MLS ’13: Is Generation Adidas Working?

When Robert Hay and I were tossing around the idea of a Season Preview series, the team-by-team thing seemed a little tedious. I asked him to start throwing out some general ideas, and I tossed in a few of my own. This was one of them, and I’m not sure this is an easy one to answer.

The Generation adidas program morphed from the old Project-40 program, and according to a press release from 2006:

Generation adidas, which was established ahead of the 2005 MLS season, is Major League Soccer’s youth player development program designed to identify and nurture the elite youth soccer talent in the United States. The youth players who join MLS as part of the Generation adidas program receive unprecedented opportunities to develop their game and hone their skills at the professional level in Major League Soccer. In addition to training and playing on a weekly basis with one of Major League Soccer’s 12 professional clubs, Generation adidas players will also receive educational grants to further their college education.

If you take a look at the Class of 2006 at that same link, you can see the program started off in strong fashion: Altidore, Kamara, Kljestan, McCarty, Ianni, Wynne. There were some other players that don’t have the same reputation as those six: Jacob Peterson, Willie Sims, Nathan Sturgis, Blake Wagner, and Jed Zayner. So out of 11 players from the initial GA class, 3 are now in Europe, a couple are high quality MLS players, and the rest are either journeymen in MLS or out of the league altogether.

mlsseasprev2013take3 150x133 MLS 13: Is Generation Adidas Working?There were Project-40 classes before 2006, but for the sake of discussion the 2006 class was a solid one. But this isn’t 2006, it’s 2013. The program surely provided teenage and college graduates (specifically those who might impact the National Team) with a chance in the early years to be funded as well paid professionals, while not hampering MLS teams’ salary structure with a player who may take years to develop.

Every GA class seems to have its Sacha Kljestan (a solid contributor who has or probably will make their way to a good European club) and its Willie Sims (who appeared 9 times for New England and has wandered around the lower leagues for years). It’s tougher to gauge recent classes as well, because many of these kids are still under the age of 22. We in American sports tend to consider 22 to be quite young with the best yet to come. In international soccer realms, 22 is right at the beginning of a players’ prime.

Perhaps that’s where Generation adidas gets a bad rap - and it’s not really the program’s fault, but more the culture in the United States. At 21 years old, the oldest of the GA players are not getting into the pro system early enough. Often the younger players are not quite ready for the first team at most MLS clubs, so they end up either on the bench, in a reserve team that gets many fewer matches, or not even playing at all. Training with the club does help, but real match experience is very important.

With all of that, scouting isn’t perfect, and you’re always going to have an element of signing players to GA contracts that don’t live up to the billing.

So why do players not get enough experience? There are a few factors.

- Fighting for position. The two GA forwards taken in 2010 by the Philadelphia Union, Danny Mwanga and Jack McInerney, fought that philosophy. With Sebastien LeToux and Alejandro Moreno ahead of them in the depth chart, only Mwanga got significant playing time in his rookie season. When Moreno left, the club brought in Carlos Ruiz. Again, playing time was impacted, primarily for McInerney. Finally in 2012, after Ruiz, Le Toux, and Mwanga had all been shipped out of town, McInerney got his chance to shine. He scored 8 goals in the second half of last season.

So what did the Union do in the offseason? Reacquire Le Toux and select Conor Casey in the Re-Entry Draft. They also have another GA forward, Chandler Hoffman, and speedster Antoine Hoppenot. It remains to be seen if McInerney will see regular minutes after a breakout 4 months.

- Delaying Graduation. Eventually, a GA player must graduate. That can be mighty costly for a team that is in a tight salary cap situation. Steve Zakuani was a GA player entering the league in 2009 - he made a base salary of $65K, and guaranteed compensation of $163K. None of that counted towards Seattle’s cap number because GA players are exempt. He graduated after the 2009 season, based on factors that aren’t quite clear but seem to be appearances, minutes, goals, and other performance factors. In 2010, Seattle was forced to take $80K of base and $178K of guaranteed compensation on their books (caveat: the MLS economic system is confusing, and it’s not clear whether base or guaranteed compensation is the number that matters in terms of the cap).

I’m not sure if a team has ever come out and admitted trying to limit the parameters that trigger graduation, but if I ran a team, the thought would certainly cross my mind. Either you gamble that a player will improve enough with playing time to make it worth the cap hit, or you leave him to never have the chance to improve.

- Lack of quality. I don’t know who selects the players who receive GA funding, but they can get it wrong too. If a player just doesn’t cut it, and appears to be of insufficient quality to ever crack the first team, the player will collect his contract and ride the pine.

Of course there are plenty of times when a player succeeds because of the system. Omar Gonzalez and Brek Shea are great examples of players who pan out. In Shea’s case, F.C. Dallas has received a handsome fee from Stoke City for developing Shea. Roger Espinoza was also in his class, and went to Wigan Athletic on a transfer. There are quite a few others players on that list who are serviceable veterans in MLS, and some that fizzled.

It leads to the question of what would be better? How would we improve Generation Adidas? I’m not sure. You could consider punishing teams who select GA players only to allow them to go to waste on the bench - clubs may they decide to stop selecting the players altogether.

One idea that I have is trying to incentivize teams who develop their GA players to their fullest extent. MLS could set a standard date for graduation from Generation Adidas - say 3 years. In the third year, a panel could rate the graduating players, and salary cap exemptions could be extended a year for the top 3 or 4 players. It would give the teams a chance to evaluate their options with the player, either a long term deal or a chance to sell them on for profit.

But in my opinion, the current GA system is a little punitive towards teams that do give the players a chance. It’s as if teams must weigh a player’s chances of being a regular starter within three years, or it’s not worth chancing the short-term lack of production and long-term cost.

With all of that, I would have to say that Generation adidas is only as good as the talent entering the program. As long as there is a Darren Mattocks or Jozy Altidore that benefits MLS through the program, it will continue in some form. I just hope that MLS and US Soccer can find a way to improve the rate of top footballers who graduate from GA.

What do you think? Are you happy with the way the Generation adidas program is working in its current form? Do you have any ideas how it can be improved? Comment below and give your feedback about the way MLS handles the young player.

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10 Responses to MLS ’13: Is Generation Adidas Working?

  1. gbewing says:

    interesting info on a topic I’ve long wondered about- well done

  2. ADF says:

    Other countries have a minister of sport. They spend a huge percentage of GDP on the game. Do they get better results? That is debatable. Does GA pay for itself? Probably.

  3. Charles says:

    “Perhaps that’s where Generation adidas gets a bad rap…”

    GA doesn’t have a bad rap. At all. Not even crossing the mind of anyone that knows anything about it. To not mention players like Bruin, MacMath, Kitchen, and Nagbe ( and that is just 2011 ) is crazy and almost seems like you have an agenda.

    The number of huge names and huge successes the program has kept in a league, that only had about 12 teams when it started, because of Gen Ad has been crucial to the growth of MLS.

  4. The original Tom says:

    I’m suspicious about programs run by the governing body in a big country like ours. Spain, for example, doesn’t develop players; the clubs in Spain do.

    Then again, I think South Korea has a centralized system.

    • Charles says:

      Is Gen Ad a development program ?
      I don’t see how ? The guys in 2013 were named Gen Ad a few weeks ago and now are playing with their MLS teams.

      It is a way to compete with the other leagues recruiting the best talent and it is crushing it right now. I hope it continues that way.

  5. Blackmang says:

    There’s a simple fix to solving the developmental problem, develop the lower leagues and reserve team schedule so they can offer more playing time. Currently Garber just approved the deal with MLS USL link to help development but the reserve teams NEED more playing time to aid in development whether it’s more deals like this to link lower divisions with reserve teams or I’ve even heard some people entertaining the idea of reserve teams playing college teams, bottom line is that more real game action is essential!

    • Charles says:

      Simple equals you front the money for this ?
      I have an idea if ta team signs Messi it will be a better team.

      The idea of what needs/what should be done is the easy part, figuring out how to pay for it is the hard part.

  6. Jay says:

    GA will become less and less relevant as other developmental programs evolve — and as more and more US youth leave for Europe instead of even starting college. I think the Academy signings have more significant problems than GA has, frankly, what with players getting released 9 months after signing and never getting any minutes. I’m looking at you, NYRB.

    I’d hope that an extension to the GA concept could be enacted, targeting players who haven’t started college yet, and is focused on actual developmental time, perhaps attached to USL affiliates. Long term, I hope to see MLS clubs taking advantage of the third affiliation option (enter a club in USL). Clubs could build up rosters of non-MLS players that they’d still hold MLS option rights on if they proved themselves. It feels like players such as Ruben Luna and Šaćir Hot got ripped off by the league.

    • Charles says:

      I don’t get how you think the MLS devel, instead of college works ?

      So a mom sends her baby to MLS devel, where he had a moderate shot of making $50k-150k, where he makes nothing while trying and doesn’t get a college education ?
      I will take a wild stab that you don’t have kids.

      Euro has to be the same way too. I doubht there is enough money to stop the flow to a free education.

      College is dominating the landscape for a reason…and it isn’t because Garber ruled it be that way.

    • Charles says:

      Not really sure how a 20 year old who didn’t make it in MLS got screwed, if he is good enough someone will pick him up, but instead an NASL team didn’t play him.

      Maybe he should have gone to college. He would be getting out in 2 years a better player

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