NYCFC acknowledge the struggle of graduating young talent without a second team
In 2017, US youth international James Sands became New York City FC's first Homegrown player. The then-16-year-old marked what the club would hope to be the first of many graduates from the academy to the first team.
After a slow-build to ensure they got it right, the academy had arrived, thy name James Sands.
Sands' progression came despite NYCFC not having a USL affiliate for him to potentially earn minutes in that key transition phase between when he clearly surpassed the academy level but before he was ready for NYCFC first-team soccer. Prior to 2019 when he became an integral member of the starting XI when fit, he made a total of four MLS appearances and a further three in USL.
But not all academy graduates or young players in general can make that jump without first-team minutes, particularly at a club as strong as NYCFC. Sands' teammate Juan Pablo Torres played exactly one MLS minute in a stacked Cityzens team last year. Keaton Parks waited until June 30 for his first start. Jonathan Lewis never found regular time, facilitating a trade to the Colorado Rapids.
While a number of clubs have looked to create a landing bridge for those transition years, with affiliates in the USL. NYCFC still don't have one. And for the club, now onto their second class of academy standouts following Tayvon Gray becoming their fourth Homegrown player in club history this offseason, it might begin to be a problem.
“It’s a big step from playing U-19 to the first team here at a top team in MLS," new head coach Ronny Deila told media on a conference call Friday. "We have to find decent routes to get into the first team. Sure, a couple players can take the step and be part of the group, but to see a lot of youngsters coming in at once, we wouldn’t be at the top of the league like we want to. We have to find the right balance, it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge that we don’t have a second team (because) without playing games, it’s hard to develop. Then when you get in the team and get a chance, you don’t have any game time so it’s hard to get good performances. It’s something the club knows about.”
In NYCFC's first two preseason games of 2020, a bevy of promising academy standouts who have yet to ink Homegrown deals featured. Many featured in the academy as the club's U-19 side won back-to-back Development Academy championships in 2018 and 2019. Those players are wandering without a bridge from youth to MLS soccer.
This year, nine MLS teams will have a second team playing the USL Championship and another five will in USL League One. Past those 14, a number of other MLS clubs have affiliations with lower-division sides.
“We’ve evaluated the prospect of a USL team, we know it’s a challenge to get these young players playing time," sporting director David Lee said. "We don’t have a definite answer for you right now, but we need to try to identify the best opportunities to get players to play games. We saw with James Sands, he went on loan with Louisville for a couple of games, came back and made his debut. Every player’s pathway is different, so we just have to find the right opportunities for the right players at the right time.”
For NYCFC at the moment, opportunities for minutes outside of the first team will come through loans. It's not so straightforward, though.
Intra-MLS loans are a rarity, ones used less for developing players than as a precursor for a trade, like Lalas Abubakar heading to Colorado on loan from Columbus Crew SC last year before being acquired permanently this offseason. Loans to lower-division sides don't always get the desired result of development and still doesn't get a player MLS experience. Loans abroad come with a number of hurdles.
"Maybe it’s more politics, but it’s not easy to get people out on loan at good clubs," Deila said. "That’s something we need to sort out and find a solution.”
NYCFC's aspirations and payroll reflect a club perpetually in win-now mode. And, as Deila explained, making the breakthrough as a young player is no easy feat.
"We are not a selling club," Deila said. "Yes, sometimes we sell, but we want to win. When you want to win, you have to keep your best players. So, the young players are good enough and can prove, they’ll have a good chance to play. But it’s a tough place to come and get through in the first-team.”