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Soccer's Long-Term Success in U.S. Tied to Developing Homegrown Superstar

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Soccer's Long-Term Success in U.S. Tied to Developing Homegrown Superstar

Lionel Messi’s presence in Major League Soccer has increased mainstream awareness of the league and should accelerate the game’s growth stateside.

It has certainly been a boon for Inter Miami CF and clubs lucky enough to play host to the superstar this summer. The Philadelphia Union have Messi in town tonight. Tickets sold out in 39 secondsat the highest average ticket price in team history.

The New York Red Bulls host Inter Miami on Saturday night Aug. 26. It will be the highest grossing MLS match in club history (including the team’s time at Giants Stadium).

The two-year stint is not expected to turn America’s fifth most popular sport into a big four property.

MLS may eventually achieve that status. But a homegrown superstar will likely need to emerge for it to happen.

“The long-term success of the sport of soccer in North America is tied to the development of [an] American star,” Richie Graham (investor, Philadelphia Union and founder, For Soccer Ventures) said.

The Union are among the MLS clubs putting the infrastructure required for that player to eventually surface in place.

“There’s no question North America has the ingredients to be a superpower in terms of world class player development,” Graham said. “But in order for us to reach our potential, we need to continue to invest in creating high quality learning environments that ensure our top talents have the opportunity to maximize their potential.”

The demand to see Messi in MLS this summer has only been surpassed by the demand to see Taylor Swift on tour. But it is unrealistic to expect a 35-year-old import to change the game's trajectory in the U.S.

It is likely going to take a home-grown kid, who goes on to become an international star, to do that.

“Player development is ultimately fan development,” Graham said. “Imagine the massive impact on soccer here in the United States if the world’s greatest player was American."

The U.S. has never had a player with those credentials. But the Union investor insists there’s nothing in the water here preventing it from occurring in the future.

“We have incredible athletes. We have motivated players that want to be the best. We have MLS investing millions of dollars a year to provide free training to youth,” Graham said.

And we have a population of more than 300 million people.

So, the natural question is why hasn’t it happened to date?

One reason is that the best American athletes have not historically chosen to play the game.

The Union are among the MLS clubs trying to make soccer more accessible by going into underserved communities and introducing the sport to more kids at a younger age. It believes once children start running around and playing, the game sells itself.

The team has partnered with a local organization called SWAG. SWAG provides children in inner city Philadelphia between the ages of four and seven with a learn-to-play introduction. Graham’s brother Steve funded the program so that it is entirely free to participate.

“It gives soccer a chance to be experienced by local youth at very young ages without the burden of cost and before they’re lured into [organized] American football and basketball, which start at age six,” Graham said.

Now three years in, the most promising SWAG players are migrating up and into the Union’s development system. ~50% of the kids enrolled in the club's pre-academy (ages 8 and 9) participated in the free starter program.

Another reason is that players with promise have lacked access to the resources needed to excel on a global stage.

“Long term success starts with [increasing] the accessibility of the sport, and [with] improving our learning environments, our training methods, and coaching education [which have all been subpar relative to other countries],” Graham said.

That isn’t MLS’ fault. The pro league is just over a quarter century old and there is natural gestation period before any new league can begin to channel dollars towards player development. Agenda items like stadium infrastructure simply take priority at the outset.

But that has begun to change. Every club now has an established free-of-cost youth academy and MLS invests over $50 million annually to help support these programs. The league also introduced MLS Next, which provides a high quality competition platform for the top boys youth clubs across the country.

The Union are among the individual clubs also investing heavily in youth development. Graham launched a school, YSC Academy, that serves kids in grades 7-12 within the Union Academy program. The soccer-specific-school enables young players to get an education while pursuing their dream of playing pro. In the event the pro pathway does not work out, those individuals can still use their soccer talent to get into college.

The club's efforts are starting to pay dividends. Three of the eleven U.S. players in the starting lineup of a recent Under-20 World Cup contest came through the Union's well-regarded academy system.

The Union have not developed a world class level player, yet. Brenden Aaronson, who played at Leeds in the Premiership and represented the U.S. in the 2022 FIFA World Cup, is highest profile player to maturate through.

Neither has any other MLS club. But the talent level stateside is rising and Messi's willingness to sign with Inter Miami is indicative of the sport's momentum in North America. His presence should continue to push the level of play within the league higher, which will only aid in the development of Americans competing against him on home soil.

As clubs continue investing in youth participation and player development, it seems like just a matter of time until MLS produces its own mega star.

Of course, once it does, no one expects that individual to stick around the domestic league for long.

“These kids want to play for the biggest clubs in the world and if there is a player with that opportunity, we don’t want to stop them,” Graham said. “When Americans perform well abroad, that helps lift the sport here domestically and positively impacts the reputation of MLS internationally.”

At least not for now. Perhaps someday there will be a tipping point.

MLS owners, several of which own NFL teams, could at some point decide to create the biggest and highest spending league in the world here in the U.S. And if they did, logic suggests American stars would want to stay home.

That likely isn’t going to happen within the next few years. But who is to say where the sport will be in another 25 years, especially if clubs continue investing in promising young homegrown talent.