August 30th, 2016 was a big day for Weston McKennie. Two days after his eighteenth birthday, the Texas native signed his first professional contract with the Bundesliga powerhouse Schalke 04. After being left off last year's US U-17 World Cup roster, McKennie has had a career year at the age of 17.
McKennie led his team from the midfield, scoring 12 goals in 23 games. He won USSDA U-18 Player of the Year, on the way to leading FC Dallas to the national title. For a player barely talked about in Youth National Team or professional prospects previously, that is a heck of a rise.
Let's rewind a bit here. It was in no small part due to McKennie's contributions that FCD won the U-18 National Title in 2016. FC Dallas, the team often lauded as the most progressive, youth-oriented in America, is coached by the renowned Oscar Pareja. A coach who has time and time again reiterated his belief in young American talent, through his actions as well as his words, recently adding "I would like Americans to believe in their talent. I would like the American people to understand that they're very good and they will be very good in international competition around the world."
McKennie walked away from that culture to join Schalke. He walked away from FC Dallas, and the club got nothing other than a thank-you and a pat on the back. That and $5 will get you a cup of coffee.
McKennie, for his part, did all he really could have done to acknowledge those . He gave FC Dallas a sincere public thank-you, in addition to the numerous private thanks that also likely occurred.
However, transfers like McKennie's, those of an American club's top youth prospect to a European club at a moment's notice, can be incredibly frustrating for MLS teams. Understandably so. The team loses one of its best young players for virtually nothing.
Back in 2014, on the eve of the New York Red Bulls launching their USL team, then-Sporting Director Andy Roxburgh summarized the issue perfectly when he said, "It's one of the big problems here with the academies here, there is no protection... How can you invest in an academy or in your fringe young players if they can just walk away?"
Since New York's academy founding, the team has lost numerous top prospects to European clubs for nothing. At the moment, the Red Bulls have former academy players at English Premier League champions Leicester City (Kyle Gruno), Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain (Timothy Weah), global superpower Manchester United (Matthew Olosunde), as well as other top clubs like Valenciennes FC (Kyle Duncan), Hoffenheim (Russell Canouse), and Sevilla (Noah Leeds). None of these players played a single professional minute for the Red Bulls and New York did not receive a dime for their part in the players' development.
Roxburgh went on to describe that direct control of a team in USL - meaning the USL team would be owned and operated by the MLS club, as opposed to an independent affiliate - would provide the team with more "protection", as the players would be under contract with the organization, if not the MLS side, and would thus require a transfer fee to be agreed upon before they could move clubs.
Sidebar: The lack of solidarity payments and training compensation in MLS is what causes this absence of "protection" that other clubs around the world seem to enjoy. In essence, these are small portions of the transfer fee for a player that fall to those teams involved in the player's development as a youth. The sums are relative to the total fee, so they can range from a few bags of balls (yes, really) to a few million dollars. That is a simplification, but it will suffice for now. It is the potential of these payments and the small revenue they would generate that provide another aspect of the "protection" Roxburgh mentioned.
As it stands US Soccer, Major League Soccer, and the MLS Players Union are decidedly against solidarity payments. Their respective reasons are part of a complicated discussion that has become quite the hot-button issue as it is the center of a lawsuit involving MLS, Michael Bradley, and others. To explain the entirety of the issue is a thesis in and of itself. For now, it is enough to say there are mechanisms in place in global soccer to see clubs compensated for player development even if those clubs don't sign and sell players directly in the transfer market. But they are not mechanisms currently easily accessed by MLS clubs, and any US soccer club in general.
Running a team in USL provides an MLS club with a lot more protection and flexibility when it comes to roster makeup and development pathways. Instead of being limited by the constraints of the 28-man MLS roster and the league's salary cap, teams can sign youth players who show promise to their USL side. This allows players to develop in the USL before potentially bringing them into the MLS fold. Importantly, it allows players to develop while formally under contract.
In 2014, Roxburgh used the case study of Amando Moreno, a New York Red Bulls academy product and former Homegrown player who left the club to join Club Tijuana on a free transfer in 2014, to explain what RBNY was missing by not having a professional USL side of its own. "[Amando Moreno] spent five years at our academy and a year attached with the first team, reserves and suddenly he's gone, we've lost him. If we had him signed as part of the "B" team, he'd be our player, we would own him, we wouldn't have these loopholes in the rules," Roxburgh said.
Moreno was ( and still is) a young forward, signed to RBNY in 2012. But he found his progress and development blocked by the first team's senior players. He wasn't getting a lot of time (2 minutes in MLS and a US Open Cup appearance in 2013) and he wasn't likely to get a lot of time moving forward. In 2014, once out of contract, Moreno elected to head to Tijuana. Pointedly, the Liga MX team has a respected player development program, including what RBNY did not have at the time: a coherent reserve team structure with its own competitions to play in and a proven path to the first team. Moreno didn't go to Tijuana to play in Liga MX, he went to play for the reserves, knowing he'd get a structure for his career that RBNY couldn't provide.
Roxburgh's point was that a professional reserve team would offer players like Moreno - too old for the Academy, too inexperienced for first team minutes - a meaningful pathway for their development. And they might stay long enough to benefit the first team, or at least be under contract long enough to potentially be sold on to clubs interested in their services.
It's simple: a team can sign an academy player to a contract in USL. Then, in order for the player to move to another club, the MLS parent-organization would be able to demand a transfer fee for the player: "protection".
However, over the summer Charles Boehm reported whisperings that FC Dallas had an entirely opposite view to that of RBNY on the subject of managing a pro reserve team in USL. FC Dallas, reportedly, feared such a move would mean less protection, not more.
Related: I'm told exposure/risk of poaching by foreign (mostly Mexican) clubs is #1 reason FCD haven't launched their own USL team by now.— Charles Boehm (@cboehm) July 18, 2016
I dont know the details but I'm told that USL contract status is not sufficient to retain a player's rights. https://t.co/7stdd5tiyK— Charles Boehm (@cboehm) July 18, 2016
Well, that's surprising. Wasn't the main benefit of starting a USL team to prevent this "poaching" of talent? What gives? What do we not know here? How is it that two of the most admired teams in MLS, from a youth development perspective, apparently take opposing views on the risk-benefit calculus of running a team in USL?
On its face, the statement that "USL contract status is not sufficient to retain a player's rights" simply doesn't ring true.
A player under a valid USL contract cannot move to a foreign team without a transfer fee or his team's explicit permission. A USL spokesperson clarified, "A player under a professional USL contract also controls his International Transfer Certificate, which is needed for player registration. If a player is under contract, a fee would normally be received in release for the ITC to be released to his new team. If he is not under contract, then the ITC would be moved under a free transfer from his former team."
Perhaps FCD's concern is specifically about its academy players. After all, that's the central issue here, isn't it? The USL allows for MLS teams to have players still in their academy play for their USL side on an amateur contract. The League spokesperson added that, "A player under an Academy contract does so to maintain - we assume - his college eligibility, but is not a binding contract to the team in question in the way a professional contract is."
In the example of McKennie, if he was signed to a professional USL contract, he could not have moved to Schalke without a transfer fee. Yet, if he was simply on an amateur deal with the theoretical USL team, then he would have been free to move away without any restrictions, just as he did two weeks ago. If FCD is concerned about protecting players in its academy, it is true that there is no greater protection afforded them by the existence of a professional reserve team in USL.
But it is also true that there is no lesser protection, and the USL team offers an option otherwise unavailable. If a player is playing for the USL team on an amateur contract, and the team believes he is good enough to be "poached" by another club but does not want to lose him, then it has the option of signing him to a professional contract.
It takes two to tango: if said player rejects the deal, that's fine and perfectly understandable on the player's part, but one then has to note that it is unlikely that player would have ever featured for that MLS team in any capacity as his interests lay elsewhere. A team doesn't really "lose" a player that doesn't want to play for it. Either the player wants to play for his hometown team, or he doesn't. Either the club wants him, or not.
If FC Dallas had a USL team of their own, it does not inherently mean that Weston McKennie would have stayed in the system that nurtured his talent. Each young American player that goes abroad to play professional soccer makes his own decision based on a variety of factors. However, having a USL team would give FC Dallas a number of very powerful tools to keep their development pathway intact, to guarantee playing time to young players, and to keep their top prospects in house.
Sure, the risk is that the increased platform for their academy talent could lead to a slight uptick in "poaching" by foreign clubs. Even if FC Dallas had a USL team, McKennie may have walked away from any deal they put forward. Matthew Olosunde did so with the New York Red Bulls and NYRBII prior to joining Manchester United. The question remains how many players like Alex Zendejas, Amando Moreno, Russell Canouse, Paul Arriola, and Weston McKennie have to walk away from their respective teams for absolutely nothing due to, at least in part, the lack of a clear pathway to the first team, before a USL team is not only worth it financially (as well as competitively), but is a necessity for any MLS team interested in developing homegrown talent.
Not taking the USL option does not prevent prospects from being snapped up by bigger clubs. But there is evidence to suggest the benefits of maintaining and further expanding the development pathway far outweighs the potential downside from a purely competitive point of view. RBNY is already able to point to such benefits. Last year, an academy kid made himself quite the highlight reel in limited USL appearances, even grabbing international attention for a "Messi-esque" goal.
Derrick Etienne went on to college as planned in 2015, but he had clearly demonstrated he could survive and thrive as a professional. Whatever went on behind the scenes, we know the lasting consequence of his breakout cameo for NYRB II: he was signed to a first-team contract by RBNY in the off-season, and made his MLS debut on September 11, 2016.
When expressing his frustrations with the New York Red Bulls' vulnerability to the international market, Roxburgh referred to the case of Aleks Gogic. "We lost a 17-year-old goalkeeper a year ago, he just walked and he went to Reading. His mother wrote a note: ‘Thank you very much.'" While that thank-you from Gogic and his mother, much like the one from McKennie, was certainly appreciated, it really doesn't mean a whole lot from the point of view of running a professional soccer team.
McKennie did absolutely nothing wrong here. There is nothing more he can offer to Dallas than his heartfelt thanks for the opportunity and training they have given him, but there is certainly something more Dallas could have done. It could have opened up a brand new roster to which to sign its emerging talent. It could have a team in USL.
Of course, there are not insignificant financial and infrastructural costs attached to starting a new team. It's not an answer any club is likely to offer as explanation for leaving a promising road untraveled, but not every good idea can be funded right away. If a team lacks the funds to sign up a second roster of players and staff, then clearly it cannot have itself a second team in USL.
FC Dallas offered "no comment" on the rumors surrounding their motivations and future involvement in the USL, but did reaffirm the fact that they are committed to their current partnership with the OKC Energy, stating, "we would not be thinking of adding our own USL team until at least 2018."
FC Dallas will not have a USL team of their own for at least another two years. However, to reach the next level as a developmental juggernaut they need a USL team, and when the time comes they have nothing to fear and much to gain.