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Discuss: Why it is hard to ‘play the kids’

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Despite a perception of more youngsters getting minutes, does MLS still have a problem “playing the kids”?

MLS: FC Dallas at Colorado Rapids Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The general trend across Major League Soccer has been a push to “play the kids”. Despite some youngsters climbing the ranks, including FC Dallas’ own Jesse Gonzalez and Kellyn Acosta, the numbers are in, and they aren’t very good. Check out Alex Olshanky’s tweet from earlier in the month:

Compared to other leagues, Major League Soccer stinks, even though we have more opportunity for these youngsters to play than in any other league in the world.

What gives?

The insightful Mohammad Bushnaq (ha) joins me to take a crack at these findings and what they mean for the league... and for FC Dallas.

The kids aren’t good enough to play in MLS.

Nathan: One way to read this number is to face the brutal truth - maybe the youngsters in Major League Soccer just aren’t good enough. Maybe the youngsters abroad are simply better and thus earn their minutes even against superior competition. FC Dallas was stacked last season with tons of young talent, but few got on the field for meaningful minutes. It was frustrating as a fan, but isn’t it possible that the kids weren’t ready? Why throw them to the wolves?

Honestly, though, while I totally have sympathy for that position and coaches who have high expectations for their young developing players, I’m not particularly buying it. FC Dallas deserves some pushback for not putting their youngsters out on the field during a stretch of games where the experienced veterans looked awful and results suffered. Playing the kids has upside, as opposed to another start for a middling (at best) Hernan Grana.

Mo: Sorry, brother. I am not buying the fact that the kids are not good enough. I tend to incline more to your second argument which coincidentally aligns with Pulisic’s argument. It hit me really hard when he said, “...I watch that, and I just think about how I was given a chance … a real chance … and it changed my life. Why then are we seemingly hesitant to allow these other talents to blossom?”

We have seen the same “fairy tale” story time and again. Kid ends up coming in with not much expected and ends up being a stud (or a solid contributor at the very least) for his team. We have an example of one of those on our team and he may be the most tenured individual on the team now. Victor Ulloa was not given a shot by the previous coach, was brought back into camp by Coach Pareja, and has put in a few solid seasons in the center of the park for this team. Why was his chance so delayed? We need to work as a league to find that balance between producing (and allowing to showcase) the best talent while continuing to attract individuals worldwide who want to play with our excellent developing talent.

There aren’t enough games or loan options for MLS youngsters.

Nathan: Here, I can be persuaded. USL quality has improved, leading to a solid number of up and coming players getting signed by MLS teams this offseason. That’s a good sign, but it does seem like there are still wires crossed somewhere. Are USL teams focused on winning to the point that they don’t want to promise significant minutes to a young, raw player on loan from a parent MLS squad? Are some USL teams positioning themselves for a jump to MLS? Have MLS teams found the right way to develop mutually beneficial partnerships with these teams?

FC Dallas’ own USL connections have not been particularly fruitful, other than Jacori Hayes getting some minutes with Tulsa. This is definitely an area that FC Dallas can potentially trust their affiliate or get some strong plans together for 2019 and beyond (as Clavijo recently suggested). The best solution is to take the risk though and play the kids, even if it means sitting a $600k winger.

Mo: Absolutely agree. The Reserve League folded in 2014 to help with the assimilation with USL, but not all teams have bought into that concept in order to fulfill the requirements needed for a strong developmental mindset. The EPL Reserve League folded recently but was replaced by a very strong idea that MLS should absolutely look at emulating, an Under-23 or 21 league (depending on the competition). This gives teams a chance to play their youth and develop talent against other hungry athletes wanting to impress their coaches and break into the squad.

The coaches aren't buying in.

Nathan: I am willing to entertain this thought, but, hey, it’s speculation. Because MLS doesn’t have pro/rel, you can argue that teams could be more patient and build slowly with youth and young foreign players, but coaches can still get fired for a bad season. Even Oscar Pareja, once thought untouchable, could be in the dog house if 2018 doesn’t look a whole lot better than the last half of 2017. Coaches surely are going to put the best 11 on the field that they can, and if a young player is earning that spot, why would the coach hold them back?

Mo: We will see how Coach Pareja plays his cards this time around. Will he give meaningful minutes to the young men on this roster who are waiting to blossom, or will he continue to roll out the same maddening lineup with the hopes of achieving a different result? I agree with you, Nathan. I think this may be a make or break season for our coach. If this team goes out and lays another egg this year, we may see a new manager on the touchline come this time next year. I hope not. I think Oscar is the coach to rekindle that youth movement and to provide all players on the roster with the opportunity to thrive. He just has to get back to the roots he unfathomably got away from last year.

It’s nothing to be worried about.

Nathan: Don’t panic? I can buy that, to a degree. FC Dallas’ first number of Homegrown Players have been pretty hit and miss. You got solid guys like Victor Ulloa and Jesse Gonzalez, but you can lament plenty of others who came and went (including Coy Craft as the most recent). Maybe the quality of these homegrown players is going to continue to increase, and they will slowly and surely assert themselves on and off the field across the league. Just be patient - give it time.

The downside - will the league lose out on more Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic’s who go abroad for greener pastures in the meanwhile?

Mo: It’s just a bad look for a league that is striving hard to overcome the label, “retirement league.” It is time to put our money where our mouth is, continue to provide incentives/opportunities to teams to retain their star youth players while playing them for their development. What difference does it make if Weston McKennie signed for the team last year if he would have been benched behind Acosta, Gruezo, and (maybe) Ulloa? The league needs a fundamental shift in ideology and a belief in the talent we have in this country. It could be nothing given the age of the league, but the foundation needs to be set for a future that can thrive and I think it starts now.