Now that the international transfer window has closed for the Chicago Fire and Major League Soccer, the odds of the club signing a Homegrown Player have gone up. There could be a couple of trades to come but the front office should be able to juggle any trades and fit in a new Homegrown signing in as well. Chicago currently has two Homegrown Players: Kellen Gulley and Victor Pineda.
Pineda became the first Chicago Fire Homegrown Player when he was signed on August 17, 2010. Kellen Gulley signed with the Chicago Fire almost two years ago to the date on August 11, 2011. A signing this week would re-establish what was becoming an annual tradition.
When I looked at Homegrown Players in July of 2011 (skip down to item 6), the program was just beginning to see some significant contributions. A total of 15 players had received playing time in regular season games, a couple were getting regular playing time, and 37 players signed to Homegrown contracts were on MLS rosters.
Vast Development in Homegrowns
As of today, over 50 players have received some MLS Regular Season playing time. Homegrown players have scored 47 goals, contributed 61 assists, and have put together over 47,000 minutes of regular season playing time. All of this discounts Homegrown players stats after being moved or resigned (see Juan Agudelo with Chivas USA/New England Revolution and Tristan Bowen with Chivas USA for example).
|48||Bryan de la Fuente*||M||CHV||0||0||5|
|52||Francisco Navas Cobo*||M||HOU||0||0||1|
*designates an inactive player or player no longer with original club
The growth of Home Grown player involvement has been quite dramatic. Seattle's DeAndre Yedlin made the All-Star team this year and New York Red Bull's Agudelo made it in 2011. This past off-season, D.C. United's Andy Najar became the first homegrown player to merit a transfer fee when he was moved Belgium's Anderlecht. Agudelo might have been traded away from New York Red Bulls but he is only one year away from his playing time with New York and he will be off to Stoke City on January 1st.
This past weekend, you could have filled out an entire gameday roster with Homegrown Players that saw time:
The Vancouver Whitecaps' Homegrown Russell Teibert is tied for 2nd in the league in assists this year with 8. That matches designated players Robbie Keane and Diego Valeri. Eight assists is one more than David Ferreira and Javier Morales. Eight assists is two more than Federico Higuain, Graham Zusi, Joao Plata, Joel Lindpere, and Landon Donovan. New England's Homegrown Diego Fagundez is tied for 9th in the league in goals with 7. Seven goals puts him along side with Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry, Ryan Johnson, Obafemi Martins, Chris Wondolowski, Kenny Miller, Fabian Espindola, and Kei Kamara. It's great to see MLS developed players right there with some of the biggest names in the league and even the world.
Overall Numbers and Fire's Outlook
Back in Chicago, the Fire faithful are still waiting to see the first MLS regular season minutes played by a homegrown product. The club is in a very unique position that way. Only the San Jose Earthquakes with no Homegrown Players in their history, have still not played a Homegrown player yet.
Is this as devastating as some of the numbers on Chicago's international players or their designated players? Well, the success stories of homegrown players are rather limited to a handful of individuals. For every Fagundez, Teibert, Agudelo, and Yedlin, there are several homegrown players that don't receive any playing time and have even been released by their club. In addition, the success of the best homegrown players can't be denied but their 'Homegrownness' can be.
Home Away From Home
Andy Najar was born in Choluteca, Honduras and his family moved to Virginia when he was 13. Diego Fagundez was born in Montevideo, Uruguay and moved here when he was 5. Juan Agudelo was born in Manizales, Colombia and moved to New Jersey when his family was 7. Najar, Fagundez, and Agudelo turned pro not too long after they joined their MLS' team academy. How much each Eastern Conference rival deserves for the development of each player can be called into question. Each player represents a certain amount of 'dumb luck'.
Why Doesn't Victor Pineda Play?
Of the Fire's two homegrown players, Victor Pineda is clearly the more talented player. He is regularly called up by the US Youth National Teams and receives playing time there. Gulley is on loan to the North American Soccer League's Atlanta Silverbacks and has received little playing time down in Georgia. Fire team personnel have often said Pineda would have already made his debut if it weren't for these frequent USYNT call-ups and other bumps in Pineda's progress. For example, Pineda suffered an injury earlier this year that kept him out for a couple of months.
Pineda has been back from national duty and is injury free now. Still no playing time.
Age of Homegrown Players
|26||Francisco Navas Cobo*||M||HOU||3/5/2010||11/17/1991|
|35||Bryan de la Fuente*||M||CHV||8/25/2010||7/1/1992|
One of my major qualms with Pineda's situation is that he has been here for a long time. He signed his contract with the Fire three years ago almost to the day. Andy Najar put in an entire MLS career in that time. DeAndre Yedlin signed with Seattle in January and made the All-Star team in July. Pineda is 9 days younger than Najar and about 90 days older than Yedlin. The Fire haven't found time for him to even step on the field? Najar played almost 1,500 minutes more than Cuauhtemoc Blanco did in MLS and Pineda can't even get a 5-minute garbage-time substitution in the regular season?
The Effect on Morale
Imagine yourself as a soccer talented 15 year-old kid. Better yet, imagine yourself the parent of a soccer talented 15 year-old kid. You want your son to be the best and have the best road to the pros. You see a regular U.S. Youth National Team member just hang around on the Fire squad well after he is 20. You see another Fire homegrown player get loaned out to the Atlanta Silverbacks. How much of a priority is it for you to get your son to skip college (where they might get a scholarship of some kind) and sign with the Fire? The money is decent ($50,000-$75,000) in the short-term but as a parent, I'm not sure the trade off is worth it. That means other Chicago academies are on the table in my opinion.
Chicago's Crowded Academy Scene
Chicago has plenty of other soccer academies. Chicago Magic and Sockers FC were around for quite sometime before the Chicago Fire started their academy in 2007. Sockers FC alumni include Michael Bradley, Jay DeMerit, Baggio Husidic, Will Johnson, Mike Magee, Jonathan Spector, and Michael Stephens. Chicago Magic alumni include Perry Kitchen, Ricardo Clark, Ned Grabavoy, Eric Lichaj, Brad Guzan, Brad Ring, and Chris Schuler.
The Magic now have an affiliation with Paris St. Germain. These kind of affiliations are generally trumped up far more than they should be but the Magic are at least sending top players for short training stints with PSG. Sockers FC points out in their FAQs that players are not discouraged from competing in high school soccer. An important distinction because MLS academy players are no longer allowing their players to do so.
MLS teams don't charge their players to play for their academy but if money is not a concern for you and you are closer to the other academies than you are to Bridgeview, I could understand a parent enrolling their child in something non-Fire. The Greek team Olympiacos has even setup a soccer school.
TopDrawerSoccer.com's Top 20 Regional rankings for the Midwest in each age group demonstrate the competitive nature in Chicago. The Fire need to be aggressive in order to regularly draw in most of the top local talent into their academy.
What's the Big Deal?
Two years ago when only 15 players had received regular season minutes, it was fine that the Fire had not played a Homegrown Player yet. I understand that not every Homegrown signing is going to pan out. Each player has their own development clock. There is a 'right time' for everyone. It strikes me as odd that it hasn't been the right time for any one player in the Chicagoland area while it has been the right time for multiple players in much smaller markets than Chicago.
It means that for all the great history of the Chicago Fire PDL team, the front office hasn't been able to capitalize on its success while other MLS teams have caught up and potential surpassed the Fire's youth development. It means that for all of the Fire's team success on the national academy stage, the club isn't yet living up to the mission of the academy; "to cultivate professional soccer players".
This is an area of player acquisition that the front office must step up. There are multiple benefits to having a Homegrown Player:
- A player that is already familiar with your club structure and personnel
- A hometown hero for the fans and the media
- A player who does not count against the salary cap
That's right. Homegrown Players don't count against the salary cap. This part of the Homegrown Player rule seems like it will change at some point but for now, many teams in MLS are double-dipping by getting minutes from players that allow them to build up funds to acquire older players. The Fire started talking about the fact that they were going to face salary cap issues for the 2013 season before the 2013 off-season started. They didn't sign a Homegrown player or two in the off-season that could help give relief in that category.
The benefits to Chicago's competition are coming. This past Saturday, D.C. United played all 5 of their Homegrown players. New England played both of theirs. Toronto played two of their 4 Homegrowns. Columbus defeated New York 2-0 with Homegrown goalie Matt Lampson getting the shutout, Homegrown midfielder Will Trapp assisting Higuain on his second goal, and Homegrown Chad Barson putting in a full 90 minutes in defense. These four teams are below Chicago in the Eastern Conference standings for now but what happens when they have multiple players starting for them and not counting against the salary cap? The Fire will be at a disadvantage and that will be remarkable given Chicago's pioneering efforts in youth soccer and its larger population to draw talent from.
Future of the Eastern Conference
The fact that Chicago hasn't played a Homegrown Player yet isn't all that different from Sporting KC only giving Kevin Ellis 113 minutes so far. Outside of Agudelo and Connor Lade who has fallen out of favor, New York has almost no Homegrown production. Houston has very limited success even releasing a couple of players. Montreal hasn't seen much out of its 5 Homegrowns. Maybe there's something to being a successful team that means you don't have open minutes to give to players like Victor Pineda a chance. It's frustrating that since 2010 it seems like the Fire are constantly needing to win the next game or they won't make the playoffs.
Chicago is in a bit of a Homegrown Player no-man's land. We aren't struggling enough where we can give minutes to the kids to build the future. We aren't strong enough that we can afford to give minutes to players that we are just trying out. I just hope we don't get sandwiched out in the future. Sporting KC, New York, and Montreal remain competitive doing what they do. New England, Columbus, D.C. United, and Toronto FC use their Homegrown Players to full advantage within the salary cap. The Fire and Philadelphia will muck around. New York City FC will be a wild card.
Seven-Figure Transfer Fee
In the "To DP or not DP", Chicago Fire Senior Director of Communications Dan Lobring mentioned that Juan Luis Anangono came complete with a seven-figure transfer fee. I've speculated that MLS might have picked up some if not all of that transfer fee but if the Fire paid at least $1M in order to acquire Anangono, that strikes me as a very poor investment. On top of Anangono's regular salary, the Fire are pouring more money into this guy than all but about 10 MLS players this year. If Anangono does not produce like one of those top players and the Fire were not tapping into a league resource that would have expired otherwise, his signing should be viewed as a failure.
If MLS allowed the Fire to spend over $1M of league resources on acquiring Anangono, they should question their own policy of assisting this process. If the Fire spent over $1M of their own resources just to acquire Anangono while they only have 2 Homegrown Players, I really have to wonder what's up. Each MLS team can sign up to 2 Homegrown Players with funds from the Generation Adidas program. This is a hybrid program from the original Generation Adidas program that signed top college players that weren't seniors yet. It's not clear whether or not Kellen Gulley and Victor Pineda are enlisted in the program but if they aren't, the Fire are not tapping into one or both of these contracts. If the Fire do have them under the Generation Adidas program, the team is holding back from using its own funds to sign a Homegrown Player. If there are no talented Homegrown Players in the system that would make the squad, I have to question why other teams are developing Major League talent and we are content with having 10-11 players that don't make it to the Gameday 18 but do take up room on the salary cap.
Chicago soccer fans thought the Homegrown Player rule was going to benefit the Fire when it was announced due to the success of the PDL team. I think I speak for many when I say I'm surprised the Fire are behind in Homegrown Player development at this point. We need to start playing the kids. We need to start gaming the salary cap system before the Homegrown Player system is maiming us.