As the US Men's Soccer team has struggled on the field, the number of American players in MLS has declined

Octavio Passos/Getty ImagesTyler Adams (left) is one of the few young American players to find regular playing time in MLS.
  • The percentage of American players, especially young American players, in Major League Soccer, has declined.
  • The U.S. lags behind European countries in providing playing time to young domestic players.
  • Failure to develop young players is one explanation for the current struggles of the U.S. Men’s National Team, which will miss the World Cup for the first time in over 30 years.
  • As America’s top domestic league has grown, its business approach looks to be diverging from what would best serve the interests of the U.S. national team.

A report from Jeff Carlisle of ESPN contains an interesting statistic about the number of American players in Major League Soccer.

“According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the percentage of minutes for U.S.-born players has fallen from 52.7 per cent in 2013 to 42.2 per cent last season,” Carlise wrote. “The numbers drop further when the number looks only at players eligible to play for the U.S. . . . that number shrunk to 37.7 per cent from around 52 per cent in 2012.”

And this decline coincides with a period of terrible performance by the U.S. Men’s National Team, who are set to miss the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

By comparison, Carlisle’s article points out that so far this season domestic players make up half of the total minutes played in the Bundesliga in Germany, the reigning World Cup champions.

This statistic speaks to one of the great tensions in the current U.S. Soccer setup: as America’s top domestic league has grown, its business approach looks to be diverging from what would best serve the interests of the U.S. national team.

It would be overly simplistic, of course, to pin all of the current woes in U.S. Soccer on MLS player development – this most recent failed World Cup qualifying campaign was a perfect example of Murphy’s Law in action – but the lack of available playing time for American players, and particularly young American players, in MLS is a problem.

Analyst Alex Olshansky notes that the number of young domestic players in MLS pales in comparison to European leagues.

Even current U.S. Soccer wunderkind Christian Pulisic has noticed the trend, and he wrote in the Player’s Tribune, “It really does frustrate me, when I watch MLS, and I see our best U-17 players . . . not being put on the field much to actually play.”

Missing out on the World Cup prompted a firestorm of criticism towards U.S. Soccer as a whole, culminating in a hotly contested election for federation president which took place in February. For the program to rebound from this disaster, MLS must do a better job of providing opportunities to young Americans to play and develop their games. With MLS opening-day kicking off this weekend, we’ll get our first hints as to whether or not that will actually happen.

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