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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Monday, October 2, 2017

A developing problem? What the latest 24 Under 24 indicates for the Union

The Union's Jack Elliott was likely the highest rated of the club's candidates
for MLS' 24 Under 24 series. (DFM/Mikey Reeves)
MLS last week released its “24 Under 24”, a ranking of the top players in the league under the age of 24, graded on a rubric of ability and upside by members of the media and MLS staff. In short, it’s the kind of list that a team trumpeting youth development should have a presence on.

And the Union are … absent, for the second time in three years. Their representative last year, Keegan Rosenberry at No. 6, didn’t make the shortlist despite being eligible; only Jack Elliott and Derrick Jones were in consideration but didn’t make the cut (rightly, in my opinion).

The Union traditionally have had a presence on the list, topping out with four players chosen in 2011. As you can see, that has rarely been a guarantor of anything.

2010: Danny Mwanga 5, Jack McInerney 22, Roger Torres 23
2011: Freddy Adu 6, Danny Mwanga 9, Roger Torres 22, Jack McInerney 23
2012: Sheanon Williams 18, Freddy Adu 19
2013: Jack McInerney 4, Amobi Okugo 8
2014: Amobi Okugo 13
2015: NONE
2016: Keegan Rosenberry 6
2017: NONE

Let’s put aside for a moment the evaluation of why players across multiple Union epochs haven’t sustained their developmental trajectories. That’s been written about before. And let’s also acknowledge that the list isn’t a perfect science, inasmuch as predicting the vicissitudes of 18-to-23-year-olds (or in this case, players young as 15), is a perilous endeavor. There’s certainly a bias toward recent performances over the short-term coloring long-term outlooks – see Rosenberry last year, or Kellyn Acosta this year. But I digress.

We could break it down by club, as is popular. That will find three inclusions each for Atlanta United, FC Dallas, New York City FC and Real Salt Lake – two teams that would be labeled as “big market”. Only one of those clubs (Dallas) landed multiple Homegrown players on the team and can rightly be said to have “developed” more than one player on the list.

It’s more purposeful to break the list down based on acquisition method:

Homegrowns (9): K.Acosta, Davies, Morris, Adams, Palmer-Brown, Glad, Tabla, Gonzalez, Fagundez
Designated Players (7): Almiron, Arriola, Villalba, Elis, Gruezo, Rusnak, Savarino
SuperDraft picks (4): Harrison, Larin, Roldan, Manneh
Other (4): Herrera, Asad, L.Acosta, Matarrita

Less than half of the players on the list are academy products. Only eight are American internationals (pending if the question is ever asked of Uruguayan by birth Diego Fagundez).

There are nearly as many Homegrown players as there are designated players. You can essentially put Luciano Acosta in that category, since he pulls down a DP salary paid down with allocation money. The take-home lesson here for the Union: Even in this department, sometimes you have to spend.

It’s perhaps reassuring that four of the top 24 are draft picks; Cristian Roldan, who is enjoying a moment in the sun (that I think might be exaggerating how high his ceiling really is), fell to the Sounders at 16 in 2015.

But where I want to focus attention is in the last category of three players – Yamil Asad, Yangel Herrera and Ronald Matarrita. Herrera is not a replicable example, the Venezuelan 19-year-old on loan from NYCFC parent club Manchester City. But the others are. Asad, who has been maybe the fourth-best attacker on Atlanta but certainly has more than recouped his investment, is on loan from Velez Sarsfield this season; He’s produced six goals and 12 assists for the salary the Union are paying to Ray Gaddis. Luciano Acosta is in a similar boat, having spent a season on loan from Boca Juniors before D.C. United sealed a permanent transfer. This is the method the Union once used – first with Maurice Edu, then Fernando Aristeguieta – and that has shown benefits when deployed properly.

Then there’s Matarrita, who despite injuries has starred for NYC and the Costa Rica national team. He was transferred in from Alajulense and is being paid $175k this year (Union analogue: Fabinho). Matarrita has benefitted City on the field and he’s likely to yield a transfer fee when he decides to move on.

Even with the others in the DP category – Miguel Almiron, Albert Rusnak, Hector Villalba and Carlos Gruezo in particular – the next-level thinking that’s absent with the Union is evident. I’d venture to guess that for not a single one of those four players, MLS will be neither his last nor his best league in which he plays. Yes, these guys cost money up front. But they reap a return – first on the field, then on the balance sheet when another club comes in and pays to acquire them.

In the history of the Union, examples of players moving on to greener pastures are few and far between. For evidence, see the above list of former 24-under-24 honorees. (In no particular order, their current employers: Retired, MLS bench, Colombian second division (?), MLS bench, MLS bench, unemployed, and wherever Rosenberry can be said to be now.) I can’t think of an example of a player who left the Union in better shape than he arrived in terms of his next league (maybe Gabriel Gomez?).

That’s what we talk about when we bandy about terms like “MLS (blank).0.” Whatever version the Union are on, it’s an outdated operating system, and this shows the degree to which that’s the case.

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