over the coming three years. To help cope with the expansion I’d like to see MLS raise the salary budget dramatically to help teams lure quality American players back to the US. I can’t help but think that guys like Eddie Lewis, Carlos Bocanegra, Nat Borchers, Adin Brown, Danny Califf, Steve Cherundolo, Jay DeMerit, Brad Friedel…(you get the point) wouldn’t be tempted to come back to the US with the promise of a real wage. There are a lot of American players out there who have had solid careers in Europe but who must miss home. Pay them a reasonable amount and they’ll want to help grow the game in the US. MLS needs to help insure future success by raising their top level wages for domestic players. No KSE, Borchers won’t draw fans based on name alone, however he will help increase the level of play on the field and success on the field will translate into success in the stands.

Back to the first part of the title of this post which I got away from. This expansion will certainly give more young American players the chance to shine on the professional stage. It will also create more roster spots for developmental players to grow in the reserve league. However, it takes a few years for some young players to develop into starters and many young American players will not advance past the journeyman stage. So expansion will create more opportunity, but no more guarentees of success.

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  • Good Article!

    I'd also like to see a slight increase in the amount of Foriegn players allowed on a given team.

    This would ease the transition of expansition upon the quality of play and allow the US system more time to fine tune its development process.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:19 PM  

  • MLS teams will also begin signing players out of their youth academies, accelerating player development and reducing reliance on colleges.

    Along with raising salaries, MLS should also take the step of expanding rosters to, say, 30 with one new youth international per club. Clubs need more depth, especially with growing participation in international competitions.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:29 PM  

  • there are plenty of things the league has to do to combat this...i agree that the US college pool won't be enough either...

    i like the idea that the last poster had, raise the number of youth internationals, I loved seeing young guys like Juan Toja in this year on loan, if the league can get quality young guys from places other than Europe I think they will be fine, they just have to be smart that is all...

    By Blogger wvhooligan, at 9:00 AM  

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