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The New York Red Bulls and the Homegrown Player Rule: Expectations Meet Reality

Kassel - regular at fan events, bit player on the pitch
Kassel - regular at fan events, bit player on the pitch

When the New York Red Bulls waived former homegrown signees Matt Kassel and Sacir Hot on Thursday, most Red Bull fan sites and media outlets were severe in their condemnation of General Manager Erik Solér and Head Coach Hans Backe. One even went so far as to accuse the Scandinavians of treating young American players like glorified traffic cones. Neither Hot nor Kassel had played any significant role for the Red Bulls since being signed in 2011, and both have been buried deep on the depth chart at their respective positions. Kassel made just two MLS league appearances in 2011, totaling 82 minutes, while Hot failed to even make the bench for a single first team match.

A thread started on the Hot/Kassel topic on the Facebook page of Red Bulls fan site The Viper's Nest ran to 165 comments. Metrofanatic, where outrage over any and every move the Nordic regime makes seems to be par for the course, reacted - predictably - negatively to the news. The general consensus was that neither Kassel nor Hot had been given a fair shake and that both had fallen victim to management's distaste for young American talent, in favor of established international players. Some even predicted that Hot and Kassel would come back to haunt the Red Bulls someday, à la Dwayne De Rosario.

Just a week prior to the Red Bulls' release of Kassel and Hot, Real Salt Lake had parted ways with homegrown signing Danny Toia, who hadn't seen a minute of first team action in 2011, to little or no fanfare. Jason Kreis wasn't accused by media and fans of not giving the youngster a chance. It was simply viewed as a player signing that didn't work out, much in the same way that the bulk of players selected in the MLS SuperDraft fail to have any impact on the professional level.

Why the differing reactions? First - and most obviously - the intensity of Salt Lake City's media spotlight pales in comparison to New York's. Second, RSL's recent track record has given Kreis the benefit of the doubt, allowing him to add or jettison players as he sees fit. If New York had won a significant piece of silverware during the past two plus years, most local observers would be inclined to cut management some slack with regard to talent decisions. But, having failed in the playoffs in 2010 before enduring a mostly disastrous 2011 (versus expectations), and having traded away Dwayne De Rosario for a Dax McCarty-shaped bag of peanuts, Solér and Backe are second guessed at every turn.

It's important to keep in mind that the homegrown player rule is still in its infancy and is only a guarantee of one thing: promise. At some point last winter the Red Bulls decided that Hot and Kassel had shown enough of it to merit a professional contract. But it's unrealistic to expect that every player who signs professional papers will make it through to the first team as a regular.

To use just one example, Chelsea, who have invested millions in building an academy system, have failed to develop a single first team player since John Terry. Some of the players who came through the Blues' system - such as Scott Sinclair - have gone on to have respectable careers elsewhere. Others have faded into obscurity. The point is that bringing players through an academy - as opposed to randomly plucking them out of the U.S. college system, which has been MLS' bread and butter until recently - may have a greater chance of success, but it's no guarantee. Young players fail to live up to early promise all over the world, and MLS is no exception. Those who expected the Homegrown Player Rule to provide a steady stream of top notch prospects for MLS clubs and the U.S. Men's National Team may need to temper their expectations.

Another argument for keeping Kassel and Hot on the Red Bulls' roster is that both would be "off budget" and therefore not impact New York's bottom line. Why not keep them around for another year and see if they develop as hoped? This overlooks several factors. First, other local American trialists in New York's preseason camp - players such as Jose Angulo, Jhonny Arteaga and former homegrown signing Giorgi Chirgadze - may be more enticing than Hot and Kassel. Second, MLS rules allow clubs to receive a $35,000 allocation for not using two of their maximum number of 30 roster slots. In a salary cap league, $70,000 of financial flexibility is always welcome. If the Red Bulls were to sign five or six trialists and add a third goalkeeper, they would find themselves at 27 to 28 players under contract. Would it be worth keeping Hot and Kassel at the expense of allocation cash, especially when some of that cash can be used to pay down a future third designated player?

The frustration over the release of Kassel and Hot is understandable. Fans always want to see local kids make it, especially ones who had supported the club as youngsters and worked their way through the academy system. There is also a very real sense among many fans that the Red Bulls have abandoned their tradition of developing American talent in favor of a "win now" mentality (the widespread frustration over a perceived lack of playing time for Juan Agudelo being Exhibit A). Critics should note, however, that even as Hot and Kassel have been cut, the Red Bulls have been busy adding two American goalkeepers, an American right back and an experienced American striker.

Solér and Backe would undoubtably argue that they are being paid to win games, and not develop players for the U.S. National Team pool. After two years in charge the Red Bulls' management team is at a crossroads, and the pressure from Austria to finally break the franchise's record of futility must be intense. They window is rapidly closing on the careers of veterans such as Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez and Teemu Tainio. If Kassel and Hot are not considered to be vital cogs of a championship winning team or first team regulars for the future then it's hard to argue against their release, as much as that plays against supporters' expectations and hopes.