Twelve months ago Jordan Morris was just another kid at Stanford University. Known only by soccer diehards and Seattle Sounders supporters in the Northwestern part of the United States, Morris was just another 19-year old kid playing college soccer on a scholarship.
In just one year Morris has gone from being an unknown to a highly known quantity. With five appearances with the United States Men’s National Team under his belt and a goal against Mexico, he has become the posterboy for the future of American soccer.
It is a big winter for Morris with Stanford looking to claim their first-ever collegiate title, a possible call-up to Jurgen Klinsmann’s side in January, and a decision of whether to stay at Stanford or become a professional all on the docket.
Although it sounds like a slam dunk decision for Morris and many other college players it is not quite as simple as it seems. Up until the past ten years most American soccer players had one choice – go to college and hopefully get drafted by a Major League Soccer team.
Aside from those that could afford to attend US Soccer’s Academy or were fortunate enough to get a look at by a European team, college was the only avenue to a professional career in the game.
That might sound a little maddening to those from Europe but in the United States it is part of the norm. Although there are some exceptions to the rule, most of the professional leagues here in the United States enforce that their players attend college for at least one year.
Leagues like Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, and the National Football League all defer the development to youth players in their sport to private and public universities. When the players are eligible and decide that they want to pursue a professional career they are selected out of a pool of players via a draft.
While this system works for those leagues, for Major League Soccer it puts them at a disadvantage with the rest of the world. MLB, the NBA, the NHL, and the NFL are all of the top leagues in their sport and thus can dictate the rules for other leagues in their sport. Seasoned European basketball players who win EuroBasket are placed in the same draft with eighteen-year old kids who have one year of college experience.
So if the college system is such an onus on MLS why do they continue to use it? The answer is simple: they didn’t want to. When the league was founded the league’s owners opted to go with a North American style of youth development, that is, ask the NCAA to do it. While players like Freddy Adu and DaMarcus Beasley were touted as examples of the great players that youth soccer in the country were developing the truth was that none of the original MLS sides really invested in youth academies.
At the time this system made sense economically. With so many sides barely making ends meet the league could not afford to have a youth academy system like an Arsenal or Manchester United. The low success rate of youth players also probably made owners gun shy about investing in such unknown quantities.
By using the colleges teams MLS clubs could scout potential prospects without investing a single dollar into them. For the players it gives them a chance to show their talents at a relative higher level while helping pay for a college education.
It is also not as if college soccer has been unable to produce quality players. American players such as Brad Friedel (Aston Villa/Tottenham Hotspur), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Claudio Reyna (Manchester City), John Harkes (Sheffield Wednesday) all went through the college system. As did Neven Subotic (Borussia Dortmund,) Vedad Ibisevic (Hertha BSC), Ryan Nelsen (Tottenham Hotspur), and Shaka Hislop (Newcastle/ West Ham United).
But the problem with the system is that it essentially robs the players and the national league of a player’s best years and their highest re-sell value. A college player typically lasts from 18 up to 22-years old, which, in the international transfer market, is the prime period to sell a player.
When an MLS side drafts a player a forward at the age of 22 they are potentially missing out on the opportunity to sell the player at their highest potential value at a later date. Players also miss out on maximizing their earning potential. Yes players like Clint Dempsey have earned European contracts later in their career but only after coming over on a free transfer or at a small value to their club.
This system has changed some in recent years. Every MLS team now has a youth academy system of some form, with some teams placing squads in the United Soccer League, the “third division” of U.S. Soccer, or the National Premier Soccer League, a mostly amateur league. Players like Morris, who came up through the Seattle Sounders Youth Academy system, can go to college and train with their MLS side.
The clubs are also given the chance to offer their youth academy players a ‘Homegrown Player’ contract which would make them immune from being drafted when they choose to end their amateur eligibility. The Sounders confirmed this week that they have made Morris a ‘Homegrown Player’ contract to forego his senior season with Stanford which would begin in August 2016.
According to Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl the contract was the largest in MLS history (This was confirmed by Sounders FC President Garth Lagerway in a conference call this week).
The hitch in this system and what makes Morris’ situation so complicated is his amateur status. Although Morris has featured for the U.S. Men’s National Team he is still considered to be an amateur soccer player who cannot profit from any USMNT appearances. He also cannot play for the Seattle Sounders MLS nor their USL side, S2. If he does he will lose his eligibility to play for Stanford University, and more importantly, his college scholarship.
MLS contracts also heavily favor the league as opposed to the player. If Morris were to sign a contract with Sounders FC he would essentially be signing a contract with MLS because the league operates under a single entity structure. His rights, in essence, would be owned by MLS.
If Morris were to sign with Seattle and then be transferred to a European side the Sounders could retain his MLS rights should he ever want to return. All of these things limit his negotiating power and could make Europe all the more enticing.
Whatever decision Morris makes will likely be a good one. San Jose Earthquakes forward Tommy Thompson currently holds the record for largest ‘Homegrown Player’ contract ever at $140,000 a season, so if the Sounders contract is worth more than that he will likely avoid the league minimum of $36,500. Europe or staying an additional season are also not bad options for his career in soccer (Europe) or in lifestyle (Stanford).
But Morris’ situation highlights a major hole in how talent is developed here in the United States. One has to wonder if Morris was born in England if he would have ever gone to college in the first place. He is certainly a better person for going to Stanford and given the lack of certainty in a professional soccer career here in the United States a Stanford degree is a heck of a back-up plan.
The fault isn’t with Morris but rather with MLS and US Soccer who still need the NCAA to develop their players. The NCAA can certainly be an excellent asset in finding players who might have taken a bit longer to develop. But given how international football is structured this should not be the place where the top young American players go to develop.
The MLS academy system has finally started to develop young players that are having a positive impact on the game. But until club sides can develop their own players and can offer players salaries that will allow them to make a professionally living off of the game that will not change.
The NCAA is also to blame, holding a player’s scholarship for ransom while operating a billion dollar feeder system for American professional sports. Morris is not the first athlete who has been forced to decline payment for his work over fear of losing a scholarship and he will not be the last.
The system is flawed but unfortunately with all three parties profiting from it there is no clear long-term solution that can be applied. For players like Morris that means many more years being forced to use the college system in order to pursue soccer.