A conversation with Earnie Stewart: On youth and homegrown talent

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Author’s note: PSP’s interview took place while Earnie Stewart was still Philadelphia Union’s acting Sporting Director, but after his appointment as General Manager of the USMNT.

Since MLS introduced the concept of “Homegrown” contracts in 2006, 121 players have inked such deals. Staggeringly, over half of that total stems from the 65 homegrown contracts signed since the start of 2018.

Yet as much as MLS’ homegrowns have helped the game grow, the structure of the rule is limiting the potential development of young, American talent. MLS clubs cannot recruit players to their academy from another club’s territory, which can range from a 75 mi. radius to multiple states.

As the current General Manager of the U.S. Men’s National Team and former Sporting Director of Philadelphia Union, Earnie Stewart has the unique authority to speak on how these territories affect youth development at both the international and club level.

“If you want to raise the level of the sport, no matter what sport it is at the time, you shouldn’t handicap [clubs] and make those restrictions because you’re not providing the best opportunity to succeed,” Stewart told PSP. “You’re just narrowing that scope, and I don’t think that’s good for any sport.”

The benefits of open recruitment for all parties can best be seen in areas that fall outside of any MLS club’s territory. In North Carolina, Gianluca Busio and Jaylin Lindsey were both free to choose an academy about 1,000 mi. away belonging to Sporting Kansas City. By matching top talents with a top developmental system, both Busio and Lindsey were able to contribute to their MLS club as teenagers. At the same time, they’ve entered the conversation for the USMNT.

Removing homegrown territories would give every young soccer player the same opportunity Busio and Lindsey received.

“I do have a feeling once you get rid of the territories, as a club have to do extra things to make sure you can bring kids in, educate them in the right way, and give them the right ingredients to develop themselves.” Stewart proceeded, “I’m a big fan of making sure things like that happen so that clubs are not judged by zip code, but by passion and the development of both club and player.”

There’s something intrusive about limiting a teenager and their respective family’s freedom of choice. Why can a kid go to any college in the country, but their home address can limit their professional choices to such an extent?

And just as universities must continually grow and adapt to attract the best and brightest, the removal of these regions would force many MLS clubs into difficut decisions— improve or flounder.

With the Union’s proximity to New York Red Bulls, Stewart had firsthand experience on how the developmental “arms race” benefited two of the best academies in the league.

“In everything that there is, competition drives people to be better.” Stewart continued, “So if your neighbor is doing something really well, you have to keep up with that because if you don’t, you might lose out. That’s just the way life kind of works.”

When MLS clubs neglect the quality of their academies and proceed with the status quo, they in effect neglect the talent pool in their region. This comes to the detriment of not only the players, but the sport in America as a whole.

Asked if Homegrown territories limit U.S. Soccer, Stewart responded, “Yeah, of course.” He explained, “Where players have the best ingredients, best environment, get the opportunity, and are not just given but earned [the right] to play, those are the important places for kids to go.”

If the league territory restrictions were to be removed, Stewart cautioned that both clubs and players interests  would need to be safeguarded.

“Regarding the protection of the kids, “A club does have to prove and have the minimum requirements, because it sounds really easy bringing somebody in from the other side of the country, but the environment at the club really needs to be good.” Infrastructure such as housing and education are as significant as the growth on the field.

For the team, “Once somebody has invested, no matter which club or academy it is, I get that there should be restrictions and rules,” said Stewart. “Those are choices that in the end clubs put a lot of money into the development of these players.”

Stewart also discussed another area where MLS clubs lack protection regarding young players. While it’s crass to consider teenagers as investments, there is a financial undertaking involved in the developmental process. Currently, clubs are not compensated if an academy product is signed overseas.

When asked if he would make any recommendations in his current position as to how to protect MLS’ interests regarding the topic, Stewart responded, “Those are discussions that are happening right now at the MLS level and U.S. Soccer level.”

One of the hang-ups in solving this problem could be the U.S. policy against training compensation. Stewart addressed that issue saying, “Yeah, there’s a lot of factors that go into it that aren’t necessarily soccer driven, but there are just rules in the United States that you can’t forego.” He continued, “It’s not an easy problem to just solve one, two, three. There are workforces and taskforces right now that are actually looking at how we can better this in the U.S. to make sure that those players that have a certain talent don’t leave our country.”

The winds of change seem to be churning regarding how best to maximize player development in the U.S.

Paul Tenorio of The Athletic reported in October that MLS is contemplating removing homegrown territories as early as “the latter half of 2019.”

Charles Boehm, who writes for multiple outlets, reported on twitter of rumors of four to five academies closing and speculated as to a change in the territory structure coming in the next one to four years.

It won’t be Stewart’s place, though, to address the issues with homegrown territories. Asked, in his current position, if we would recommend removing the restrictions, Stewart said, “It’s not my role.”

One Comment

  1. el Pachyderm says:

    Imagine an anti competitive environment so painstakingly managed (to limit power and control to the individual)… oh wait… what goes for club, goes for player.
    Carry on.

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