The Nashville homegrown player pathway

A few years back, I was interviewing Nashville SC General Manager Mike Jacobs for a profile piece when he touched on the NSC academy and the value of homegrown players.  I remember the moment well because his eyes lit up when he explained to me the financial import for the Vancouver Whitecaps who had just recently sold 17-year-old Alphonso Davies to Bayern Munich for $22 million.  All of the money went straight back to Vancouver, he noted. That’s what an academy system and homegrown players can do for a team.

That kind of money can fund a lot of an MLS soccer organization.  That kind of money eases the road to success.

At the time, Nashville’s academy was just getting off the ground, playing solely with U13s. Jacobs defined success simply by the fact that a team existed and was able to compete against others.  At the time, a start was enough.

Since then, a lot has changed.  Nashville SC’s academy has grown to include U13, U14, U15 and now U17 sides.  There’s a residency program for the players (with players coming from our local territory and from “open” territories across the United States); some of the players are here on full funding, some on partial.

In other words, the academy is here, functioning, and growing. It’s at the point that the future looks promising.

All the same, even with this bit of background, I went into another conversation with Jacobs and Assistant General Manager Ally MacKay somewhat puzzled over the seemingly byzantine MLS rules around homegrown players, as well as how the academy fit into Jacobs’ vision for NSC’s future.  I left the conversation feeling optimistic, anxious for the future to unfold.

MLS’s homegrown player system was launched in 2007 as an incentive for clubs to invest in their academies.  The incentive came by way of stronger financials if a designated homegrown player was sold to a team in a different league.  While there are some financial benefits in terms of how the funding works (or doesn’t work) against the salary cap for a certain period of time, the main benefit was that the home club got to keep a larger percentage of the price for which the player was sold (since MLS is a single entity, the league itself used to keep a major cut of that funding).  Over time, the league hyper incentivized homegrown players (and hence, academies) by allowing the team to keep the full fee.

A player eligible to be designated with the “homegrown” tag must reside in any given club’s “territory” for at least one year without signing a pro contract, attending a four year college or playing with the US Men’s team—any of those actions remove homegrown eligibility.  Each MLS club has a defined geographic territory (it’s designated by geography but its size is based on population in that area), with the remaining areas designed as “open” for anyone to sign a player as homegrown.

If a player lives in a club’s territory and meets those conditions, the club owns the rights to that player regardless of whether or not they have signed him.  For example, if Dallas FC discovers a soccer player in Franklin that they would like to sign, they would have to negotiate with Nashville for his rights, even if Nashville had shown no interest in this player (an impossible scenario but it makes the point).

So, while a team holds rights to homegrown eligible players, they only become designated as “homegrown” if the club ultimately signs them to a contract.  There is no limit to the number of roster spots that could be filled with homegrown players.  Clubs have a vested interest in signing the players as soon as they think they are viable because, if they don’t, and the player signs with an overseas club (or a club from any other league), no fee need be paid and therefore no funds would be accrued by the club. 

Weston McKennie’s signing with Schalke was a wake up call for many MLS clubs precisely for that reason:  he had never been signed and therefore literally millions of dollars were lost in opportunity costs.  As Jacobs notes, the United States has become a hot spot for European clubs looking for developing players.  As a result, we are likely to see exponential growth in the number of homegrown signings.

While there has been a good deal of talk about getting rid of the territory system in MLS circles altogether, allowing the entire country to be “open” territory (just google it, and you’ll see a number of GMs dreaming of its dissolution), Jacobs’ thinks there are good reasons for the territory system.  Not only does it allow scouts to be more efficient in looking at multiple players, but it also has the massive benefit of building a sense of tribalism (something NSC has shown great interest in).  As Jacobs notes, imagine your friend from down the block signs a professional contract with the local soccer team. You know that guy; everyone takes interest.  That’s powerful stuff.

Unlike other teams who have entered MLS with a full structure already in place (e.g., Atlanta purchased a preexisting system when they entered the league, teams like Seattle and Portland were long running USL sides prior to joining the league), Nashville had to begin its academy from the ground us, starting with an initial age group, then adding new classes as the youth moved up in age. 

While there are benefits in such a system to the degree that you are watching almost all of your initial players early on, the financial benefits come much later than if a system was already in place.  As a result, rather than having young players ready to move into the senior team, Jacobs explains, clubs like NSC have to be far more flexible about taking the SuperDraft of college players seriously as well as scouting USL players.

While labor laws make it very difficult for players to come anywhere from outside the United States, there is an exception for people who have moved to the U.S. for non-sporting reasons and then catch the eye of an MLS team.  Hence, if someone moves to the United States to attend a school here and then happens to get the attention of a soccer team, he can become a homegrown player.  If a person moved here to play baseball for a high school on scholarship, he would not be eligible as a player.

The academy system serves a number of purposes, according to MacKay and Jacobs.  You want to develop players, sell players, and populate the roster. Ultimately, the academy system should pay for itself both financially and in terms of productivity on the pitch. Importantly, they both stress, the players are not forgotten as humans in this process as the academy works to develop them as athletes and as people navigating their lives.

Conversations about homegrown players will inevitably lead to conversations about a B-team for the franchise, something I was chomping at the bit to discuss.  In general, B-teams serve a number of purposes: they give players who are not getting a lot of MLS playing time a place to continue hone their craft; they are an ideal place for recently recovering players to get back in shape while the coaches monitor their progress, and, importantly, they serve as a place for academy and homegrown players to begin to work their way up to the senior team.  While Nashville is still “aging up” its academy players, a B-team (either MLS development league or something of that nature) seems inevitable.

When asked about a timeline for any academy products to make the senior team, Jacobs noted that, given the benefits that one accrues from the system, you would want a timeline that began yesterday, or the day before.  In other words, as soon as players are ready, they’ll begin a transition to the senior team.

MacKay noted that one of the important judgments that needs to be made—in addition to skill level, of course—is if a player is mentally ready for the jump to a senior team.  Likening it to a slingshot, he told me that you want the player whose sling is pulled back all the way and ready to go.  If you put someone on the senior team with a high skill level but the wrong mental space, you can really hurt that player’s career.  MacKay wants to make sure that any player who moves toward the senior team is on the way to full mental, emotional and physical development.

In order to help prepare for the emotional life of a senior player, the academy players are given a good amount of connection time with first team members.  They learn what it means to thrive at that level.

Like everywhere in the world, the pandemic put a damper on development last year as academy players had little contact with others; they were able to play intrasquad friendlies but no league play.  So, in a sense, an entire year of full development was lost.  The players have been active in summer play this year, working to make up for lost time.

The upside right now for NSC fans is that, only a few years in, we are approaching the cusp of seeing how the academy and the homegrown system works.  I imagine (although there are no definite plans) that some die hard fans will be out watching academy graduates mingle and play with developing senior squad members and the occasional player coming back from injury in no time. I imagine a local Ensworth student saying, “I knew Pete before he played at Nashville SC.”  And I imagine a time when we all look fondly at the Nashville academy product who is playing for a major team in the Premier League and whose purchase helped fund a great deal of what we enjoy here.

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