Yesterday, the Vancouver Whitecaps U-18s made their glorious last stand. Taking on FC Dallas in the final of the USSDA championship, they took leads of 1-0 and 2-1 but it was not enough as an excellent Dallas team wound up fighting back for a 3-2 victory.
It was a tough game to go out on, as this was the last time we'll see many of these players in a Whitecaps uniform. Almost all of the club's 1993-born players, now too old for the U-18 program, are moving on. Alex Rowley and Jason Van Blerk are staying local and going to Simon Fraser University. Ben McKendry is off to the University of New Mexico. Callum Irving, Vancouver's man of the match in the final game, will play for the University of Kentucky. Declan Rodriguez will go to the University of Milwaukee. Tim Hickson is also set to depart. And of course Ben Fisk, Vancouver's big playoff goalscorer, is unlikely to be heading into NCAA but hasn't signed with the Whitecaps either.
Some of those players may be back with the Whitecaps but all will be spending the winter out of Vancouver's hands, playing and being coached at a lower level. The Whitecaps will retain the rights to these players, subject to certain restrictions on the number of times they train with the team. They may still return. But golden development years are being lost in the NCAA maelstrom when they could be learning from professionals, as they have been up until now.
There's obvious talent there, including three current Canadian U-20 internationals; players who'd be worth holding on to in almost any league in the world.
But not Major League Soccer.
MLS has an infamously complicated list of roster rules designed to prevent any team from gaining too hefty an advantage over the others, as well as to keep clubs from going broke with old NASL-style spending sprees on veteran talent. But with the Designated Player rules, the top-secret allocation money system, and the myriad loopholes that allow the Montreal Impact to do things like sign Nelson Rivas for "$50,000". Teams can hurl millions of dollars away with mad abandon, and of course the rules are subject to change every time an old European looks covetously at the LA Galaxy.
But when it comes to the relatively-trifling sums that can be spent signing young prospects like Fisk, McKendry, and Irving, suddenly forced parity is back. It was easier for the Whitecaps to go out and sign Kenny Miller than it would be for them to sign Ben Fisk. Somewhere along the line, MLS got their priorities seriously backwards.
There are a multitude of problems the Whitecaps, and any other team, face trying to sign Academy talent. The first is salary. Major League Soccer rules state that a homegrown player signing must make the "minimum salary" (generally; see below). For the 2012 season that means the salaries which fall into the final 10 off-roster spots: five slots at $44,000 and five slots at $33,750. These slots don't just go to homegrown players, of course. As of this writing the Whitecaps have two players in the $44,000 range (Caleb Clarke and Carlyle Mitchell) and two in the $33,750 range (Greg Klazura and Brian Sylvestre).
So theoretically the Whitecaps can sign three more players at around $44,000 and three more at around $33,750. But for each of those $33,750 players the Whitecaps don't sign, Vancouver gains $35,000 in allocation money. It's true! There's actually a positive incentive not to sign young players built into the MLS roster rules.
Besides, even $44,000 is hardly a load of money. A player like Fisk or Daniel Stanese with a European Union passport could be forgiven for looking at that with raised eyebrows. Even non-EU citizens would think twice about giving up a free education for the sake of $44,000 a year. The average starting salary for a college graduate in the United States is $41,000 a year, but with that $41,000 job I don't need to worry about losing it because of a knee problem. Moreover, it's far easier to go from college to professional soccer than it is to go from professional soccer to college.
Each team can sign two homegrown players who make Generation Adidas-level money. The Whitecaps have done so with Russell Teibert and Bryce Alderson. This is a positive initiative as it keeps the two best prospects in the system, but why limit it to only two? Teibert's 2012 salary is $55,000, or as I prefer to call it 25% of Chad Barrett. Would allowing Fisk to make $55,000 ruin the delicate balance of Major League Soccer?
Because a player has no chance at an NCAA career the instant he hires an agent or signs with the Whitecaps, there are complications that are bad for everybody. In my books, goalkeeper Callum Irving is ahead of oft-injured Whitecaps third-stringer Brian Sylvestre. I'd rather have Irving developing with the first team and available on the bench just in case (and so would many others). But coming up hotly behind Irving are a number of excellent prospects: '94-born Sean Melvin, '95-born Nolan Wirth, and '96-born Marco Carducci.
If the Whitecaps signed Irving and, next year, it turned out Melvin had earned that roster spot, or Wirth earned it in two years' time, then Irving would have lost his best shot at a college education for a small amount of money and probably minimal playing time. It would screw over Callum and it wouldn't make the Whitecaps look very good. There's only one thing they really can do: hold onto Sylvestre since his college goose is already cooked and wait for the goalkeeping situation to resolve itself.
What if the Whitecaps threw caution to the wind, the players sucked it up, and Vancouver signed a few of the more promising U-18s? Then they'd be taking roster spots away from immediate first-team contributors; the MLS roster limit of 30 is set in stone. Every Residency player Martin Rennie signs is a veteran Martin Rennie can't sign without cutting somebody who just threw away their college eligibility for him.
It's also anybody's guess where they'd play. Many countries have deep soccer pyramids with lower professional divisions that allow young players to learn the ropes on loan, or are at least nearby countries that do. They'll have functional reserve teams that may be in a lower division themselves against motivated full professionals or at least play a large number of games with a purpose greater than keeping the second 18 in game shape. They won't be reliant upon the semi-professional USL PDL which plays 16 games a year and tries to fulfill about a hundred different objectives at once.
As you've figured out, none of these things are true in Major League Soccer. What, the Whitecaps are going to sign McKendry and send him on loan to the PCSL? West coast teams in particular are short on options below the NASL level, and the NASL level is tough, particularly on young players: it's physical, demanding, and high-tempo. There's a reason teenagers seldom play there and even more seldom succeed when they do. And that's without considering the lack of any serious winter league for players 18 and older.
Major League Soccer spends millions on high-priced talent designed to make TV executives happy. But MLS wasn't formed for that: it was formed to develop excellent soccer players. They've made some great strides turning professional academies into meaningful realities, yet as we see today, in many ways MLS is still setting itself up to fail at its most important responsibility.