FRISCO, Texas — The “play your kids” debate has been a hot topic this season on social media and in the news. It seems there’s a new young player from Major League Soccer academies leaving for Europe every week. Last week, it was Sebastian Soto of Real Salt Lake’s academy to German club Hannover 96.
Meanwhile, notable academy talents signed to MLS contracts, such as Atlanta United midfielder Andrew Carleton, have struggled to find MLS minutes, instead suiting up for their teams’ second-tier United Soccer League affiliates.
FC Dallas is one of the MLS teams at the forefront of development. The club’s academy is considered one of the best in North America and continues to churn out talent, such as homegrown signing Chris Richards, who is on loan at Bayern Munich. FCD head coach Oscar Pareja and other homegrown players believe there is a fear of playing younger MLS players due to a win-now mentality in the league, with playoffs being the litmus test for success.
“I think in Europe if they see potential in you, they’ll give you a chance,” right back Reggie Cannon said. “But in MLS, I feel like it’s, ‘We gotta get these three points this weekend and whatever is going to make that happen, we’re going to do it.’ They may not play the kids that are ready. I think that’s hindering some of them and that’s why kids are going to Europe.
“I think MLS has gotten a lot better at it, especially FC Dallas. I mean, these guys are playing a 20-year-old every game. I think MLS is getting a lot better at that and I think FC Dallas kind of shaped their model. I just gotta tell all the kids in the league it’s worth it.”
Pareja is not afraid of that. Instead, he has given younger players chances with the first team.
“I think with Oscar you’ve seen it over and over with many players, that he gives young players opportunities,” midfielder Victor Ulloa said. “He believes in them. When you’re that age, that’s all you need. You don’t have the experience, but the only way to get that is minutes on the field. … He can’t play everybody, but he tries to give as many minutes as he can to the players.”
Cannon is another example of an academy player who has provided valuable minutes for Dallas, starting every MLS match this season. Rising up the ranks, Cannon was behind Argentinian right-back Hernan Grana last season before making the jump to start in 2018. However, it wasn’t easy for the 20-year-old right back.
“Honestly, this league is tough, especially to break through with a team like FC Dallas,” Cannon said. “Our team, with FC Dallas, they want you to break through with personality. You can be the best player in the world, but if you don’t have that work ethic that Oscar likes and that drive that Oscar likes, it’s tough. I learned that quickly. I learned to adapt to the situation and I kept working extra and extra. I think that’s a big thing in the league.”
Cannon believes in patience with younger players and he complimented the way Pareja prepared him for this season instead of throwing him into Dallas’ poor run in the second half of 2017.
“A lot of people are afraid to play their young players if their good enough because they don’t have that personality and that drive,” Cannon said. “I think Oscar does a good job of shaping up the young kids and getting them ready to throw them into the first time, more like to have them play a whole season like me. I played a total of one minute last year, and this year I’m playing every single minute.
“I think he’s doing a great job of preparing these young kids and I’m telling them, like Paxton and the others, to keep going, because I was thinking the same thing last year. It’s tough and I don’t know if I could keep going, but keep going man, it’s worth it.”
In MLS, the pursuit of making the postseason can cause coaches to sacrifice development for immediate results.
However, some teams successfully do both. Tyler Adams, Derrick Etienne, and Alex Muyl were all signed in 2016 as homegrowns and have played prominent roles for the New York Red Bulls, who are currently first in the Eastern Conference. Sporting Kansas City has given Jaylin Lindsey, Gianluca Busio and Daniel Salloi key minutes on its way to second in the Western Conference.
“At the end of the day, these coaches are worried most, not about winning the World Cup, they’re worried about those three points on the weekend and getting into the playoffs,” Cannon said. “That’s what they’re worried about and they’re going to put in the players who are going to do that job. They’re not worried about the overall development of players, the next level.
Giving those opportunities is something Pareja actively looks for in those young players. While the former Dallas Burn player admits he may sometimes miss those moments, Pareja attempts to be patient and not rush the young players, as he did with Cannon last season.
“I think they are giving you those glimpses,” Pareja said. “They are giving you those signs where you start sensing it. It is our job- because sometimes we miss it- but with them, it’s about being patient and nursing them in the training ground and they are giving you that.”
Pareja also sees agents playing a role in some players going to Europe, valuing monetary gain over the right situation for their clients. However, the fact that kids are being plucked from academies to go to Europe is not something that Pareja thinks is unique to MLS.
“I think it happens in many other leagues that have been rated higher than ours,” Pareja said. “What happened here is that the system is very generous with our young players. We have been investing a lot of time and money and we still support them to go to college as a second opportunity if it’s not the first team.
College can be the avenue for players that are not ready and FC Dallas actively supports it, giving players more time to develop and an opportunity to still be a homegrown player. Cannon admits he was not ready to take the step to Europe when he turned 18. Instead, he chose a route that helped him getting playing time at the University of California Los Angeles and hone his skills while getting playing time.
“I honestly think that you have to choose the wise decision,” Cannon said. “For me, I wasn’t ready to go to Europe. I wasn’t ready to be the Weston McKennie. I was at another level that wasn’t at his. I think you have to take those next steps. That’s why I went to college and to get ready for this next step, to come in and learn from the environment, take a year to grind and shape up things in my game and this year, start every game.”
Cannon is receiving plaudits for his performances this season, including talk about a potential United States Men’s National call-up by his coaches. He is flattered by the compliments but has kept his focus on moving up the ranks and choosing the right path, something that he says an important for a young player to realize.
“I think everyone needs to take a step back and look what their next step should be because everyone says ‘I’m going to Europe and hopefully I make it’,” Cannon said. “I think going to Europe too early is just as bad as going too late. If you go too early, you get loaned and it’s tough to break through to the first team. For one Weston McKennie and one Christian Pulisic, there’s thousands of kids going over there thinking ‘its my dream’ and I think you have to work your way through the ranks and that’s what I’m doing right now. I’m just taking it slow.”