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MLS’ top academies and the players who make them

Tyler Adams. 19 years old, full-time starter and the only player here with full U.S. men's national team caps.  Started in the academy at 12 years old, got his first professional contract at 16 years old with Red Bulls II (29 appearances) and first minutes in MLS at 17 years old (26 appearances so far). (Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)

Major League Soccer has implemented different strategies over the years to raise level of play and competition. Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) has had the most immediate impact. Its returns are quick and obvious. What is not quick is the investment in academies.

If TAM is a hot new stock, academies are the league’s 401(k).  Incenting this investment is arguably the most important thing in shaping the future of the U.S. men’s national team (as I wrote about here).

Much like prioritizing the near term over the long with personal finances, not every club has invested or prioritized academies. Unlike TAM signings, the impact of an academy isn’t immediate.  It also comes out of the owner’s pocket, unlike most MLS salaries or allocation money. It is difficult to put a number on the investment behind academies as MLS clubs keep that information private.

We can look at how many Homegrown signings a team has to get a gist of an academy’s success rate (FC Dallas leads the way with 10 today). But if prospects sign and don’t play, the academy isn’t reaching its goal. It has to be able identify talents at a young age, develop them and play them quickly to gain either a competitive edge or financial profit.

I’ve been tracking clubs that have been giving the most minutes this year so far through week 5.

Looking at this chart, there are three clubs whose academies stand above the rest: New York Red Bulls, Philadelphia Union and Real Salt Lake. It may be surprising to not see FC Dallas here, but Oscar Pareja has hit a snag as noted here by Jack Rouse for Big D Soccer

I’ve broken down the journey of all the academy products to get minutes so far in graphs below.  There are commonalities that seem to be driving the success of the academy to turn prospects into MLS contributors:

  1. Identifying talent and recruiting at a young age (12-13 years).
  2. Having a USL team to get talent professional minutes early (17-19 years).
  3. Having a consistent style of play between academy, USL and MLS sides to ease transition for players and increase trust of the coaches to play young guys,

NEW YORK RED BULLS ACADEMY

  • % of minutes to Academy products in 2018:  33 %
  • Academy products with minutes in 2018:  Tyler Adams, Sean Davis, Kyle Duncan, Derrick Etienne Jr, Connor Lade, Ben Mines, Alex Muyl
  • Alumni abroad:  Matt Miazga (Chelsea), Timothy Weah (PSG), Matthew Olosunde (Manchester United), Arun Basuljevic (Fremad Amager)
  • Alumni at other MLS clubs: Juan Agudelo, Mason Toye

New York Red Bulls have played an incredible amount of minutes to academy products.  This number is heavily factored by their participation in CONCACAF Champions League and will certainly drop throughout the season, but it has shown the amount of depth the academy has allowed.

The club has a history of developing talent and then selling to Europe, arguably more than any other MLS club.  The spine of the the U.S. men’s national team (Tim Howard, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore) can trace their roots back to New York.  Even in the latest U.S. friendly against Paraguay, you’ll note that two starters (Adams & Miazga) and a sub (Weah) are Red Bulls Academy products

Formally, the Red Bulls Academy started in 2005 and offers free training and games for their teams ranging from U12 to U23.  The academy also links with the USL team, which plays the same style as the MLS Red Bulls (and frankly any Red Bulls team around the world).  This consistency and investment has led to RBNY having the best academy pipeline in the league which can be seen in the journey of the players below:

  • Tyler Adams – 19 years old, full-time starter and the only player here with full U.S. men’s national team caps.  Started in the academy at 12 years old, got his first professional contract at 16 years old with Red Bulls II (29 appearances) and first minutes in MLS at 17 years old (26 appearances so far).
  • Sean Davis – 26 years old, full-time starter. Started in Academy at 16 years old, followed by four years of college at Duke. First professional contract at 22 years old with Red Bulls II (1o appearances) before getting his first minutes in MLS at 22 years old (63 appearances).
  • Kyle Duncan – 20 years old with youth U.S. national team caps. Started in Academy at 16 years old before leaving for his first professional contract at 17 years old with Valenciennes II (3 appearances). Returned to MLS this year for his first minutes at top level.
  • Derrick Etienne, Jr – 21 years old with full national team caps with Haiti. Like Adams, he started in Academy at 12 years old before getting his first professional contract at 18 years old with Red Bulls II (46 appearances). He then got his first minutes in MLS at 19 years old (21 appearances).
  • Connor Lade – 28 years old. Started in Academy at 17 before his four years of college at St Johns.  First professional contract at 22 years old with Red Bulls (96 appearances).
  • Ben Mines – 17 years old and is the new kid on the block. Started in Academy at 15 years old before his first USL minutes at 16 years old with Red Bulls II (13 appearances) and getting his first minutes in MLS this year at 17 years old.
  • Alex Muyl – 22 years old and a starter on the squad. Started in Academy at 16 years old before spending three years of college in Georgetown. Got his first professional contract at 20 years old with MLS side (58 appearances).

As you can see, the best prospect of the group (and frankly of any American save Christian Pulisic), Tyler Adams, started in the academy very young, got professional minutes with the USL team very young and broke through the MLS starting XI by the time he was 18.  While this isn’t the case for every academy product, it certainly is for the very top-level talent and it is available and established within the Red Bulls Academy. 

Their process also has quite a few players who have gone the college route or didn’t have any youth national team caps but still turned out to be very good MLS players.  I believe this is a reflection of the consistency of style of play in the system and maximizing talent.

PHILADELPHIA UNION ACADEMY

  • % of minutes to Academy products in 2018:  24 %
  • Academy products with minutes in 2018: Anthony Fontana, Derrick Jones, Matthew Real, Keegan Rosenberry, Auston Trusty 
  • Alumni at Other MLS Clubs:  Zack Steffen, Connor Maloney

A short distance away from the Red Bulls in Harrison, N.J., the Philadelphia Union have quietly built one of the most innovative academies.  Much younger than the Red Bulls Academy, the Philadelphia Union academy has only been around for five years. But, it is completely free of cost, paired with a full-time school, has teams starting from U12 and is led by Tommy Wilson, who used to lead player development for the Rangers.  This unique set up (specifically the full-time school) not only draws top talent in the area but also brings in talent from across the country. Similar to the Red Bulls, the Union also operate a USL team, Bethlehem Steel, to provide a link between the academy and its MLS squad.  2018 represents a breakthrough year for the academy with four academy products getting minutes so far:

  • Anthony Fontana – 18 years old and started in the Academy at 13 years old. He received his first professional contract at 16 years old with Bethlehem Steel (19 appearances) before getting his first MLS minutes this year at 18 years old. He scored a goal on his debut.
  • Derrick Jones – 21 years old with youth U.S. national team caps.  He started in Academy at 16 years old. Got his first professional contract at 19 years old with Bethlehem Steel (38 appearances) and his first MLS minutes the same year (12 appearances).
  • Matthew Real – 18 years old and started in the Academy at 14 years old.  He got his first minutes with Bethlehem steel at 17 (20 appearances) before getting his first MLS minutes this year
  • Keegan Rosenberry – 24 years old and a starter. Started in Academy at 17 years old before doing four years of college at Georgetown. First MLS minutes at 22 years old (49 appearances).
  • Auston Trusty – 19 years old, starter today and capped with the U.S. at the youth level. He started in Academy at 13 years old before getting his first professional contract at 17 years old with Bethlehem Steel (43 appearances) and his first MLS minutes this year.

It’s almost unfair to compare the Union academy results to the New York Red Bulls considering the difference of how long its been in existence, but the similarities are stark.  Fontana, Real and Trusty were identified at young ages in the academy, received professional contracts and minutes at the USL level before they were allowed to buy cigarettes and now have broken into the MLS lineup as teenagers.  Expect even more Homegrown signings shortly as the pipeline is deep in Pennsylvania, South Jersey and Delaware (Pulisic is from Pennsylvania, remember).  Per Top Drawer Soccer, Philadelphia Academy has some of the top talent at the U17 age right now.  The identity is set for the Union as a club and hopefully we can see them battle it out with the Red Bulls as the top academy in the league.

REAL SALT LAKE ACADEMY

  • % of minutes to academy products in 2018:  18 %
  • Academy products with minutes in 2018:  Danny Acosta, Corey Baird, Justen Glad, Brooks Lennon, Sebastian Saucedo
  • Alumni abroad:  Carlos Salcedo (Eintracht Frankfurt)

In smaller markets where there are fewer people and thus players, MLS clubs have to be innovative in order to turn their academies into a competitive edge.  Look no further than Herriman, Utah, to see the gem that Real Salt Lake is building.  RSL’s academy stretches into three different states — most famously Arizona, where talent like Justen Glad was found.

Nothing shows the ambition and vision of the academy more than the newly-minted Zions Bank Real Academy.  The $60 million project features world-class facilities, fields, dorm rooms and a fully public charter school (which has 50 seats reserved for academy members).  The message is clear: when it’s difficult to send scouts out across a vast area to find talent, build the best training facility, combine it with free high-quality education and the talent will come to you.

Mike Petke, who led the New York Red Bulls to their first-ever trophy, kickstarted the youth movement in Salt Lake almost to the point that it’s surprising academy products have only received 18 percent of all minutes so far this year.

  • Danny Acosta – 20 years old and, like every other player on this list, capped at the youth level for the U.S. He joined the academy at 16 years old and got his first professional minutes at 17 years old with Real Monarchs (19 appearances) before his first MLS minutes at 18 years old (17 appearances).
  • Corey Baird – 22 years old. Joined the Academy at 17 years old before leaving for 4 years of college at Stanford. Just got signed to his first professional contract this year.
  • Justen Glad – 21 years old, starter and probably the second-best prospect in this article after Adams. He joined the academy at 15 years old before his professional debut at 18 years old with Real Monarchs (8 appearances). He received his first MLS minutes the same year (54 appearances).
  • Brooks Lennon – 20 years old and starter. He joined the academy at 15 years old before leaving for Liverpool at 18 years old. Never breaking through, he returned for his first professional minutes at 19 years old with Real Salt Lake (26 appearances).
  • Sebastian Saucedo – 21 years old. He joined the academy at 14 years old before getting his first professional minutes at 18 with Real Monarchs (10 appearances). Like Glad, he also got his first MLS minutes at 18 (32 appearances).

Real Salt Lake’s homegrown talent goes much deeper with other prospects like Jordan Allen getting minutes in past years.  There’s an extraordinary level of pedigree in the prospects, with all five being capped at the youth level for the U.S. and Glad being almost a surefire bet to get his full men’s national team cap sooner rather than later.  And much like Philadelphia’s academy, RSL also has a fair amount in the pipeline at the U17 and U16 levels.  With the new facilities opening this year, if I had to pick an academy to overthrow New York as the league’s top, this would be the one.

Looking at the top three academies thus far provides insight on what is working.  Once these clubs also find success in the way of winning trophies, you can bet other MLS teams will take notice and copy their blueprints. And if that happens, then it is highly likely the league and the U.S. national team program will be much better off.

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