William Rhoden has an article (subscription needed) in the NYT about Gary Sheffield's new book, Inside Power. Sheffield is the outspoken Detroit Tigers outfielder who writes about the disappearing African Americans in MLB. His contention is that the MLB is not doing enough to develop the game in the US, instead shifting resources to development academies located in Latin and Central American countries which nurture local talent and bring them over for a pittance and bypass the draft altogether. In the MLB almost 30% of the players are Latino, whereas the African American players constitute a mere 8%. Sheffield contends that Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program had “been around for years, but you see more kids coming out of the academies in the Dominican Republic and not out of R.B.I.” Its a cost benefit winner that the MLB is loth to pass up even as the complexion of the game has changed.
A similar set of issues could confront the MLS in the coming years as it establishes itself as a premier league. The Olympic Development Program (ODP) was set up in 1994 after the World Cup to nurture inner city talent in soccer. DaMarcus Beasley is a product of the ODP. However in the twelve years since, he remains the exception.
The rise of soccer stars in countries like Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica, and Honduras, makes this region a recruiting magnet for MLS clubs who do not want to wait for the ODP and the more expensive players coming out of the annual MLS draft. The relatively minuscule overheads to develop and maintain soccer academies in these countries that would serve as a ready made conduit for low cost players could prove extremely attractive. Imagine talents such as David Suazo and Blas Perez in a NY Red Bulls shirt. Of course, the first instinct of such players would be to gravitate to the high paying and high profile European or South American leagues in attracting quality players, a problem that the MLB that does not face. But the prospects of ready employment, a distinct geographical advantage, large and appreciative immigrant populations from these countries, would make it attractive for Latin American talent to come to the USA. Of course, the phenomenon of establishing MLS run soccer academies might also be easier in Eastern Europe with its pool of talent, lower standards of living, a more convivial relationship with the US, and large immigrant populations.
In the next five years as MLS devolves from a single entity structure to a more autonomous club centered organization, these clubs will have more freedom to spend more and invest in player development. This could involve soccer academies and talent scouting organizations in the above mentioned countries. MLB clubs like the Yankees have benefited from a large Dominican presence and long standing ties with towns like San Pedro De Macoris. MLS clubs like the Red Bulls and the Fire with substantial immigrant populations from Central American and Eastern European countries could benefit from such an arrangement with feeder clubs. The questions that confronts MLS and US Soccer will the ODP prove ultimately to be a noble but flawed notion, a victim of future soccer economic considerations, and will the MLS draft still provide the bulk of soccer players? I am not advocating for an inner city or ex-urban soul of MLS but the world of soccer economics will dictate the demographics.