By Brian Maurer
Kerwin Vargas (Image courtesy of Charlotte FC)
The Value of the U-22 Initiative Slot
The U-22 Initiative is a newer roster rule that incentivizes MLS teams to invest on young players they can develop. There are a couple aspects of this rule that specifically stand out. First, clubs are allowed to spend any amount of money on a transfer fee for these players. The only stipulation is that the player is 22, and their yearly salary is no higher than the maximum salary ($651,250). The other part of this rule that stands out is that U-22 Initiative signings can keep that designation until they are 25.
Many of these players will have the potential of becoming designated player (DP) caliber, if their potential is reached. Obviously, with these players being so young, the investment requires time for the potential to be realized.
When MLS clubs find the right U-22 Initiative signing and invest the amount of time required for that signing to reach their potential, their roster’s depth strengthens considerably as those clubs will have essentially created an extra DP spot for themselves. Since clubs can keep U-22 Initiative signings in this slot until they are 25, this roster depth can be maintained for several years, unless they get an offer appealing enough to sell the player on, putting MLS clubs in the driver seat for selling their young developing talent.
The strongest example of the U-22 Initiative and its potential is LAFC. Their young midfielder, José Cifuentes, was signed in 2020 with a transfer fee reported around $3 million. This past season he became a catalyst in their midfield helping them go on to win both the MLS Cup and Supporter’s Shield this past season. LAFC was able to have a player like Cifuentes playing at a DP caliber level while he cost them only $200,000 against the salary budget because of his U-22 initiative status.
Cifuentes’ success provided LAFC with the opportunity to spend all of their DP spots in other positions and with more salary budget flexibility. This shows that hitting on a U-22 Initiative roster signing can benefit a team in a far greater way than simply their success on the field. It can impact the entire roster building process, and can put teams at an advantage over others simply by the roster flexibility that is provided.
When Cifuentes is eventually sold on, LAFC will also receive additional GAM, because U-22 Initiatives, unlike DPs, can have part of their transfer fee turned into GAM. Since LAFC spent around $3 million on Cifuentes, they would be allotted an additional $840k in GAM for transferring him. Not only did the Cifuentes deal benefit LAFC’s roster flexibility this past year, it will continue to benefit their roster after he is sold.
What does this all mean for Charlotte FC?
Charlotte FC currently have two U-22 Initiatives on their roster; Vinicius Mello and Kerwin Vargas. Mello is going to be a bit of an unknown factor to begin the season due to his injury setbacks in 2022. He has had a strong preseason according to multiple sources following the club and has put in a couple goals during Charlotte FC’s pre-season friendlies.
Vargas became a regular in the lineup by the end of 2022. He is also a likely starter to begin 2023. This sets up Vargas as a player who could make a massive impact on the strength of Charlotte FC’s attack and their roster depth.
If Vargas starts to reach his potential in 2023, Charlotte FC will essentially have gained an extra DP. Giving the club the option to use their resources to upgrade other positions on their roster without having to worry about the depth of their attacking pieces as he could be the fourth DP caliber player up front.
While Vargas’ sample size last season was small, some of his comparative statistics jump out as being one of MLS’ most capable young wingers.
Graph created using Ben Griffis' app
The comparative stats above show just how capable he is of creating chances. His efficiency at taking his own chances was low, and unfortunately for him, his teammates were equally inefficient at finishing off the chances that he was proficient at helping create.
Another stat that sticks out is his high dribbling success rate compared to other wingers around MLS. The reason this stat specifically stands out to me is because of how infrequently he took on defenders this past season (1.57 times per 90). Ideally, this season he starts to increase the frequency with which he takes on defenders 1 v 1 from the wings as this likely would only benefit his final third potential, as well as Charlotte FC’s scoring opportunities.
Vargas could have a very key role to play this season. Not only is he capable of influencing the success of Charlotte FC’s attack, he also is capable of influencing the direction Charlotte FC’s front office chooses to go with future signings in the secondary summer window as well as the transfer window going into the 2024 season. Vargas could very well be the key piece at Charlotte FC because of the unique position his U-22 Initiative status provides.