Growing Talent

When the Portland Timbers won the MLS is Back tournament, they received $328,000.  When Bayern Munich won the Champions League this week, the Vancouver Whitecaps received $590,000

There is more than one lesson to be learned here.

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The Whitecaps, of course, received the money as part of an incentives clause when Alphonso Davies signed with Bayern Munich last year.  That money was in addition to the 22 million dollars they earned outright when Davies signed, as the initial transfer fee.  And given that Davies was a homegrown player for Vancouver, they were able to keep far more of that money than they would have with any other players they sold. (MLS allows teams to keep 100% of the transfer fees from the sale of homegrown players, while it takes a percentage of all other transfers).

Given the MLS structure for how much income a team gets to keep from the sale of a player, one obvious lesson is that it makes sense to develop homegrown players.  When I spoke to Nashville SC General Manager Mike Jacobs last year, one of the items he stressed was the importance of not only launching the academy for the team but of growing it each year. While payouts like the one with Davies are not going to be common, there is a good deal of potential that players will develop who will play for the team or who will be sold for fees that underwrite the academy itself.

So, yes, Nashville would be wise to build a strong academy, but we already know that.  There is one additional element to the Davies story, one that we cannot expect the MLS teams alone to focus on but to which we as a community must pay attention.  When Davies was 5 years old, he and his family fled from Liberia, during the Second Liberian Civil War, eventually settling in Edmonton, Canada.  While Davies had a great love for soccer early on, one program that allowed him to play in Edmonton—Free Footie.  The program is an after-school soccer league for inner-city Edmonton youth (Grades 3-6) who cannot afford registration fees, equipment and often have no access to transportation to soccer games in other leagues.

Without this program, it is very doubtful that Davies becomes the soccer player he became, attracts the eye of Vancouver, and ultimately follows his career path thus far.  Let’s be clear: there are a lot of beneficiaries to this story:  the Whitecaps, Davies, and the Canadian men’s soccer team first and foremost. 

So, of course, Nashville SC should focus on developing its academy, but the lesson that the rest of us should learn from this—and one that US Soccer needs to keep working on—is that we need to build programs and infrastructure that help youth of all income levels develop their games. 

Here in Nashville, we have the Kickin’ It 615 program (formerly, Soccer for the Nations) that is set up to counteract the pay to play model of a lot of youth soccer. The organization provides youth with soccer equipment (field equipment and kits) as well as adequate nutrition during games and practice.  Much like the Free Footie program, Kickin’ It 615 is going to develop soccer players from kids who either may have never turned to soccer or who would have very little chance to develop their game otherwise.

(As an aside: I spoke to Valair Shabilla, Founder and Vice President of the program, and he informs me that they are hoping to play in the upcoming fall season, with strict COVID precautions).

In multiple ways, most of us ask ourselves from time to time, “What can I do?” to help my community . . . to support soccer . . . to contribute.  And programs like Free Footie or Kickin’ It 615, these programs are doing more than we think.  They are not only helping provide organized entertainment for lower income youth, but they are also providing physical training and discipline. In addition, such programs are part of an infrastructure for the development of soccer players and soccer fans.   

While I began this piece by highlighting the finances around the Alphonso Davies story, the benefits of supporting local youth programs go far beyond the potential (although unlikely) payoff of that level for your favorite MLS team.  Supporting youth soccer this way—through volunteering, through donations—benefits the kids directly and the development of soccer players and culture in a more roundabout way.

No matter how you chalk it up, programs like this deserve support, especially of soccer fans.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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