Though D.C. United fell behind the rest of the league in MLS 2.0, they are taking the lead in MLS 3.0.
On Friday, Steven Goff leaked the news that D.C. United will be signing their fifth homegrown player, striker Michael Seaton. Unlike the first four, however, Seaton is likely to remain in the development academy for a year or be loaned out to a lower division side, without any real chance of him seeing first team minutes this season or next. But while it may not seem like much, this is the beginning of MLS 3.0.
MLS 1.0 was the league at the very beginning, rising from the ashes of the NASL and the afterglow of the 1994 World Cup. United dominated this era of the league, winning three of the first four MLS Cups and adding a fourth in 2004. But it died in early 2000s with the folding of the Miami Fusion and the Tampa Bay Mutiny, and the league almost died with it. Although it hit rock bottom in 2001, the MLS 1.0 era finally wheezed to a close at the end of 2005, with the San Jose Earthquakes moving to Houston.
MLS 2.0 saw the league start to grow again and begin to stand on its own two feet, securing its financial future through the construction of soccer specific stadiums. Everyone knows that Crew Stadium was the first, completed in 1999, but six more soccer specific stadiums opened between 2005 and 2008. It also saw the addition of new teams, with Real Salt Lake and Toronto FC joining in 2005 and the league doubling in size from 2001 to now. Only the New England Revolution and D.C. United have yet to either build a stadium or have a stadium under construction. Obviously, United are still trying to fight through bureaucracy at many levels to catch up to the rest of the MLS 2.0 teams.
But at the same time that MLS 2.0 teams were building stadiums and controlling their financial future, MLS 2.5 was starting as well. In late 2008 the LA Galaxy signed Tristan Bowen as the league's first homegrown player. United quickly became the most successful team in developing homegrown players. Bill Hamid was the third homegrown player signed and Andy Najar was the seventh; both have attracted attention from European teams, and Najar has a chance to be the first homegrown player sold overseas.
Which brings us to MLS 3.0. The biggest D.C. United rumor so far this offseason has not been any particular transfer rumors or the various signings so far; in fact, you probably missed it due to the holidays. The biggest rumor is that MLS and USL Pro are negotiating to integrate the MLS Reserve League into USL Pro, the third tier of the United States soccer pyramid. It is thought that there will be some interplay during this upcoming season, with full integration coming in 2014.
The signing of Michael Seaton, a 16 year old striker in the D.C. United Development Academy and a product of the Freestate Soccer Alliance, means that this affiliation with USL Pro is going to happen. Unlike the teenage signings of MLS 1.0, such as Bobby Convey and Freddy Adu, or the disaster of 2010, when Najar and Hamid were forced to play, Seaton should not be expected to play with the first team this year or next. While some exceptional teenagers will always be able to break through, the league has grown to a place where that will become more and more rare.
The conventional wisdom has always been that the development academy system will reduce the importance of college soccer as a way to develop players; now that academy products have somewhere to continue their development, the avenue is open. Leigh Cowlishaw, head coach of the Richmond Kickers, said multiple times in their open forum about the year round development academies that playing with full professionals is better experience than any that they could hope get in college soccer and that is an option only available to those in academies. We have seen this numerous times with D.C. United's own academy, with players like Collin Martin and Paddy Foss getting time in MLS Reserve League matches, something not available to college soccer players.
D.C. United has also been one of the few teams to loan out its young players to allow them to develop, whereas other teams sign them and then cut them when they do not break through. Just this year Conor Shanosky played the most minutes of any player on the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Andrew Dykstra was the starting keeper on the USL Pro champion Charleston Battery, and Ethan White and Long Tan played for the Richmond Kickers. United has invested time and money in these players and so they will do everything they can to make sure they will work out.
The reserve league arrangement takes what United has already been doing to the the next level: players who would be getting 20 or so matches against other college players or who would be stuck deep on an MLS team's bench can now play a full professional season in USL Pro against other full professionals. In addition to play against higher quality competition, the teams have now vertically integrated their entire youth development system. Rather than developing players from 14 through 18 and then allowing a random college coach to take over, teams can now teach their proscribed tactics from the beginning of the academy to the first team. By signing a player specifically so he can his continue his development inside the D.C. United system until he is ready to contribute, United have become the first MLS 3.0 team.
Not only does it give current players on the roster a place to play, it gives United the opportunity to sign youth players from other teams and leagues and get them professional playing time. Long Tan got one game with the Richmond Kickers this past season, and would have gotten more if injuries had not hit the United forward corps. Jose Escalante is another Honduran player rumored to be signing with United; while he would never make the field for the first team here or in Honduras, a season in USL Pro would help him develop under the watchful eye of United's coaches. If the team sees enough in him, then they can buy him at the end of the season.
As with all changes in the youth development system, the balance of preparing these players for life as professionals with making sure they are not left by life's wayside at age 19 rages on. Since college soccer has always been the norm up until now, MLS has better safeguards in place than other leagues around the world: Generation adidas players get guaranteed money for college after their playing career and at least some teams help the players that they are not going to sign straight out of the academy with their college search. For many players graduation from the academy will mean a spot on a college team and then a career outside of playing soccer. For those few players who are good enough to make it to the next level, the new MLS Reserve League system allows them to continue their development with a tight focus on becoming a professional soccer player.
Welcome to MLS 3.0, with D.C. United leading the way yet again.