Exclusive – With five years and over 100 games’ worth of experience under his belt, Jackson Yueill is better placed than most to track the growth of Major League Soccer.
The 24-year-old midfielder is a product of the Generation Adidas system after being picked up by the San Jose Earthquakes in the first round of the 2017 MLS SuperDraft.
Since then, Yueill has become a staple of Matias Almeyda’s side, operating at the base of midfield in the No.6 role while also picking up 15 senior caps so far for the United States. He spoke exlusively to 90min on the progress of the league and its impact on young players.
During his time in the league, Yueill noticed a reduction in the age of players coming into MLS and an increase in transfer fees to capture better talent, while more investment in club facilities is making it a far more attractive destination for players from abroad.
“This is my fifth year in MLS. It’s been a crazy turnaround,” Yueill told 90min in an exclusive interview. “Just the players who come in, their age, how much money is spent on certain players and then the coaches that have come in. It’s a big difference.
“It’s a younger group and I think it’s getting more competitive. Each team is realising that they have to put in a little bit more. That makes the league better. “
“I still think it’s a young league and has a lot of room to grow. But one of the challenges of that is making it appealing for these big-time players to come and not just have it be a place to retire in at a later age. With these training facilities like you see at Columbus, Austin and LAFC, clubs are building these great training complexes and I think that’s very enticing for players to come and want to be here.
“I think there’s a lot of young American players in the homegrown system who are being recognized more and I think that trend of selling will continue. There are a lot of talented American players that get brought up through MLS.”
“I’m not aware of any interest in the past but I did tell San Jose as I was re-negotiating the last contract that it’s still an ambition of mine and if the right opportunity presented itself, I would have to consider it,” he revealed.
“They understood that. Matias (Almeyda) wants all the guys to explore as much as they can and play at the highest level, and for the young guys to try and make it to Europe and the big clubs.
“I think the club has a good understanding of what I want but right now, I’m happy at San Jose. Hopefully, we can finish off this year well and then see what happens in the future.”
The fruits of MLS’ labour could be seen this summer as the USMNT lifted Nations League and Gold Cup titles, beating Mexico in consecutive finals after failing to achieved that feat since 2007.
Gregg Berhalter utilised the full depth in his player pool over the summer, taking a roster packed with European stars such as Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie into the Nations League, while the Gold Cup featured mostly players coming through in MLS right now.
Yueill was a part of both squads and believes Berhalter’s selection headache is a “blessing” for the United States, and that this newfound depth will undoubtedly help in achieving their ultimate goal of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, and becoming an international force thereafter.
“I think that’s the job of a lot of the guys overseas and in MLS, making it hard for Gregg to pick his team,” said Yueill. “It’s kind of a blessing for Gregg I think, to have quality players who are really stepping up and playing a lot of minutes for their club teams and showing that at the international level as well.
“The group was a lot different to the Nations League, and there were a few guys in both, but the player pool is only getting bigger and bigger. The quality and depth are really good, and I think that’s important for all the World Cup qualifying, you can get injuries and there are unfortunate events that can happen. But there’s a big pool to grab on players and there’s a ‘next man up is ready’ mindset in the team.
“The depth of American soccer and the youth depth is only increasing and I think that’ll help push us forward and push the team to hopefully be better and better each year.”
One particularly deep area in Berhalter’s squad is in the No.6 position. Tyler Adams is first-choice in that spot right now but Yueill is seen by many as the first-choice back-up to the RB Leipzig man.
But Yueill knows he faces a battle maintain that place in the pecking order after Kellyn Acosta’s performances during the Gold Cup and Gianluca Busio’s emergence in a deeper role and recent move to Serie A side, Venezia.
“The group is so good and so deep, and I think guys are realising that and playing really well,” he told 90min. “There’s Kellyn (Acosta), even Gianluca (Busio) played in the No.6 a bit, then you have Tyler of course, and a few other guys. So the competition for making those spots, especially in the midfield and at centre-back is going to be challenging because there are so many great players.”
However, Yueill revealed he has the backing of Berhalter, adding: “Gregg has messaged me to say they really have a lot of faith in me and they know what I can bring and to keep pushing. Kellyn and Gianluca had great tournaments and now it’s about getting back some form and trying to keep the position and keep pushing it.”
While the increasing rate of homegrown talent moving to Europe has undoubtedly been good for the USMNT – and Canada, who made the Gold Cup semi-finals this summer for the first time since 2007 – it leaves MLS in a tricky position.
Commissioner Don Garber has spoke often of his aim to make MLS one of the best leagues in the world but the fact remains that Liga MX remains the dominant force in Concacaf. To overtake their regional rivals, let alone become more globally relevant, MLS must find ways of not only replacing the talent that leaves but also keeping it there long-term.
What’s more, the various spending restrictions and Designated Player (DP) rule, that allows MLS clubs to sign up to just three players that would be considered outside their salary cap, currently make it difficult for franchises to attract the world’s best talent.
Though Yueill admires the parity these rules ensure within the league in comparison to some of the European top-flights, he does believe things need to change if Garber is to achieve his aims and make MLS truly competitive on the world stage – something Yueill believes is realistic for a number of MLS clubs.
“It gives teams an opportunity to stay even, rather than letting one or two teams spend a lot and run away like certain European teams are able to do,” Yueill said of the MLS restrictions.
He added: “I think it’s a little more tactical from bringing in players, which is interesting. It’s definitely unique and more similar to other American sports. But also, it limits the roster depth.
“I do think those numbers have to increase for the league to really draw on multiple big players on multiple teams, and to get younger players. So I think they’ll have to either get rid of the [DP] rule, or expand it to a much bigger number.
“But I think they’re progressing in the right way and the league to come will be competitive. And I think a few teams could be competitive throughout the world.”