When Major League Soccer debuted with a baker's dozen of teams 13 years ago, the notion of "developing young players" was paid lip service, but in reality, was considered a luxury.
Much like a 401(k) is to a freelance soccer writer -- it'd be nice, but rent's due and survival until next year trumps long-term projects.
Now, though, developing young players has become one of the cornerstones of the league's success. A solid, substantive cornerstone, at that.
It's no longer about Wheaties-box phenoms and million-dollar tweens. It's about nurturing young players, educating them, coaching them and giving them the tools to thrive. It's about learning the ropes in the reserve division -- which needs to be expanded -- and about even younger players joining the club and aspiring to someday join the first team.
In short, the league won't see another
This new attitude, which really took hold a few years ago, is just now beginning to bear fruit, as a few youngsters who have put some time in are starting to emerge. Here are some of the kids everyone should have on their radars:
The 24-year-old looks a little wiry -- like the Welsh kicker in
The former U.S. under-20 international has wheels, confidence and, over the weekend against Colorado, went into a fearless -- some might say reckless -- tackle early on that showed he's got some bite, too.
Plus, last week against Kansas City, he nearly pulled off a 60-yard
Well, the future is now in the SLC, as Sturgis, who did well at last summer's U20 World Cup and then again at last month's U23 Olympic qualifying tournament, might be one of the most versatile young players since shaggy-haired
He can line up anywhere in the back and pretty much anywhere in the midfield. It's no coincidence, I don't think, that RSL's first win corresponded with Sturgis' first start.
So far, so good. The Fire are undefeated atop the Eastern Conference, with only one goal conceded -- an own-goal by Soumare himself. Hey, at least, he's getting into the action.
I watched Soumare play a random pickup game this past winter in New York, and he had that languid ease one only sees in top-tier athletes. Once he learns to read the game more deeply, he could be an
Of course, these guys won't develop in a vacuum. The league has undergone a transformation in the last year or so, returning to the big-name model of the early days. The
But the future of this league depends on how these big-namers and other veterans -- the guys who developed before MLS concerned itself with player development -- help the young guys.
And can any of them help me with my 401(k) plan?