Houston Dynamo: How the franchise can transform American soccer

Dynamo defender Aljaz Struna kicks in a goal (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Dynamo defender Aljaz Struna kicks in a goal (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) /

The Houston Dynamo, together with other MLS franchises, can be the driving force that finally transforms the American soccer landscape. How? Let’s examine.

The Houston Dynamo, together with other MLS franchises, can be the driving force that finally transforms the American soccer landscape by working to fix problems at the grassroots level with youth talent identification and development.

The Houston Dynamo and other MLS franchises have the ability to progress the United States’ version of the beautiful game in powerful ways, and to do so requires going back to basics.

The initial soccer boom in the United States was ignited by the arrivals of Brazilian legend Pele in the mid-70s and Dutch legend Johan Cruyff later in the decade to then fledgling North American Soccer League (NASL).

Color television, which became widespread in United States households by the late 60s, was in its initial phases of transforming public consumption of sports forever and the NASL hoped to take off as a result of opportune timing in the transforming global sports market.  There were no bigger, more well-known global sports stars at the time than Pele and Cruyff.

Pele led what is still widely considered the best team ever assembled in Brazil’s 1970 World Cup champions.  Such was Pele’s talent that former Brazilian president Janio Quadros in 1961 declared him an official national treasure to prevent foreign professional clubs from purchasing his rights and moving him out of Brazil.

Johan Cruyff, just four years later in the 1974 World Cup, led a Netherlands team considered to be the best to not win the World Cup.  “Clockwork Orange”, as the team was known, took the 1970 Brazil example to another level in a style all their own called “Total Football” with Cruyff as the conductor.  Cruyff is revered, following his passing in 2016, as the man who single-handedly transformed Holland into the progressive, forward-thinking country it is today.

The Issue

Despite this fortuitous infusion of star power, the NASL, as it was known then, rapidly declined due to financial troubles until folding in 1984.  The NASL demise was coupled with the US men’s national team failing to reach the World Cup Finals in both 1982 and 1986 after being largely frozen out even being able to compete for a bid in the previous two decades.

American soccer would not resurface in a significant way until it won the bid to host the 1994 World Cup.  The country’s second attempt at a professional league also came in 1993 with the formation of Major League Soccer (MLS).

While MLS has gained a more lasting foothold than the NASL managed in the 70s and early 80s, becoming exponentially more profitable in the past decade after struggling initially, it has not succeeded in helping establish the United States men’s team as a global force in the game.  The United States’ failure to make the 2018 World Cup underscored this glaring weakness of the current American system.

The MLS, like the past NASL, has continued the American appetite for global star power through the “Designated Player Rule” which allows franchisees to open their checkbooks and sign a limited number of players whose salaries exceed the league’s maximum cap.  This has created a huge discrepancy in the league between these players and those earning the league minimum as icons David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Andrea Pirlo, and Wayne Rooney, among others, have arrived stateside in the twilights of their respective careers.

While the big names have been useful for advertising and engaging the public, true development happens at the bottom of the pyramid.

The Solution

In the midst of MLS’ renewed focus on attracting global stars, it also established a “Homegrown Player Rule” in 2008.  This rule was designed to encourage franchise investment in their own academies as the club would have first rights over players able to rise through their youth ranks to the first team.

MLS clubs did not seriously invest in academy development until recent years because there was no real incentive for the franchises in terms of monetary compensation when foreign clubs with considerable financial firepower would come after burgeoning talents.  The league has only recently fallen in line with international FIFA transfer policy regarding youth players which enables the league to seek compensation for talents lured abroad.

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Perhaps the most high-profile case occurred when Weston McKennie, an FC Dallas product, left his home club for free to join German Bundesliga power Schalke in 2016 as a teenager.

DeAndre Yedlin, via Seattle, is the only American player so far to appear in a World Cup (2014) produced through the MLS homegrown initiative.  The grassroots effort in MLS to develop players has been fraught with self-inflicted errors, and by the entire American approach to talent identification and development.

If you access the Houston Dynamo academy Web site, you will read well-written mission statements and find an impressive looking pyramid which culminates in a player having progressed all the way from the youth levels to the Dynamo first team.

While the continued emphasis by the league on its franchise academies is a positive step, we still need to change our way of thinking as a country in order to reach the same levels as the top counties in the world.

And it can with the Houston Dynamo as MLS emphasis on its academies continues to grow.  The clubs have potential access to their immediate communities none of the other major sports can match.

In almost all other leagues around the world, the professional clubs like the Houston Dynamo invest

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in their entire youth development cycle including the players themselves.  Players are identified at young ages, typically between ages 10 through 14, and the clubs invest in their progression (and sometimes even their families, for example helping parents find jobs when a move is required) with the idea they will recoup the cost through either the player reaching its first team or through a lucrative transfer deal to another club.

Players are evaluated each season and either told they make the cut to continue with the club or that they don’t make the cut.  It is a strict meritocracy that gives no prejudice to the economic standing or social status of a player’s family.  No player deemed talented enough is denied the chance to prove himself due to a lack of funds or other conflicts of interest at the youth levels.

It is this system that enables a kid from the favelas in Rio de Janeiro or barrios of Buenos Aires to aspire and progress to the same heights as one who grows up in the shadow of a major club in western Europe.  Football or The Beautiful Game, from its roots in England, was founded as a game of and for the working class.

In a nutshell

One of the biggest barriers to talent discovery for soccer players in the United States has been the “pay to play” model which has taken hold under the United States Soccer Development Academy most notably.  A player must navigate the cost-prohibitive USDA structure before having a chance to enjoy the modern benefits of an MLS academy.

Under this kind of approach at the critical youth development ages, talent takes a back seat to the kids whose parents or guardians can sacrifice and spend the most to ensure their child continues to progress.

Youth soccer is a multi-billion dollar a year business spanning multiple interests, and it’s this focus on competing interests and profit margin preventing American soccer from realizing its vast potential.  The bottom of the pyramid is fractured by competing interests which should be uniting to enhance it.

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The MLS, spearheaded by its franchises like the Houston Dynamo, must be the driving force behind this country’s reform at the grassroots level in communities around the country so all talent with the motivation to succeed has a clear path to discovery and success.