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The Galaxy star-studded approach hurts youth development

The LA Galaxy are caught between two conflicting ideologies, and what that means for its youth players.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The LA Galaxy are caught between two conflicting ideologies.

Galaxy II coach Curt Onalfo outlined the first of these ideologies in a 2014 interview with SoccerWire. "Four, five years down the line, it's going to be all of our Homegrown Players making up [the Galaxy II roster]...The depth of the [first] team will be all guys who have come through our system," Onalfo said.

The Galaxy want to be a club that grows its own stars, and in terms of player development, they are at the forefront of innovation. The Galaxy Academy was not only one of the first in MLS to be completely free, but the Galaxy was also the first MLS team to start a USL second team in order to bridge the gap between their academy and first team.  Recently the team has begun offering contracts, such as the one given to academy product Ryo Fujii in February, that allow young academy players to play for Galaxy II while also paying for their continuing education at Cal State Dominguez Hills, and recently, the Galaxy announced their plans to create a dedicated high school for academy players.

But that's not all the Galaxy want to be.

Fresh on the heels of Steven Gerrard's arrival to the Galaxy, the club made another huge splash with the signing of star Mexican international, Giovani dos Santos.

"We are committed to assembling the best roster that will compete for championships year in and year out," Chris Klein remarked after the signing.

AEG President and CEO Dan Beckerman added: "Our goal is to be the best club in North America and continuing to invest in top players is part of that objective."

As much as they'd be like to be like Ajax, the famed Dutch squad whose legendary player development system is like a conveyor belt to the first team, the Galaxy also wants to be a superclub a la Real Madrid— a goal that appears to directly conflict with their stated desire to develop young Angelino talent.

Wesley Sneijder made his Ajax debut at 18 years-old, while Rafael van der Vaart made his when he was just 17. Both quickly became starters and eventually developed into legendary players. Of course, Ajax could have just as easily gone out and bought older, more experienced players instead of investing time in young, unpolished talents like Sneijder and van der Vaart.

But as the example of Ajax demonstrates, clubs have to be willing to make sacrifices in the present to reap the long-term rewards. Herein lies the conflict between the Galaxy's competing philosophies; superclubs do not make long-term sacrifices. If the Galaxy want to be a superclub, it will inevitably come at the cost of player development.

Nothing better illustrates this conflict than the early season successes of several of the Galaxy's younger prospects after an injury to forward Robbie Keane forced manager Bruce Arena to make serious changes to his line-up. While the Galaxy struggled during this period, three shining lights emerged: Jose Villarreal, Ignacio Maganto and Bradford Jamieson IV. Arena depended on these young players to contribute and, as a result of their newfound playing time, they rewarded their coach's faith in them. More importantly, the playing time helped them develop as players.

But when Keane returned, these young players began to see their minutes shrink. Sebastian Letget's arrival shrunk their minutes even further (Maganto's in particular). With Gerrard's place in the starting lineup all but assured and the signing of Mexican international Giovanni Dos Santos, the once plentiful minutes these kids had been thriving on has now shrunk to almost nothing.

This depth, of course, is a great problem to have if you're the Galaxy, but from the perspective of a young academy player, the star system is detrimental to development.

The Galaxy did not bring in players like Gerrard and Dos Santos to split time with young project players like Jose Villarreal and Ignacio Maganto. While the kids will certainly benefit from training alongside such world-class talents, these players need playing time to continue their development. Where will these young players find minutes in a Galaxy midfield already crowded with the likes of Dos Santos, Juninho, Gerrard, and Lletget? There are only so many sub minutes to go around. It's a tough situation to be in for these youngsters, and one that Sebastian Lletget knows all too well.

From the age of 13, people have been hailing Sebastian Lletget as America's next great soccer talent. West Ham super scout, Jimmy Hampson, famously claimed that Lletget was the best 14-year-old to ever play for the academy, including guys like Frank Lampard and Joe Cole.

Although he'd been training with the club on and off from an early age, due to age restrictions, Lletget was unable to join West Ham's academy until he was 17. Within a year of arriving, Lletget signed his first professional contract with West Ham and the club began to groom him for the first team. Sebastian began appearing in reserve and West Ham U 18 games and eventually started to make the bench for the senior side.

But here Sebastian hit a wall. The competition for roster positions within the EPL is notoriously tough and Sebastian, though talented, couldn't compete with the seasoned pros in the West Ham midfield. Although West Ham saw the talent in him to one day be able to surpass such players, they could not offer him the playing time necessary to develop to this point.

It is the exact situation currently facing Raul Mendiola and Bradford Jamieson IV who the Galaxy hope to groom into eventual Galaxy starters, but can't offer the first team minutes to do so outside of  the occasional friendly. In the case of Sebastian Lletget, it is a situation that ultimately forced him to leave West Ham for a club that could offer him more playing time. Will we see a similar exodus from the Galaxy's current crop of young talent?

One solution that clubs around the world use when facing such situations is to send these players out on loan. This is exactly what the Galaxy attempted to do last year when they loaned Jose Villarreal to Cruz Azul. Unfortunately for Jose, he didn't get playing time in Mexico, and unfortunately for the rest of our youth talent, these type of youth loans from MLS teams are rare.

The sad truth is this: MLS players simply aren't valued on the international market.  The Galaxy would do well to loan Bradford Jamieson IV and Raul Mendiola to get minutes in leagues of a higher standard than USL PRO, but the market simply doesn't exist for such a loan.

Compounding the problem is the fact that loans between MLS teams are unheard of despite the fact that there are a number of clubs within the league for whom Bradford Jamieson IV would be a key bench player.

Bradford Jamieson IV and Raul Mendiola have reached a point where they are absolutely ready to graduate USL PRO. The problem is, without the existence of loan options and with little playing time on the first team available for the foreseeable future, the Galaxy have nowhere to graduate these players to. The development pipeline is hitting a major barrier.

Ironically, this is exactly the type of problem that the Galaxy II was supposed to eliminate.

"We've noticed over the years that, as good as our kids were, that making that jump from 17 or 18 years old into our first team, there was a need to help bridge the gap." Galaxy development academy director Pete Vagenas once told SoccerWire in an interview about the Galaxy's goals in establishing the USL PRO club back in 2014.  "Now the goal is a bit more tangible and that's to get players into LA Galaxy II."

Since the creation of LA Galaxy II, the Galaxy organization has made tremendous strides in player development. But by escalating their first team spending -- bringing in players like Lletget, Gerrard and Gio dos Santo - the club has paradoxically strengthened the barrier they were looking to eliminate with Galaxy II.

Of course, the nature of professional player development dictates that most young academy players will never go on to play for the first team. Still, it is beneficial for all clubs, even superclubs, to have academies, both for transfer purposes, and because there is always that once in a generation phenom that will have the talent to burst through to the first team.

The argument here is a matter of degrees. The Galaxy don't aspire to have a marginally important academy.   The Galaxy aspire to have the best academy in the country and to produce the best players in the country, and while the infrastructure and regional talent pool is there, the commitment to developing them any further than bench contributors is not.

As is true around the world, the teams that will consistently produce the most youth talent will be the teams that offer the most first team playing time to their young players. Meanwhile, clubs like the LA Galaxy will always struggle in this department because said talent will almost always struggle to displace world class stars.

None of this is to say that the Galaxy are wrong to sign players like Gio and Gerrard. They aren't. The Galaxy are a big market team, and if they want to continue to grow their brand, they need to continue to sign these types of players. But if this is their chosen path, the organization needs to lower their lofty expectations for the academy and USL PRO side. While player development will have its role in the success of future Galaxy sides, that role will never be as important as they currently aspire it to be. The Galaxy will always be closer to Real Madrid than Ajax.