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Is MLS failing to develop U.S. players?

Six players from the English Premier League were on the field for the 2010 World Cup final. Three others played in the 2006 final.

Yet England hasn’t made it past the quarterfinals since 1966. And some believe those two facts are related.

More than half the players in England’s top league aren’t English, according to a recent study by the Swiss-based International Centre for Sports Studies, or CIES. This makes the EPL a training ground for other national teams.

“It’s a fool’s errand,” Sir Bobby Charlton, star of England’s last -- and only -- World Cup champion in 1966, complained last April. “We need good players, and if all the spaces in the English game are taken by foreign players, we don’t have any chance.”

Now Major League Soccer, the top U.S. league, may be in danger of making the same mistake.

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In its early years, MLS marketed itself around top American players and considered the development of those players a big part of its mission.

Yet this season, a record 250 of the league’s 553 players -- or 45% -- come from 63 countries outside the U.S. That’s higher than the average of the 31 European soccer division leagues surveyed by the CIES, which found that 36% of the roster spots were filled by foreign players.

And though the influx of top internationals such as Australia’s Tim Cahill, Irish national team captain Robbie Keane, Jerry Bengtson of Honduras and Thierry Henry of France has undeniably improved both the play and appeal of MLS, it has also limited the opportunities for young Americans.

But J. Todd Durbin, MLS’ executive vice president of player relations, says it’s not that clear-cut. Because though the number of game minutes for U.S.-born players may be declining, the addition of experienced foreign players means the quality of those minutes is higher than ever.

“The best way to develop domestic talent is to put them on the field with the best possible competition,” he says. “If we were in an environment where we had no domestic players on the field, I guess I could understand people saying ‘Well, you’re not developing any local talent.’ But the reality is we have what I think is a very good balance between domestic talent and international talent.

“And one of the reasons why our domestic talent has been so successful -- and one of the reasons why our national team has been and continues to be successful -- is that the players that are playing in our league are competing against high-quality internationals.”

Still, the U.S. national team still finds its talent in other places. Of the 29 players called into the U.S. national team camp before this month’s World Cup qualifiers, six never played in MLS. And more than a quarter of the 23 players on the 2010 U.S. team had no MLS experience.

Compare that with Germany, whose entire World Cup roster in 2010 came from the Bundesliga.

In fact the Bundesliga, which Durbin says he has followed closely, may offer the best model for MLS. Because while English Premier League teams have been spending hundreds of millions of dollars importing foreign talent to the detriment of the national team, in the last 12 years Bundesliga clubs have invested nearly $1 billion in the development of young domestic players. And that investment has paid off. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund met in the Champions League final last month -- the first time two German clubs played for soccer’s top club prize -- and the German national team is ranked No. 2 in the world behind Spain.

A decade ago, the Mexican federation issued a similar mandate requiring its professional clubs to invest in youth development. And in 2005 it passed a rule that required first-division teams to give at least 1,000 minutes of playing time to players under the age of 20 years 11 months or be penalized with points subtractions.

The rule was dropped two years ago, but not before it produced many of the players that helped Mexico win two U-17 World Cups, a Pan American Games title and its first-ever Olympic gold medal in soccer.

MLS’ youth development program is beginning to show modest results of its own. In the CONCACAF U-20 championship in March, the U.S. finished second to Mexico. Five of the team’s 11 starters came from MLS programs -- including the Galaxy, which contributed forward Jose Villarreal.

While Durbin applauds that, he says the league must also continue to recruit internationally if it hopes to be taken seriously. And that will also help domestic players.

“They go hand in hand,” he says. “I don’t think about it in terms of ‘Is our purpose to develop the national team or not develop the national team?’ What I believe is if we continue to put a top-flight product on the field that is a combination of both great international players and domestic players, the end result of that will be a better national team.”

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com


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