The Status of Opportunity for the American Soccer Player
In Barcelona, around the early part of the last decade (2010’s), a man named Enric Gallego labored through his days, helping support his family with a series of unrelated jobs. At various times, Gallego was a bricklayer, a lorry driver, a bicycle rental clerk and several other titles. He also moonlighted as a striker in Spain’s lower divisions.
To that point, Gallego’s career was pretty tame. Prior to the 2013–2014 season (when he turned 27), Gallego had never played in Spain’s top two divisions and, in fact, had only played about half a season total in its third tier, Segunda B. Instead, most of his time was spent drifting through his country’s regional leagues and its fourth tier, never latching to any one club for an extended period.
For the next three years, Gallego added little heft to his resume. In 2013–2014, he appeared 21 times for Badalona, which finished 13th in its 20-team Segunda B group. He scored twice. Over the two seasons that followed, his strike rate ticked up, though not much. He scored 12 times across 56 Segunda B appearances (46 starts). And half of those came in a 4-game flurry at the beginning of the 2015–2016 season.
All told, when day broke on the eve his 30th birthday, Gallego had 14 career goals, over 80 appearances in Segunda B, the highest level he had ever reached.
Later that day, he scored twice for Cornelia, in an away game against Mallorca’s reserves. This would begin a 90-game stretch, over which Gallego scored 60 league goals. Maybe more importantly, this two-and-a-half season journey, which began on that leftover field deep in Mallorca’s training ground, ended with Gallego lining up for his first game in La Liga, against Atletico Madrid.
Here is how it happened:
After scoring against Mallorca’s reserves, Gallego went on to score 16 goals in the 2016–2017 season, fourth best in Segunda B, Group III. Cornelia finished 5th in the group, 4 points short of the promotion playoffs.
The next season, Gallego’s rise accelerated. First, he won Group III’s golden boot, with 18 goals. The achievement is even more impressive considering he only played in Group III for half the season. At the winter break, Extremadura, a gritty team in 2nd place in Group IV activated Gallego’s €200,000 release clause.
It was the perfect match. Extremadura needed a finisher to solidify its promotion chances. Gallego could jump into a promotion race with a team that now had a genuine chance to bust through the Segunda B ceiling.
His debut came in the 54th minute of Extremadura’s next game. And over the next 16 minutes, he scored three times.
Though harried by injuries, Extremadura fought through the second half of 2017–2018 season to earn promotion to the Segunda Division. Gallego did not last long there. During the first half of 2018–2019 season, he battered Spain’s 2nd tier with 15 goals in 18 games.
At the time, Huesca was drowning in La Liga’s relegation zone. In particular, the team had rationed their goals carefully, scoring only 11 of them in their previous 15 games. So again, the match was made. Huesca addressed their most pressing need by purchasing Gallego at the winter break for €3 million.
Three days later, the former bricklayer went the full 90 minutes against Atletico Madrid.
He finished the year with 5 goals in La Liga. Incidentally, he still led the Segunda Division in goals until the last 4 weeks of the 2018–2019 season.
Though Huesca succumbed to relegation, Gallego remained in La Liga. Getafe bought him during the summer for €6 million, before loaning him to league rival Osasuna at the winter break. In the 2019–2020 season, through a mist of nagging injuries, the now 33-year-old Gallego found the net 3 times in 19 league appearances.
For a guy who reached 30 without playing above the third tier, Gallego has built an impressive career. He has played 2582 minutes in La Liga. These have covered 38 appearances (28 starts) and allowed him to face opponents like Real Madrid and Barcelona. Gallego can claim 8 La Liga goals. He even earned three starts in the Europa League.
While Gallego’s story may be on the extreme end, it is not rare to see players slug through the lower division before climbing to the top. Take N’Golo Kante. At 22, he was playing in France’s third tier — a giant leap from the ninth division club where he spent his teenage years. Four seasons later, he was the English Premier League’s Player of the Year. There is also his former Leicester City teammate Jamie Vardy. He was 25 before he played for a club higher than the English Conference (below the fourth level) and 27 when he reached the Premier League. Now 33, Vardy has scored 103 goals in his country’s top flight.
And the list goes on. Like Gallego, these players went years either unnoticed or dismissed. Then they got their chance, proved themselves in lower divisions, and pushed their way into the highest levels of the sport.
PLAYER MOVEMENT BETWEEN DIVISIONS IN THE UNITED STATES
For an American, stories like Gallego’s beg the question: Could it happen here?
Theoretically, yes. A player could perform well in lower divisions, each time, attracting attention from the division above. During the offseason, the team (or league) above could acquire him through whatever acquisition process fit the situation. And the teams would have incentive to acquire a good player. After all, every team wants to improve and win.
But in reality, this does not happen here — at least not with regularity.
Over the last two seasons, not including players on their reserve teams, MLS teams have signed only 17 players from the US lower divisions. And they did not pay a transfer fee for any of them. By comparison, in Spain, La Liga clubs signed 30 players from lower league clubs last year alone. They paid a total of €42.7 million for them. Similarly, German Bundesliga clubs signed 21 players from lower league clubs last season, paying €16.7 million total. These numbers are all despite both leagues having fewer teams than MLS.
And if Spain and Germany are too lofty, consider that, last season, clubs in Denmark’s 12-team Superliga signed 18 players from divisions below.
So while teams in US leagues can turn to lower league talent, they take that route much less frequently than clubs in other countries.
PATHWAYS TO THE UNITED STATES’ FIRST DIVISION
For Americans especially, the legitimate pathways into their country’s top division are decreasing. At the moment, approximately 40% of the Americans in MLS entered the league as homegrown players. But this number may undersell the league’s reliance on these signings. The homegrown player rule went into effect in 2008, meaning an 18-year-old who signed at its inception would only be 30 now. Further, the rule was used sparingly until about 2016 — not surprising given that many teams had to build their academies. So of the league’s 133 homegrowns, only 10 are 26 or older. Accordingly, if limited to players under 26, the percentage of homegrowns is over 60%. And this includes recent expansion teams, some of which are just beginning their academies.
MLS academies’ influence does not end with homegrown signings either. Another group of current players were academy alums but arrived in MLS through mechanisms other than homegrown signings (usually the draft). Combined with the homegrowns, this means that a full 2/3 of the Americans in MLS under age 26 played in an MLS academy.
From a certain perspective, this is a good thing. Teams around the world want to develop players and promote from within. But it also suggests that players who do not play in MLS academies will have a tougher time getting into the league than players who do. In other words, playing in an MLS academy may start becoming a prerequisite for playing in the United States’ first division. This would leave the numerous players who MLS academies are unlikely to discover locked out of the top flight.
Direct from a Foreign Market or the Draft
Nearly all of the remaining Americans under 26 entered the league directly from a foreign club or through the draft. The foreign route contributed another 15 players. Combined with players from MLS academies, this accounts for about 3/4 of the Americans in MLS (again, under 26).
For Americans, the draft option is narrowing. First, teams are cancelling out the league’s militant expansion by passing on their draft picks. Over the last five years, the trend has grown exponentially. In the 2015 draft, teams used all of the 84 available picks. Fast forward to 2020. Of the 104 available picks, teams only used 77. In short, while the number of MLS teams has increased, total opportunities through the draft have stayed relatively flat.
Second, Americans are representing a decreasing share of the players selected. Again, in 2015, 63 of the 84 picks (75%) were American. By 2020, MLS teams selected only 44 Americans (57%). Some of this can be attributed to the draft pool, as college teams are becoming fond of players from foreign academies. This always made sense given how good of an option college is for a player who fails to break through at a professional club. Still, the trend could be making casualties of late-blooming or under-scouted Americans.
Third, a greater percentage of the Americans who do get picked are MLS academy alums. In 2015, about 12.5% of the Americans selected had MLS on their resumes. By 2020, the number had jumped to almost 32%. So MLS academies are taking their gatekeeping effect beyond homegrown signings, and infiltrating the draft.
THE PATHWAYS GALLEGO USED
Gallego benefited because clubs in Spain (and most other countries) have the incentive to win now. This can be a positive incentive — like Extremadura’s incentive for promotion — or a negative incentive — like Huesca’s need to avoid relegation. Consider each step in Gallego’s rise.
Extremadura spent €200,000 at the winter break to acquire him. For a third-tier Spanish club, this is a significant fee. But from a competitive standpoint, the return was almost assured. Gallego was scoring roughly a goal per game at the same level. So absent injury, there was no reason to think his rate would plummet.
Further, Gallego’s output would matter. It would upgrade Extremadura to a favorite for promotion, rather than one of 5–10 teams with a decent chance. In turn, promotion would bestow competitive and financial benefits on the club.
Without promotion, justifying a €200,000 fee for a 31-year-old striker would have been difficult. Extremadura could have put the money to a different use and enjoyed their decent chance of winning the league.
When Extremadura won promotion, this gave Gallego an opportunity to play in a higher division without having to be noticed by a new club. His current team was promoted, and he came with them. As such, Gallego was able to participate in preseason and, like several others from the previous year’s roster, keep his place in the team.
The chance to play in La Liga arrived because Huesca needed goals, and Gallego was the best candidate at a price the club could afford. Had Huesca not been threatened with relegation, their goal problem would not have been as urgent. Instead, they would have been stuck in a lost season, with rebuilding as the best-case scenario. Paying for Gallego, who was 32 at the time, would have been wasteful.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The issue is how much opportunity the US market provides the deserving player. Right now, if an American player never plays in an MLS academy, the data suggests his opportunity to reach his country’s top division is small and shrinking. First, homegrowns occupy a large slice of the league’s Americans, and the trend lines indicate that slice will grow in coming years. Second, demand for college players — especially those without experience in an MLS or foreign academy — is falling. Third, at least recently, MLS teams have not been drawn to lower division players (save those from their academies). The end result is a narrow gate for the rest of American soccer to squeeze its way into the first division.
Pinpointing the factors that have guided the US market to this position would require a deeper analysis (and one likely to become infected with speculation and confirmation bias). But for now, this observation feels safe: Most of the conditions that allowed a rise like Gallego’s do not exist in the United States. So any rags-to-riches journey in our market will have to take a different route.