MLS homegrown player rules will loosen, with fewer territorial restrictions
MLS homegrown player rules will loosen, with fewer territorial restrictions

Major League Soccer is set to loosen its rules governing movement of youth and academy players, multiple sources have told The Athletic.

The new system will be based around a protected list of youth players. MLS teams will be allowed to place up to 54 players on their youth player protected lists: 45 who play in their academy and nine who aren’t in their academy but who live in their “homegrown territory.” Those players will not be able to sign a professional deal with another MLS club without that club negotiating a trade for their rights.

Players who are rostered to a club’s academy but are not on their protected list can move to another club’s academy and eventually sign homegrown deals with that club’s first team, but the players’ new clubs will have to pay their old clubs a set amount in order to acquire them. Those amounts have already been determined by the league and are not subject to negotiation.

Under the new rules, players who live in an MLS homegrown territory but are neither rostered to an MLS academy nor on a homegrown priority list will now be able to move freely to MLS clubs based outside of their territory. Teams will not have to pay any compensation to other MLS teams for said players.

Within each club’s 54-player protected list, teams must protect a minimum of 10 and maximum of 20 players from their respective under-15 and under-17 MLS Next academy teams. Teams also must protect a minimum of five and a maximum of 15 players from the under-19 age group.

Of the nine non-registered players protected from within a team’s homegrown territory, a maximum of five can be protected from any specific age group.

If an MLS team does not field an under-19 academy team, it can only protect a maximum of 40 registered academy players.

The MLS board of governors voted to approve the changes at a meeting in Minnesota ahead of last month’s MLS All-Star Game. Teams must submit homegrown protected lists by Tuesday, Aug. 30, according to several of the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to confirm the league’s plans on the record.

Teams can update these protected lists every few months. One source said the next update will come in January.

The new rules are a departure from the geographically-dictated system that MLS has used for years. In the current setup, every team has a designated homegrown territory in which they have the MLS rights to every youth player. MLS teams can take players into their academy from the territories of other teams, but the player’s “home” team still holds his MLS rights and can block him from signing a homegrown deal with another MLS club.

The size of homegrown territories vary based on market. Most territories consist of a radius expanding from the team’s home stadium or training facility — typically between 75 and 125 miles — though teams in smaller markets have expanded territories. Real Salt Lake, for example, claims the entirety of Utah and Arizona as its homegrown territory.

Two recent examples of how the homegrown territory rule worked in practice involve Christian Cappis and Caden Clark. Cappis grew up outside of Houston, but he moved to North Texas without his family in 2017 to join the FC Dallas academy. FCD attempted to sign him to a homegrown deal in 2018, but the Houston Dynamo blocked the move on the grounds that he was from their homegrown territory. Even though Cappis had never played in their academy and wasn’t interested in signing a homegrown deal with them, the Dynamo held his MLS rights. Caught in limbo in the U.S., Cappis ended up heading to Europe to sign with Danish Superliga team Hobro IK in November 2018. He moved to fellow Danish club Brondby IF last year.

Clark’s journey had a slightly different twist. The U.S. youth national team attacker signed with the New York Red Bulls in 2020, but only after New York sent a minimum of $75,000 in allocation money to Minnesota United. Clark was born and raised in Minnesota, but left the state to join the Barça residential academy in Arizona before MNUFC launched its academy in 2017.

Under the new version of the homegrown rule, Cappis and Clark would have had to be on the priority lists of Houston and Minnesota, respectively, for either club to have a claim to their MLS rights.

The territory rule has been subject to significant debate among chief soccer officers, league officials and owners for several years. Consideration about removing territories goes back at least four years.

“You shouldn’t be able to protect 500,000 kids in one area,” Sporting Kansas City sporting director and manager Peter Vermes told The Athletic in a piece about the debate published in October 2020. “You can never even use 500,000 kids. You can never provide them with the ability to play games. Why should you get to protect them and have them available to you? … That’s not growing the game, it’s not growing the league, it’s not doing any of that.”

Those on the other side of the debate believed giving teams a monopoly over home markets allowed them to focus on investing, discovering and developing talent without concern of players being poached.

“When you have territorial barriers to entry from other MLS clubs, it allows you to have some type of time and space to really focus all your efforts on player development, coaching development, youth development and trying to think through solutions that result in the best outcomes in the development of young players and development of coaches and staff members as well,” said MLS Next Pro senior VP of operations and competitions Ali Curtis, who, at the time of the interview in 2020, was general manager of Toronto FC.

Ultimately, this new system is a compromise between the two sides of the debate. It’s still protectionist; it doesn’t allow MLS teams to go into other teams’ territories and try to attract any youth player that they want. They can, as Curtis advocated for, still hone in on their developmental efforts for the players on their protected lists. They can also block players on their list from moving clubs in the same way Houston blocked Cappis from signing for Dallas in 2018.

But it does allow for more freedom of movement for players who aren’t on protected lists. If a player isn’t deemed valuable enough to be protected by his home team, he can move to another MLS organization without any issue. It also provides further motivation for teams to invest in their academies, youth scouting and development or else risk losing players to teams that do, opens up new opportunities for some players and removes some of the ability for teams to profit off of or block the movement of players they were never interested in developing or signing.

(Photo: Vincent Carchietta / USA TODAY Sports)



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