Atlanta United and MLS: Hindering American Youth Development?

March 5, 2017

The stadium was filled to the brim. Chants of “A-T-L, A-T-L, A-T-L” rang throughout Bobby Dodd Stadium as 55,297 people stood, eager to see their team play at home for the very first time. These fans were hungry for soccer and 25 minutes in the 55,000 plus were rewarded as Yamil Asad smashed the ball off of a Tyrone Mears cross into the back of the net, right in front of the supporters section. Atlanta United had scored their first ever goal in Major League Soccer.

In that moment, it was bedlam in Atlanta.

Since coming into the league, Atlanta United has been held up as an example Major League Soccer franchise. From their owner, Arthur Blank, to their new stadium and record-breaking crowds, to their talented roster, MLS fans know that Atlanta is doing much of the off-field stuff the right way.

And it only gets better on the field.

Manager Tata Martino deploys his team in a high pressing 4-3-3 – a style that generally produces entertaining, exciting soccer. With players like Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, Hector Villalba, and the aforementioned Asad, Atlanta United were, and still are, the darlings of MLS.

Now, in their first offseason as an established MLS team, Atlanta is in full pursuit of 18-year-old Argentinian playmaker Ezequiel Barco, who currently plays for Independiente in Argentina. With Martino’s South American influence, Arthur Blank has built a roster headlined by some of the most promising young South American internationals in the world. If the Barco deal were to go through, it would be the biggest, most expensive deal in the league’s young history. Atlanta would be the proud holder of another American soccer record.

While they may be the most high-profile, Atlanta is not the only team making big signings this offseason. LAFC signed Uruguayan talent Diego Rossi and NYCFC has brought in Jesus Medina, a young Paraguayan. On top of Barco, Rossi, and Medina, there are rumors of several other promising young internationals joining the league over the coming offseason. These signings are elevating Major League Soccer’s on-field product, which will in turn raise the popularity of the league. Raising the profile of soccer in America surely cannot be a bad thing for the development of the sport, can it?

Strangely enough, an argument can be made that MLS, and clubs like Atlanta United, are hindering one of the most important parts of American soccer: youth development.

Before we continue, it is important to note that MLS is doing soccer a big favor in America. By putting together an exciting product, they are helping to increase the popularity of the sport in the United States. That should not go unappreciated. Still, the direction Major League Soccer is choosing to take itself necessitates some discussion on the topic of youth development.

When you look at the minutes played by young Americans in MLS last season, you cannot help but be disappointed.

Using Atlanta United as an example, United States Under-17 stars Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin played a combined 4 minutes last year. In fact, on Atlanta’s roster no American under the age of 23 played more than 178 minutes throughout the entirety of the 2016-17 season.

This epidemic is not just limited to Atlanta. Outside of Real Salt Lake and the New York Red Bulls, who both did an admirable job playing their US youngsters, the rest of Major League Soccer was absolutely horrendous at playing their kids last season. Six teams did not give a single minute to U-21 Americans and Canadians players last season, while another ten gave less than 1,000 minutes to U-21 domestic players.

James Sands and Jonathan Lewis rode the bench for NYCFC, Paxton Pomykal and Reggie Cannon sat for FC Dallas, Derrick Jones took a backseat for the Union, and Erik Palmer-Brown was stuck behind Ike Opara and Matt Besler for Sporting Kansas City. These players are the cream of the United States’ youth soccer crop and they cannot get minutes in MLS.

It is not as if developing and playing young Americans is not a feasible business model. What domestic club would not want to be responsible for unearthing and featuring the next Christian Pulisic or Weston McKennie? U.S. Soccer fans would flock to see the next United States Men’s National Team superstar play in MLS, boosting revenue for the club and Major League Soccer.

Using the scene from the introduction, imagine how much more excited those same Atlanta United fans who rejoiced when Yamil Asad scored that historic goal off of a Tyrone Mears cross would have been if Andrew Carleton had assisted on that play instead?

How much more revenue could Major League Soccer generate by showcasing their young Americans? Now, it is important to note here that giving minutes to domestic talent does not require MLS and its clubs to only sign Americans or to phase out its international talent. The league should be able to showcase top players, regardless of nationality, while simultaneously providing a place for young Americans to get consistent minutes.

Still, for some reason, Major League Soccer has almost abandoned any effort to produce and play young Americans. While some may argue that it isn’t the responsibility of the league to develop these players, the intricate and intimate relationship between MLS, U.S. Soccer, and Soccer United Marketing, the marketing arm of soccer in America that is owned by MLS owners, makes it clear that this is not the case. When the USMNT flourishes, Major League Soccer does the same.

That is what makes MLS’ perceived disinterest in developing and showcasing these young Americans so confusing. By not exposing these American kids to professional minutes, MLS is limiting their ability to impact the soccer landscape in the United States. If even the most talented young domestic players cannot break into their own country’s top league, well, that tells us all we need to know about Major League Soccer’s priorities.

To the detriment of American soccer, MLS and teams like Atlanta United have decided to import talent, rather than cultivate their own.