After four years of being out of the playoffs, it's fair to say the D.C. United front office has struggled with fielding a team that can compete with the league's best. Last month, I posted a piece detailing the franchise's weak record with international signings during that four-year stretch of poor form, identifying that as a major factor in the team's rapid fall from the MLS heights. Right now, Untied seems to be watching from the sidelines as the top MLS teams are adding strong players from Europe and Latin America. Today, FC Dallas added one of the best strikers in CONCACAF, Blas Perez, along with a young, talented Colombian defender who has captained his country's U23 team. Dallas joins the LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and Philadelphia Union in adding what seem like good foreign players. Also, the New York Red Bulls added to their stable today, with an experienced Scandinavian defender. Even the San Jose Earthquakes seems to have beaten United to its first international target, Victor Bernardez, based on discovery claim priority because of the Earthquakes' weaker record last year.
Right now, I fear that D.C. is falling even farther behind the other teams in constructing a winning roster for 2012, If, as I believe, international roster slots reset for the new season, then United has six international roster slots to fill (or trade for domestic talent). The team's competitiveness this season will depend on how good a job the front office does with this task -- with the level of talent they bring into the team to fill those international slots.
Over the long run, though, there is another even more important mechanism which MLS teams will need to exploit if they want to stay at the top of the league competition -- and it is that piece of the puzzle that I want to write about now: the Academy system.
When I say the Academy system will be even more important than foreign recruitment, I am really just making a numbers argument. Under the new collective bargaining agreement which was put in place last season, rosters were dramatically increased to 28 and even up to 30 players. Unless and until MLS increases the number of international slots from the current level of eight, this means more than two thirds of a team's roster must be filled with domestic players. Of course, some foreign players will gain green cards if they stay long enough, but still the majority of players will be players who grew up here or came for college and stayed.
Of course, to date, most teams have relied primarily on the college draft -- now called the Superdraft -- to find the top American talent. Today, D.C. United posted a retrospective of the team's drafting history. One positive that stands out from this history is that the team is doing a better job in recent years in identifying top players. The best draft in team history must be the 2001 draft, which brought Santino Quaranta, Bryan Namoff and Ryan Nelsen, but that seems a fluke due mostly to having 4 of the top 15 selections. Most of the early drafts brought only one player who contributed to the team for any length of time. Some drafts were even less successful than that.
As dismal as the team's performance has been in foreign recruitment since 2007, the effort in the draft has been almost the exact opposite in the impressive results that have come from it. 2007 and 2008 were problematic in that three of D.C.'s picks ended up playing abroad, instead of signing with the team -- and Bryan Arguez left for Germany after only one year. Still, you have to give the team credit in identifying good players. 2009 was a brilliant draft, bringing in Chris Pontius, Rodney Wallace, Milos Kocic and Brandon Barklage, all of whom are still in the league. The team didn't have a draft pick in the first three rounds in 2010, due to United's willingness to trade its picks. Last year, though, the team did have four picks in the first four rounds and the team found four players who may be a part of the team for years with Perry Kitchen, Chris Korb, Joe Willis and Blake Brettschneider.
This year, the team has only one pick in the top 60, so we can't expect more than that one player contributing to the team. Given the team is picking at No. 7 and the apparent strength of the top 10 players available, the team should come away with a big piece of the team's future, but that won't fill all those empty roster slots. In fact, that's generally true of the Superdraft. Notwithstanding the team's excellent drafts in 2009 and 2011, it's probably not realistic to expect a team to find more than two MLS-level players in the draft each year. So, as an average, after five years, a team is doing extraordinarily well if it has 10 players that came from the draft.
If you add those ten players that came via the draft to the eight internationals on the team, you may be able to fill out the minimum 18 that go into the salary budget roster. However, that would still leave the team with 10-12 more slots to fill. Of course, a team may find a free agent or two, but then you're really just mining other teams' castoffs. Also, in that case, you're either giving up an international slot, or you're grabbing a domestic player who probably came to MLS through the draft. To fill those other slots, teams will have to start looking to their academies.
There's another reason why academies will gain in importance in coming years -- a lack of talent available in the draft. As other MLS teams start to bring many of the best young [layers into their academy system, they will make big use of the Homegrown system. Right now, D.C. United has the most homegrown players, with four: Bill Hamid, Andy Najar, Ethan White and Conor Shanosky. However impressive that seems, even United will have to do a better job in finding talent through their Academy.
As a lot of the best domestic players find their way into the Homegrown system, it will be even harder for each team to find two MLS-level players in the draft. Pickings will be slim for teams picking at the back end of the draft -- those teams that have had the best records on the pitch. The best players are also angling for moves to Europe, either before the draft, or even after a few years with their MLS side. So if a team could only expect to find eight drafted players on the roster at any one time, the teams may need to fill a dozen or more slots with Homegrown talent.
To reach that level, teams will have to add more than two Homegrown players each year -- and, if they risk losing a player like Najar to foreign teams, the pipeline from the Academy has to be pretty solid. It's not enough to find one or even two players there each year. While United has done really well in bringing in 2 players in each of the first two seasons of the Homegrown system, the team will have to match that every year and probably even up that number in coming years.To fill out 10-12 slots every five or six years means adding a minimum of two Academy alums each year.
The turnover due to injuries, unmet expectations and the loss of the best talent to Europe will necessitate even better results from the Academy -- probably an average of three playrs moving up to the big club each year, either directly from the Academy or after spending some time playing in high-level NCAA programs. I think Don Garber may have overstated the case about the draft being obsolete in the future. For the foreseeable future there will be enough players who come from areas or clubs outside the Academy system to warrant a draft. Still, he's correct in emphasizing the ever-increasing role the Academies must and will play in developing professional talent.
I applaud D.C. United's front office for being at the cutting edge in creating the team's Academy and making the greatest use of the Homegrown system. As well as they have done in the first two years, the team will have to keep getting better. Bringing in a coach like Soony Siloy is a sign of the team's understanding of this reality and its commitment to even better results in the future. It will, however, take more than just a good coach. It will take a much bigger investment of resources to create the bigger, stronger Academy that United will need.
A number of the best players in the region have developed outside D.C. United's system. Last year's MLS Rookie of the Year, CJ Sapong is a player that DCU might have had in their system if the Academy focus had been there earlier -- if the team had cast a wider net. Brian Ownby and Will Bates are top players coming out this year who might have been as well. One of the best underage players in the country is Junior Flores, who has played for the McLean club. Steve Goff has also written about an even younger player, Gedion Zelalem, who is likely to move to Europe to get into an Academy there. It's no shame to lose a player of that talent to one of the best clubs in Europe, but one has to wonder why foreign clubs are finding him before even United.
Last month, I discussed how the team's current dire circumstances have roots in the poor record in international scouting and recruitment. There's also the impact of the circus that has surrounded the comings and goings of Troy Perkins. In other forums, I've identified the departure of Perkins to Norway and the efforts of United to fill the hole this created as the moment when the franchise's fortunes really turned (though, one could say that the decision to give the job to Perkins over Nick Rimando actually started the chain of events). The team traded Bobby Boswell, brought in a lot of players trying to find replacements for Boswell, and then traded to get Perkins back and eventually to bring Fred back after dealing him to get Perkins' rights. It's been a swirl of chaos, and involved trading valuable draft picks and spending resources on foreign signings that could have filled other holes. To avoid the dramatic impact a departure like Perkins' can have, teams need to have talent in the Academy pipeline. It will be even more important in years to come.
As fans, we want to see United bring in big-name foreign talent. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem realistic right now, given the team's financial fortunes. We have to hope that this situation will be straightened out, with a new stadium in the city and new investors bringing in some spending capital.
When that new capital comes in, it will need to be distributed in a number of ways: Costly foreign signings, to be sure, and definitely better, more comprehensive international scouting. A good chunk, though, should be reserved for growing the D.C. United Academy. It needs to start younger, and it needs to have wider reach, to get kids whose parents don't want their kids in D.C. 2-3 times a week. Real Salt Lake and the Vancouver Whitecaps actually have residential academies (RSL's is in Arizona). I don't know if that's the ideal solution for D.C., but having some satellite operations in the outer suburbs is probably a good idea, even if it ruffles feathers in McLean, Bethesda and Baltimore County.
The last couple of years have shown that consistency in MLS depends on finding foreign talent that can lead a team. We've also seen that the colleges are producing better players and stars can be found in the draft, too. However, it's also clear that the increased roster size means that the spines of the team will be forged from homegrown talent. That's "Homegrown", with a capital "H".