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If Crew leave Columbus, then the Homegrown system is a farce

Can’t sell kids the promise they’ll play for their hometown team and then up and leave.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

There’s been a lot of ink spilled this week about the developing story of Columbus Crew SC looking set to bolt their Central Ohio home and move to Austin. It’s really gross, even if the owner is sending ill-advised tweets in a misguided effort to be liked while doing the most unforgivable thing in team ownership.

That is some really cringe-worthy, tone-deaf stuff!

Anyway, a rather small consideration in all of this is one of the programs that has been regarded as a good step in the evolution of MLS is the Homegrown system. Basically, the Homegrown set-up is that teams are required to have fully stocked U.S. Soccer Boys Development Academy programs, almost all of which in MLS are free for players, and this produces a development pipeline for the MLS teams, with a few of the brightest prospects signed to Homegrown deals. These contracts give teams a few incentives (off the salary limit altogether, among other things).

The Crew have had a few Homegrown players over the years, most notably midfielder Wil Trapp. He’s gone from a youngster looking for a breakthrough to getting a U.S. Men’s National Team call-up and becoming team captain this season in Columbus. Trapp is definitely a success story of the Homegrown program overall, along with other players around the league like DeAndre Yedlin, Bill Hamid, and Kellyn Acosta.

The Homegrown system is useful in two ways, really. Teams get a way of finding pros in their backyard. Unlike the other pro sports, MLS teams can literally sign a player they’ve nurtured in their development system instead of having to see them go through the draft and use a pick on them, lest another team takes them first.

It also builds community equity in a few ways. I think fans in general like winners first and foremost, and behind that they like to root for hometown kids. Homegrown players help MLS teams connect to fans and provide faces to market the team around. “He’s your neighbor, and look at him come good!” the implicit message seems to be.

And then beyond that, for those kids who play in the academy but are perhaps not good enough to turn pro, the fringe benefit of the whole system is to nurture these players as fans of the team. Creating a pool of academy players who will go on to root for the senior team is smart business, and while not every academy player is going to be a lifelong fan, presumably as long as they are treated well and are soccer fans to begin with, a substantial proportion will feel an affinity to the team.

Now, with the threat of the Crew packing up and leaving town, all of those connections will be ripped up. I’m not saying the only reason to keep a team in town is because they’ve already built an infrastructure through a youth academy. But I’m saying that the promises of recruiting youngsters into an academy, trying to build community ties through this system, and, oh yeah, trying to find viable pros in your local area will be empty, futile exercises.

So if Precourt ultimately abandons Columbus, it’s not just the fans who will be left holding the bag, it will be the players in the academy system, and those few players who move on to become pros. And a corollary to the other MLS teams, aside from the distrust it will sow among other fanbases for the next greedy owner looking to ditch their city, is that parents of talented kids may pause when promised the earth and moon by MLS academies. After all, who knows if they’re in it for the long haul, right?

What do you think? Leave a comment below!