This past week, the Boys’ U.S. Soccer Development Academy teams have been facing off in the national playoffs in Westfield, IN. Major League Soccer academy teams have featured several Homegrown stars that have made both youth national team appearances and appearances with their USL sides. With a Girls’ U.S. Soccer Development Academy system coming this fall, it brings to mind that the NWSL must make a crucial rule change.
The growth of MLS teams creating development academies led to the league creating the Homegrown Player rule in 2008. This rule states that any player that joins an MLS academy prior to making an appearance for the U-17 or U-20 national teams and meets all training requirements will be exempt from the MLS SuperDraft and his rights will be owned by the club whose academy developed the player. The Homegrown Player will also not count against the club’s MLS salary budget. This rule led to teams investing heavily in their academies to produce their own players.
For the NWSL, survival was tough enough, so a Homegrown Player rule was really the last thing on the minds of those in charge. But the NWSL has now lasted longer than any other American women’s professional soccer league and doesn’t appear to be leaving anytime soon. Every NWSL team has even started its own academy, meaning a Homegrown Player rule would not only be beneficial, but is necessary for the league. In fact, the lack of a Homegrown Player rule has already impacted the league.
The first team in the NWSL to create a girls’ academy was the Boston Breakers. Forward Stephanie McCaffrey came through the Breakers academy before moving on to Boston College. When she graduated, rather than joining the Breakers, who helped to develop her, she had to enter the NWSL College Draft. Essentially, the Breakers were in danger of losing a player that they had invested in.
McCaffrey was drafted with the fifth overall pick by the Chicago Red Stars in the 2015 NWSL College Draft. Wanting to acquire the young forward, the Breakers traded their two first-round picks that year, numbers nine and 11 respectively, to bring the native of Worcester, MA, to her local team. The trade should’ve been a warning sign to the NWSL that a change was needed.
Today, every NWSL team has launched its own academy, even if it’s just getting started. The team with oldest academy in the league is the Orlando Pride. Even before the Pride existed, there was a girls’ academy as part of Orlando City SC. This fall, the Pride development academy will be fully-funded and a part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy system. But that doesn’t mean much for the Pride as of yet.
For most NWSL teams, a Homegrown Player rule isn’t as important today because they have yet to truly develop players. But the Pride academy has now been around long enough that players are being developed. While the Pride are only in their second season, the fact that they are the same club as the MLS’ Orlando City means they have been working to develop players since 2012. Without a Homegrown Player rule, they may lose the players they are developing to the draft.
While the lack of a Homegrown Player rule is hurting NWSL teams, it is also hurting the U.S. Women’s National Team. One of the advantages of professional academies is that the players will have better coaching that is focused on development rather than winning. This will result in better players coming through the systems. But without a Homegrown Player rule, why should a professional team even have an academy?
Professional sports teams are like any other business — there must be an incentive to invest. The reason why MLS teams invest so heavily in their academies is that there is no transfer fee involved in the acquisition of Homegrown Players and they don’t count against the team’s salary budget. But in the NWSL, even if you develop a star player completely through your academy, you have no rights to that player. So why would you even start an academy just to provide players for opposing teams?
Women’s soccer is becoming bigger and bigger in the United States and is now starting to focus on development. With every NWSL team now featuring its own academy and nine of the teams joining the U.S. Soccer Development Academy for its inaugural year, a Homegrown Player rule is a necessity for the league and for the development of young players in this country.