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Friday 1 July 2011

An Interesting Development

     The first wave of MLS players who grew up as fans of their club have started cropping up around the league.  They include Seattle’s Lamar Neagle, Columbus’ Aaron Horton, Chicago’s Pari Pantazopoulos, and Steven Emory in Colorado.

     Washington State Native Lamar Neagle originally joined the Sounders in 2009, before being released; he then spent a year between USL-2 and the Finnish league. Seattle resigned the wide attacker this year following a preseason trial; due to injury troubles, Neagle was given the opportunity for first team action making 10 appearances – 4 starts - scoring a cracker of a goal as Seattle broke Real Salt Lake’s home unbeaten streak back in May.

     Columbus Crew’s first homegrown player Aaron Horton attended their soccer academy, watched his coach Robert Warzycha play for the team, was in the stands for the opening match of Crew Stadium, and grew up idolizing current teammate Jeff Cunningham – once he even brought Cunningham into his fourth-grade class for show-and-tell.

     Greek-born Pari Pantazopoulos returned to his adopted hometown of Chicago after several years in Cyprus and Greece. He attended the Fire’s 2011 open tryout earning himself a contract with the club. His family moved to Chicago in 1998; he grew up watching Fire legends such as Ante Razov, Piotr Nowak, and current coach Frank Klopas play for the club.

     Also being signed after a successful open tryout was Colorado Rapids midfielder Steven Emory. His ties to the club as a youth include once chipping a ball into a Kellogg’s bowl for a year’s supply of cereal and even performing ball boy duties when with a local youth side.
     Though none of these players – other than Neagle – have broken through to the first team and contributed, they have all been assets to the squad, appearing in US Open Cup and reserve matches. The pride in the shirt, a special bond with the club and knowledge of its heritage are traits one normally associates with the big European powers.

     Manchester United, Barcelona, and the like pride themselves on bringing through academy products to feature as first team mainstays. Scholes, Giggs, Beckham, Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi, though none of these MLS products can be compared to those illustrious names it is a good step in the right direction.

     As a league with such tight financial restrictions being able to promote from within, thus controlling costs is a great thing, one that will hopefully lead to a steady trickle of talent to stock the roster.

     These youngsters are not true academy products; that will take several more years and a lot of investment. But as the development structure continues to branch out, working with increasingly younger kids, and producing better results. The future stars of the league will be brought through the club systems.

     It will not be possible to hold onto the best of the talent, as they will inevitably be drawn to the glamour of overseas action but that bond will draw in fans, and having a player begin and end his career with his hometown MLS club is a step in the right direction. 

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