Two days. That’s how long Landon Donovan had to ‘coach’ his Homegrown MLS players in preparation for their meeting last week in Colorado against a fairly competitive U-20 Club América team.
Two days is better than one. Or, in the case of some of the MLS All-Star team playing the following day, 1/2 a day of team bonding. What can a team really achieve during a match with little to no preparation?
There’s a cacophony of anti-All-Star voices. But there’s a silver-lining to the media-driven chaos that is at the heart of MLS All-Star week. Through all its many forms and iterations, MLS All-Star serves a purpose that is a higher cause. As the clear MLS MVP of the 2015 All-Stars put it, “But I remember the All-Star NBA players. I had a lot of cards from all the all-stars… so to be a part of this today was a great experience for me.” – Kaká. There’s an allure, though a bit tarnished and over-analyzed at this point. I too recall growing up in the era when the phrase all-stars reflected magic. The kids who showed up for player appearances and waited for three hours or more the day before to watch their All-Stars and Tottenham stars practice, came for reasons we can all relate to. There’s a purity of love for the game itself and a blitz of star shimmer that an All-Star setting can bring. Year after year, in different ways, the MLS All-Star match brings a touch of soccer magic. It may not get the ratings or ticket sales that an MLS Final or an epic rivalry match will, but perhaps we can accept that it isn’t meant to, at least not yet. There are redeeming qualities though. Beyond the fan appeal, there’s another layer.
“It’s obviously an honor to be recognized in this fashion. It’s a good time to come and see all the other youth talent that’s coming up in the league.” – LA Galaxy’s homegrown Bradford Jamieson IV recounts after his first Homegrown match.
Who does Jamieson look up to? “David Villa is someone I can look up to as a striker and overall good player. Gyasi and Juni are role models on the field and off the pitch, daily.” For Bradford, it’s a chance to get out of a bubble and see what others are bringing to the table, and what others have been learning, be it from the competition, or from friends; plus it’s his chance to play with some of the best in the league. For a player at Jamieson’s stage of development, where the thirst for new knowledge is almost unquenchable, this opportunity is a potential goldmine.
Bradford Jamieson didn’t get to score a goal this time. Nor did he during the recent LA Galaxy (II) vs FC Barcelona International Champions Cup match. But, similar to the Homegrown and All-Star matches, he was content and realistic afterwards:
“Those experiences are some of the most important ones. When you don’t have really pressure on you and are playing some of the best in the world. Those are times when you can really let go and you see the real character of diff players come out. You learn along the way. You figure out where you are in the world. And you can gauge your level.”
It’s all fairly new. In 2008, MLS developed the Homegrown Player rule as part of an effort to incentivize clubs to invest in youth development. The rule allows clubs to sign local players from their own developmental academies directly to their first team rosters. It’s not a perfected system.
“It’s amazing to come through the MLS system, from the academy to being a professional soccer player,” Zardes said
This year’s only MLS Homegrown player on the MLS All-Star starting lineup playing Tottenham Hotspur in front of a sell-out crowd of 18,671 fans was Jamieson’s teammate and hairstyle doppleganger, Gyasi Zardes. And, he’s someone Bradford looks up to. Sincere as always, Bardes chimes in, “to participate and play with these phenomenal guys across the league, it’s an amazing experience and I’m just taking it day by day.”
Gyasi Zardes grew up in 10 miles from where he now plays regularly, in humble and hard-working Hawthorne, California. “I’m from Hawthorne, and people from Hawthorne work hard.” Now, Zardes is an LA Galaxy success story, an up-and-coming USMNT regular, and he credits his opportunities to the advancements in Major League Soccer player development.
Perhaps the best assessment of the Homegrown initiative and game so far is from an athlete who’s been around and seen the value of a hit and run type situation for these teams. “It’s hard to come into an environment where you don’t know people and you come together in two days. The more experiences you have like that, the more you benefit from it. With the national team you play Sunday, you come in Monday, you’re playing Wednesday, it’s valuable to have experiences like this.” – Coach Landon Donovan. And, that’s the goal, to feel comfortable enough with yourself and with variables like different players, conditions and changing rosters, that it no longer matters. That you play your best game every time.
Not all Homegrown players will become the next Yedlin or Zardes, but they are still crucial to the league, a sort of talented middle space and a self-propagating supply of skilled young players. It’s the sign of a healthy and lasting league.
“We just played a very, very good Club América team. Those kids have been together for six or seven years, and we have players that are at least at their level,” Donovan said. “That didn’t happen 10 years ago. When I came into the league there wasn’t players like that, so that’s a good sign.”