Does the name Eriq Zavaleta ring any bells for you? If not, it should. Zavaleta is currently considered one of the best players in the Big Ten conference. He is compared to last year's top SuperDraft pick Andrew Wenger due to his versatility on the field - he plays as a forward for Indiana, yet trained as a defender as a youth player. The sophomore forward/defender from Indiana University has spent a good amount of time with Chivas USA the past couple of seasons, but not in the most conventional way. He came to the team in the 2011 offseason from Real Salt Lake Arizona’s academy, with his uncle Greg Vanney. While he left to play for the Hoosiers in Fall 2011, he trained with the team this past summer, along with his Indiana teammate A.J. Corrado. As one of the top prospects for the upcoming SuperDraft, however, it seems that Chivas USA will not be able to claim him as a Home Grown Player.
The Home Grown player rule itself, as outlined in MLS’ guidelines, is extremely vague. It states that a club can sign a player "to his first professional contract without subjecting him to the MLS SuperDraft if the player has trained for at least one year in the club’s youth development program and has met League criteria." That one year rule seems to be the most important. As for what constitutes League criteria, well, that is still very fluid. There have been many reports and articles written as to what the criteria actually is. In February, Top Drawer Soccer provided an in-depth interview with RSL’s General Manager Garth Lagerwey discussing just how unclear the rules actually are (this piece also included a section devoted to explaining what could happen to our own academy player Ben Spencer, which I will discuss at a later date).
How does this apply to Zavaleta? First, Zavaleta did not spend at least a year with the Goats' Academy prior to leaving for college. This is the most concrete segment of the otherwise convoluted Home Grown requirements. He came with Vanney in the 2011 offseason. Just a couple weeks after joining, however, Indiana announced Zavaleta as a member of their Fall 2011 incoming class, and he chose to join the Hoosiers. Another guideline of the Homegrown rules, as known by the clubs and discussed by Kyle McCarthy on Goal.com, is that the player cannot have played for a U.S. National Team prior to joining the Academy team. This is another rule Zavaleta doesn’t fit, as he played in the 2009 U-17 World Cup for the U.S. before joining the Goats.
Let it be said, though, that there are always exceptions to these rules. There have been cases where MLS has approved the signing of a Home Grown player even though the player didn’t fit all the rules. There seems to be a bit of gray area, as there usually is when MLS teams sign HG players. If we look at LA Galaxy player Jose Villarreal, he fits a very similar mold to Zavaleta. He didn’t play for their academy for at least a year before signing, and was also a member of U.S. Youth National Teams before signing. However, Villarreal was a member of local Southern California club teams, including one that is a youth affiliate of the Galaxy’s. Many Home Grown players around the league come from these affiliate teams, and they seem to be a common exception to MLS rules. This wouldn’t work in our favor of signing Zavaleta, however, as he came to us from RSL’s academy. Furthermore, he is originally from Indiana, which is of course outside of the 75-mile radius MLS gives to clubs to scout academy players from.
The biggest factor in determining whether to grant exceptions, as shown by the trend from MLS, is whether or not the players are weighing strong options from teams abroad. Many reports say that MLS granted the Galaxy the ability to sign Villareal because the 16-year old had some serious offers from teams abroad. In the league’s quest to place a stronger emphasis on youth development and Home Grown players, if there’s a strong indication that the player will move abroad, they will do what they can to keep the player in America. There’s no way of knowing if this could happen with Zavaleta, but I would say that it likely won’t (with or without European interest). Zavaleta just doesn’t concretely tick any boxes that would let him sign this contract for the team.
Considering Chivas USA will have the second pick in the SuperDraft come January, it may not matter that they can’t sign Zavaleta to a Home Grown contract should they want him. However, because that second pick is the Goats’ ONLY pick this draft (their second round pick goes to New England per the terms of the Shalrie Joseph trade), it would have been nice to stake a claim on a Home Grown player to bolster the squad. We will just have to see as to whether or not this adversely affects Chivas USA.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!