While most MLS fans and pundits have watched the advancement of the MLS development academy system with an eye toward grooming players for promotion to their respective professional teams, one important side-effect to a well-run academy system has often been overlooked: youth players who leave academies for opportunities overseas rather than staying local. It's happening everywhere, including in New England, where Revolution youth academy alumni Felix DeBona and Daniel Tchen have left the USA for greener pastures, trying their luck straight out of the academy at Malaga CF and FC Copenhagen, respectively.
Youth player sales are nothing new to the world of soccer. In fact, overseas it's a tried and true method of many clubs both big and small to buy up the very young talent of other clubs, waving promises of better facilities, earlier playing time, or even professional contracts in front of eager young faces in an effort to lure them away from the clubs that gave them their start. It would appear that such clubs are beginning to look at MLS as viable hunting grounds for such prospects, with an important distinction: MLS academies don't charge fees.
Such was the case for Felix and Daniel, who left the academy for European clubs without commanding any sort of fee.
"Our players are not professionals," said Director of Youth Development Bryan Scales when asked about the moves. "They're not under contract, so there's no profit for the team. Our players are free to pursue legitimate opportunities whenever they come up."
For Scales, a "legitimate opportunity" does not necessarily exist every time a foreign club comes sniffing around. "If players are going overseas to just sit on the bench or train with the academies, I question whether that's a better opportunity than they have here," he said. "But, if the player is going to go over and sign a professional contract, it's something to think about."
The importance of retaining young talent and trying to bring said talent through the ranks and into the first team cannot be overstated. If MLS can continue to improve its academy system and develop a proven pipeline for professional-grade local talent, it can only benefit the league - and U.S. Soccer - in the long run. However, it does appear that MLS is missing out on a viable source of revenue if youth players are allowed to leave their parent clubs for no compensation.
Apparently, there is some reasoning behind the policy. It is Scales' understanding that when MLS signs young players from overseas, they don't generally have to pay fees. Thus, when sending players the other way, the league makes a practice of not demanding one.
"It could change in the future," Scales mused. "With academies becoming more important and prevalent, MLS may decide they can't keep losing top guys without compensation."
For the moment, though, MLS development academies will continue to provide cheap pickings for foreign clubs looking to scoop up American talent. Furthermore, the hard reality is that it isn't difficult to convince a teenage soccer phenom that his best options lay in another country, no matter what Scales' misgivings about "legitimate opportunities" may be.
"The training is a lot more intense, and it's all year," said Daniel Tchen, a tall, rangy left-sided defender and midfielder, of his decision to leave. "I thought coming to Copenhagen would give me a better chance to improve faster and better and have a better chance [to play professionally]."
Consider as well the effect this freedom of movement can have on the parent club itself. If the New England Revolution are invested in a player and have a plan in place to bring him through the upper level of the academy and eventually into regular training with the first team, months or even years of hard work can be undone if a player decides he has a chance in another place. And when that happens, the Revs are left holding the bag, with no money or player to show for it.
That's exactly what happened with Felix DeBona, who made a name for himself as Diego Fagundez's strike partner in the U16s during the 2010 academy season. "Felix scored lots of goals," said Scales. "His next step was to get into the U18s and reserve games, and then train with the first team. But he decided he wanted to move to Spain and couldn't pass up the opportunity."
Anyone paying attention to the youth system at that time could have seen that DeBona was destined for big things; perhaps even the sorts of things that have since happened to his old teammate, Fagundez. "I thought it would be either me or Felix [to get a Home-Grown contract]," recalled Diego. "One of us had it. At one point, we both thought it was going to come."
DeBona has since returned to the States after being released by Malaga's academy, but he is too old to rejoin the Revs' youth setup. New England still owns his rights as a player, so a tryout or even a return to the fold is possible, but seems unlikely at this time.
For the time being, the only real benefits any MLS team can expect from their youth academy are Home-Grown players and international recognition as a productive system. MLS doesn't seem to be on any timetable or set path for when they plan to allow teams (or the league, since most of these things are done through the league office anyway) to command any fees for youth players who seek careers overseas. Hard-working academy directors like Bryan Scales can only counsel their athletes that opportunities do exist on home shores, and those opportunities might outweigh even the glitziest offer from a foreign club.
"Ultimately, we want to develop guys in our academy that can play for our first team," said Scales. "We want to keep our best players, provide them with a great environment, and give opportunities to play and train with the first team. Diego is the example. We're always going to come up against players who think they should look for other opportunities, legitimate or not, and you try to balance that stuff out. Ultimately, we want our best players to stay here and play at Gillette."