Gyasi Zardes is one the best attacking players in MLS right now, and he is neither a wrung-out superstar cashing in chips on an American soccer vacation nor a USMNT star boomeranging back home for regular playing time. His 16 goals for the LA Galaxy are the most of any American (and fifth-most in MLS) and he's a big reason why this Galaxy squad is one of the best MLS teams of all time. The best American players of recent years have all defined themselves through European success or USMNT glory, but Zardes has become a star independent of both traditional mechanisms. Zardes' athleticism and intelligent movement off the ball could soon earn him a call-up or foreign contract, but a lot of his development from bright prospect to top-level threat took place internally within the Galaxy's academy and second team.
This has been the year of the homegrown player in MLS. DeAndre Yedlin, a Sounders academy alum headed off to North London, was the USMNT's breakout World Cup star. Bill Hamid is probably going to win Goalkeeper of the Year for his stellar work at D.C. United. There are other success stories, but Zardes has been the unquestionable headliner, serving as muse and target for Landon Donovan and the rest of the Galaxy's attack. Last season, he flailed when given the opportunity to replace Mike Maggee, but things clicked for him in 2014. Look at his dummy to set up Baggio Husidic for an unimpeded chance on goal. A year ago, Zardes would've likely blasted that over the bar, but he's finally getting a handle on patience and guile in the box.
Plays like that are outside the stereotypical oeuvre of American players. They are expected to huff and puff and try their best to blow the house down by force. Zardes is fast and strong, but he plays a more holistic style. Young players like him who can play this way are starting to pop up all over the league. When Tommy Thompson joined the Earthquakes' first team this year, every MLS team had at least one homegrown player on its roster for the first time in history. On Sunday, the Galaxy host the Sounders in the most important game of the MLS season, and both will rely as much on their homegrown stars just as much as their imported ones. Not every HGP is an internationally capable player like Yedlin or Zardes, but they are still important to the league. The system is starting to produce a middle class of MLS players, who inhabit that crucial space between the league's stars and its incapable veteran holdovers from eras past.
Filling that hollow is essential for MLS to continue growing. It doesn't want to be a vacation league, and to do so, it needs a consistent supply of capable young players to take up the mantle. MLS isn't where it needs to be on that front yet, but it's finally implemented a workable facsimile of the European model that produces quality players.
American soccer has an incongruous history of youth development. Right before the 1998 World Cup, U.S. Soccer rolled out Project 2010, which aimed to produce a World Cup-winning generation of players in 12 years. They did not succeed. The project's main outlets were Generation Adidas (formerly Project-40) and the IMG Soccer Academy. Each tried to do a similar version of the same thing: take a small crop of promising players and mold them into gems before tossing them onto MLS teams.
Most stars from the USMNT's last two World Cups, including Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore, came through the ranks of either or both programs, but neither initiative was inclusive enough. Less than 20 players a year earn Generation Adidas contracts. That system only manufactures the type of competitive national team U.S. Soccer officials want if every single player turns into a star. Be it American exceptionalism, unpreparedness, or low interest levels, U.S. Soccer spent a decade-plus relying on a fractionally effective system.
MLS is off their artisanal, small-batch development model now, but the league's scouting and academy structure don't yet rival European or South American clubs. Gyasi Zardes is an unimpeachable success, but he spent as much time at CSU Bakersfield as with the Galaxy. To keep MLS stocked with Yedlins and Zardeses, the league needs to keep investing money and time into replicating successful academies around the world. Ideally, American teams can compete with those academies and stop the flow of the country's best and brightest to foreign teams, like Christian Pulisic to German side Borussia Dortmund and Rubio Rubin to FC Utrecht in the Netherlands. If top-level talent stays domestic, they help raise the status and level of play in the league.
Countries the USA should see as their international contemporaries, like Colombia, Nigeria, and Belgium, all find themselves in this bind, where their developmental system is shorted-out by elite foreign teams skimming off top prospects. Without a fresh supply of young stars, the domestic league always punches below its weight and the national team suffers. For MLS to get to a position where its teams compete on the open market for stars, they need to hook themselves into the positive feedback loop that comes with internal development.
The evidence that they will capitalize on their opportunity to invest in growth is foggy. MLS finally has a good thing going with its Homegrown Player system, but their organizational structure is handicapping their potential. MLS is still largely run like it was 20 years ago. Certain players can sign with teams as they would in any normal league around the world, but due to the salary cap and a paranoid insistence on parity at all costs, MLS has a few byzantine rules. In order to allow teams to sign big players, each squad is allowed three Designated Player slots whose contracts don't count against the cap. When a star or a USMNT player wants to join MLS, they don't sign with any particular team, they sign with MLS and are then allocated to whatever franchise has the highest allocation slot.
Tight regulations on player movement and freedom hamstring teams and the league, but MLS implemented them to ensure a competitive league across the board. The logic 20 years ago was that American sports fans wouldn't be hooked in if their prospective teams sucked. So they ran themselves like a shady cabal and it made sense at the time. But MLS has grown to the point that the central office needs to take off their training wheels and behave like a competent organization, not an opaque locus of collusion.
This year, the same year Zardes and his cohorts established themselves, MLS skirted their own allocation rules to place Clint Dempsey in Seattle but then selected Jermaine Jones's team by blind draw. Labyrinthine signing mechanisms probably prevented Mix Diskerud from coming to MLS. Chivas USA is on forced hiatus for a few years and MLS talking about expanding the league into six new markets in the next seven years. By diffusing outward too fast and making it overly difficult for stars to join the league, they threaten to negate all the growth they've had in the recent past.
This is the central tension within MLS. Gyasi Zardes is a poster boy for all that MLS is doing right but they aren't prioritizing players like him enough. He is the type of homegrown star MLS should be focusing on, but the league still functions like a hostile bureaucracy. After 19 years of experimental management and wacky ideas, they've finally started to reverse course and align with the machinations of the world's biggest leagues. MLS needs to continue carefully backing out of their parking spot, not slamming the gas down and crashing through the liquor store window with unintelligible rules and long-outdated ideas about how their league can grow. We have a commercially viable, competitive domestic soccer league, something American soccer hasn't ever had before. Whether the league wakes up and presses on in the right direction will determine how viable that league will be on an international scale and how far the United States will ever get in a World Cup.
Photo Credit: Getty