Charles Boehm has done some excellent reporting for SoccerWire.com and uncovered some backroom machinations that threaten the smooth running of the New York Red Bulls' recently acquired taste for aggressive youth development.
RBNY has long had one of the better academies in MLS. The Red Bulls' squad currently boasts five homegrown players - deemed direct products of the club's youth development efforts - and that number is second only to FC Dallas and the Vancouver Whitecaps (six homegrowns each on their rosters) among MLS rosters at the moment. Barring trades of the existing crop of rostered homegrowns, RBNY's academy-graduated contingent is confidently expected to grow during this off-season.
The question is not whether the Red Bulls will sign more homegrown players over the next month or two, but which members of this year's sizeable crop they will seek to harvest for their MLS or USL squads.
One player increasingly thought to be high on RBNY's list of targets for the 2016 homegrown intake is Brandon Allen:
Red Bulls might make homegrown offer to @GUHoyasMSoccer junior F Alex Muyl. Club could also sign Hoyas senior F Brandon Allen to HG deal
— Steven Goff (@SoccerInsider) December 9, 2015
This is unsurprising because Allen has been one of the higher-rated prospects in the Red Bulls' pipeline for several years (he was rumored to be targeted for a homegrown player contract last season). Indeed, he will celebrate the end of a very successful NCAA career with Georgetown as one of the beaten finalists for the MAC Hermann trophy at the inevitable coronation of Jordan Morris as this year's best male college player.
It was also, however, surprising to see credible reports linking Allen to RBNY because the player was close to being the poster-boy for the club's mishandling of academy-raised talent.
As recently as this time last year, MetroFanatic.com was moved to point out the Red Bulls' uninspiring record with former academy players in the first team, and to cite that record as reason for one of last year's top academy prospects - Dan Metzger - ducking RBNY's advances and seeking the chance to find another team in MLS via the SuperDraft. In the same article, MF warned the club might face the same situation in 2015 with an even more highly-rated young player: Brandon Allen.
When Allen's name popped up on the list of players invited to the MLS Combine - effectively the audition for the SuperDraft - it suggested MetroFanatic's worst fears were true: the talent RBNY had nurtured through its academy was going to slip away.
But Boehm's article contains several quotes from Allen's college coach - Brian Wiese - to suggest club and player had patched things up recently:
Brandon Allen should be a Red Bull Homegrown.
I think Brandon’s about as Red Bull as it gets.
I know Red Bull have offered him a Homegrown deal and I know Brandon would be really excited to play for his home club.
Excellent. Welcome to RBNY, Brandon.
Not so fast:
I think some other clubs are challenging his homegrown status with the league, so that sort of hit the brakes on that.
The gist of Boehm's piece - which you should read for yourself, if you haven't already - seems to be that Allen's efforts to disentangle himself from RBNY's priority claim on his career in MLS have been a little too successful.
It is no secret that he didn't always see a future for himself with RBNY, reportedly because he is a forward and the club - especially under Red Bull's ownership - has a longstanding tradition of signing big, or at least experienced, names to lead the team's scoring. As Wiese told Boehm:
Brandon today is much more excited about being a Red Bull player with the first team than he was two years ago. He’s always loved the idea of playing for Red Bull, but the worry was [that] there was never going to be a realistic opportunity for him to get into the first team … waiting for the next Thierry Henry to get signed in his place
Allen didn't play for RBNY's U-23s last season. Instead, he played for Clarkstown Eagles; in 2014, he ducked RBNY's development squad to play for Baltimore Bohemians. These decisions generally interpreted as distancing measures from RBNY: ones that, among other things, allowed him to at least try to shake off the homegrown tag and make clear his interest in exploring other options.
Wiese suggests to Boehm that the "reason why people are questioning his Homegrown status is there's a lot of people out there that would like him." Surely true. But the reason his status is being questioned is also presumably because he himself took steps to allow it to be called into question.
That should be a moot point: Brandon Allen was raised a Red Bull and if he wants to return to the fold, take advantage of both the club's newfound enthusiasm for its youth (Thank you, RalfBall) and MLS's newfound cash for homegrown players - well, that works out very nicely since RBNY is also the institution that invested most heavily in his development.
While it is a good thing MLS has developed a set of homegrown rules that allow young players to distance themselves from their academy teams if the situation is not to their liking, it seems like much less of a good thing if those same rules can subsequently be exploited by other teams seeking to block a young player from joining the club that raised him.
No team should be able to trap a good young player into a bad deal: such practices encourage those who have the opportunity to take their chances elsewhere (as was the case for Luis Robles, Mike Grella and Sal Zizzo - to name three current American RBNY players who returned to MLS after middling careers on the other side of the Atlantic).
Rules that give players more options are good. Rules that limit those options are less good. There will always be more players than there are teams. A club can survive missing out on a good prospect or two, but a player only has one career to try to manage.
If a team - like RBNY - consistently seems to fail its homegrown prospects, those emerging from a good academy should be able to work at switching away from an obviously inept parent club. And if a team - like RBNY - is suddenly part of one of the more ambitious and progressive programs in world soccer, with trophies piling up on both sides of the Atlantic, those emerging from its academy should absolutely be able to take advantage of the incentives MLS has put in place for homegrown talent to stay in the home where it was grown.
If Brandon Allen did not want to play for RBNY, that was his choice to make. And if he does now, that should still be his choice. If the current rules MLS has in place for homegrown players don't facilitate that choice, it is time for some new rules.