- Houston Dynamo Academy Star Signed with First Team on March 4
- Midfielder Joins Select Group of Academy Veterans Who Have Moved Directly to MLS
With the inception of Major League Soccer in 1996, a generation of soccer players has grown up idolizing local clubs and players. Elite young players have been able to dream about suiting up for their favorite team, the one they’ve grown up watching and cheering for.
Since incorporating the Home Grown Player rule on Nov. 11, 2006, MLS has made it possible for its teams to sign a player directly from its youth academy, and on March 4, Francisco Navas Cobo became the latest player to benefit.
Bypassing the MLS SuperDraft and allocation process, Navas Cobo signed his first professional contract with the Houston Dynamo after starring for the club’s U-17/18 Development Academy team, calling the opportunity “a dream come true.” But the 18-year-old is not the first player to take advantage of the Home Grown Player rule.
He joins a number of Development Academy alumni who have made the jump to their club’s first teams. The Los Angeles Galaxy became the first team to sign a local player from its Academy team when Tristan Bowen signed a first-team contract on Nov. 12, 2008.
In September 2009, D.C. United signed young goalkeeper Bill Hamid just months after he helped the U-17/18 Academy team reach the Development Academy Final.
“The transition has been amazing,” said Hamid. “I’ve had a lot of support from within the club and I’ve been able to stay in my hometown, close to my family. It’s been fun. The hard work is great and I’m really enjoying it.”
Hamid credits the competition he found within the Academy with helping to ease his transition to the professional level.
“The Academy helped me a lot,” he said. “If you bring together the best players in the country, which the Academy does, the level of play rises. It prepared me better for the professional level and fortunately it led to this opportunity with D.C.”
Joining Hamid during D.C. United’s preseason on a trial basis is former Academy teammate Andy Najar. Najar, who turned 17 years old on March 16, was a key part of the D.C. United Academy offense during the team’s run through the Playoffs and Finals Week.
“It’s fun to watch guys like Bill and Andy learn from the other players,” said D.C. United technical director Chad Ashton. “You can even see it in their eyes at the beginning, stepping on the field with someone like Jaime Moreno and trying to be his equal. They tend to have stars in their eyes at first but once they became comfortable, it’s been great to watch the progress they’ve made so quickly.”
Like Najar, 2008-09 Development Academy U-15/16 Player of the Year Ruben Luna has spent much of MLS preseason training with the first team of FC Dallas, netting goals against the University of Tampa and the Philadelphia Union.
The transition from a youth team to a professional team is never going to be easy, but MLS clubs are doing everything they can to help make the move as smooth as possible for the young professionals by mirroring the professional environment in its youth teams.
The Chicago Fire became the first MLS club to take both Academy sides on tour with the professionals during trips to Mexico and Mississippi, where the youth team trained and played alongside the first team.
D.C. United also tries to make that connection within the club.
“We try and get the Academy onto the pitch at RFK and around the first team as much as we can,” said Ashton. “We try to mirror the first team as much as possible and try to prepare these guys as much as possible to be able to have success within our system.”
With the transition, players have the opportunity to move up higher on the radar of national team coaches. Gerson Mayen from Chivas USA moved quickly from the Academy level to the first team, where he made 12 appearances as a rookie in 2009. His move to a professional environment did not go unnoticed by U.S. U-20 Men’s National Team head coach Thomas Rongen, who added Mayen to the roster for the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Earlier this week, Navas Cobo was named to the U.S. U-20 MNT roster for the upcoming Dallas Cup. The Dynamo teenager was on the youth national team radar before signing his contract, but playing against professionals has given Rongen a better opportunity to assess Navas Cobo.
"Moving players up to a first team in a club has allowed us to identify players a bit easier because even if someone hasn’t signed a professional contract, the opportunity to train with the first team gives us a good assessment of a player’s abilities,” said Rongen.
The U-20 coach does not discount players who are still part of the Academy or youth set up, as demonstrated through his training camp rosters and even last year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup roster. Still, he believes that quality training and games can only help young players develop.
“For guys in our age group especially, it’s all about the frequency and quality of training and quality games,” said Rongen. “In a professional environment we know that’s going to happen, and that is what will accelerate a players development. It’s something we desperately need for players in this country.”
The U.S. U-20 MNT opens the Dallas Cup against Mexico on March 28 before facing the Vancouver Whitecaps on March 29 and Eintracht Frankfurt on March 31.