The hallmark of a successful soccer league may be its ability to develop young talent and produce the “next big thing.”
Major League Soccer, which has for too long been derided as a retirement league, is the first to tout the young stars it has developed. Sure, it’s exciting when the league attracts household names like Zlatan and Chicharito, but the biggest source of pride among the MLS faithful are the stars who started as unknowns in league and worked their way up.
It’s not just about outliers like Alphonso Davies, who set an outgoing transfer record by jumping from the Vancouver Whitecaps to Bayern Munich at a mere 17 years old. It’s about clubs like FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls creating a steady pipeline of young academy talent that yields stars like Reggie Cannon and Tyler Adams, who may very well be the future of the U.S. men’s national team.
But you won’t find that kind of talent pipeline in the National Women’s Soccer League. At least not yet.
Unlike MLS, there’s no pathway for NWSL clubs to develop young players and sign them to professional contracts. That means there no requirement for NWSL clubs to operate their own youth academies, and only some of them choose to do so.
It wouldn’t make sense for the NWSL to have such a requirement now. After all, MLS has about a 20-year head start on the NWSL, which is still growing and finding its footing. Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, some NWSL clubs existed in the equivalent of living paycheck to paycheck, and academies are a long-term play that requires investment that make take years to yield a return.
Crucially, however, there’s also no homegrown player rule in the NWSL, and the league needs one sooner rather than later. It would incentivize the clubs with the resources and ambition to scout and develop their own talent, and it would cost the rest of the league nothing – all while improving the overall quality of competition.
Multiple sources have told Yahoo Sports that a homegrown player rule has been in development for the NWSL and it’s expected to be modeled after the rule in MLS, which essentially allows teams to call dibs on the young talent it develops in-house.
The new NWSL rule would’ve been finalized if the pandemic had not derailed the 2020 season, sources say. But the NWSL owners on the competition committee disagreed over specifics, including the age minimum and how long a prospect needs to have been part of an academy to be eligible to be signed as a homegrown player. (In MLS, any player who has been in a club’s youth academy for at least a year can skip the draft and sign with the team directly, and there is no age limit.)
The rule is an important first step in building that pathway for young players, but it will hardly change the NWSL overnight.
The only homegrown prospect at the moment who might have a shot at a first-team contract is 14-year-old Olivia Moultrie, who has forgone her NCAA eligibility to sign an endorsement deal with Nike and train with the Portland Thorns. She’s perhaps the most well-known 14-year-old female soccer player in America, but she’s in a sort of soccer purgatory though.
There’s no written rule with an age minimum but, before Lisa Baird’s appointment as NWSL commissioner, sources had told Yahoo Sports that the league wasn’t going to allow anyone under the age of 18 to sign a contract. Moultrie is also too young to transfer overseas, per FIFA rules.
Unsurprisingly, sources say the Thorns front office has been pushing for a homegrown rule. But whether it’s Moultrie or some other young prospect, someone will need to be first. It’s something that the league must address sooner or later regardless.
It would be poor optics to keep an age limit to 18 years old. After all, if a teenage boy can go pro in MLS, why shouldn’t a girl have the same opportunity?
But it’s bigger than giving one talented girl her chance. The fact is, the powerhouse clubs around Europe have finally taken an interest in women’s soccer, and no one knows how develop players better. If the U.S. is caught in a scenario where American youth development can’t match the level of investment from academies in Europe, the built-in advantage of Title IX might all but disappear, putting the USWNT’s dominance at risk.
There are those who say the NWSL isn’t ready yet, and sources close to the league say it’s why teenagers haven’t been allowed in the league sooner.
The standards from club to club still vary wildly, and the truth is, some NWSL clubs can’t come remotely close to match the amenities and facilities offered by just about any NCAA school. Some NWSL clubs simply don’t have the staff and resources to help ease a teenager into their first-ever full-time job.
But that’s all the more reason for the NWSL to set minimum standards that every club will be expected to meet, and then continually raise them. Sky Blue FC has been an offseason success story with its remarkable off-the-field turnaround, but it’s a wonder that the club was allowed to skirt the league’s minimum standards in the first place for as long as they had.
Then, a requirement that NWSL teams invest in academies and scouting infrastructure can follow.
But right now, the pandemic looms over everything.
There are currently six NWSL clubs with girls academies: the Portland Thorns, the Houston Dash, the Orlando Pride, OL Reign, the Utah Royals and the North Carolina Courage. Sky Blue has an affiliate. The Washington Spirit and Chicago Red Stars don’t currently run academies.
Realistically, the clubs without their own academies weren’t in the financial position to add the extra programming, even before the COVID-19 breakout, and will be less able to do so in the aftermath.
No one knows if the NWSL or any soccer league in the United States will play a single game again in 2020. The loss of revenue while expenses pile up creates an immeasurable but real risk that clubs – both in MLS and the NWSL – may fold as a result. For the clubs that don’t fold, scaling back operations and cutting auxiliary programming like youth academies might be necessary.
But a homegrown rule that promotes development rather than restricting it must be available for the teams willing and able to make the investment. To the extent that the NWSL and U.S. Soccer, which recently shut down the Development Academy, can incentivize NWSL clubs to start academies and operate top-notch ones, they should do so.
When the next bright young talent emerges, the NWSL needs to be ready, and that can be as simple as having a homegrown rule in place that rewards teams for investing in its academies.
Otherwise, if clubs can’t reap the rewards of youth development, they won’t bother. That would hurt the NWSL, and it would hurt American soccer as whole.
Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.
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