Martin Samuel's column last week which our own BC John responded to in a classy fashion is the final straw with me in trying to understand the majority of the football writers in the United Kingdom. Samuel's article points out the major flaws in the reasoning of most British writers when evaluating the rest of the football world. I would never make the case Major League Soccer is a better product than the Barclays Premier League, but in reality the products are very different and the football is very different. That's why trying to subject the evaluation of the quality of MLS to a decidedly English standard is wrong and smacks of poor journalism. In his piece which appeared in the Times of London, Samuel clearly didn't take the time to research anything about any of the players in Major League Soccer who have not either played in the Premier League or are not English. Simply because a player has spent his club career playing exclusively in the Americas (like Boca Juniors legend Guille Baros Schelotto now with Columbus of MLS) or played in Spain and Italy but not England (Like Cuahatomec Blanco, Carlos Pavon, and Javier Morales) doesn't mean he is not a quality footballer who plays the game at a high level. Perhaps Samuel needs to consider he hasn't seen many of the players he's never heard of in England because of the style of play in the PL and yes the weather.
Comparing Major League Soccer to English Football is in some ways like comparing International Basketball to the NBA. Much like the NBA where many of America's top stars are developed (since prior to the recent rule change regarding age in the NBA Draft, so many top American stars skipped college where they actually learn the game from top basketball coaches) the flow of the game and general tendencies of the players is different than in the international game. That's why the US has had so much trouble recently winning big tournaments in a sport that was completely dominated by the US prior to the early 1990s. Major League Soccer's season is played during the hottest months of the year in the U.S. Players who excel in MLS tend to be the types who can hold the ball and have the stamina to play 90 minutes in oppressive heat. This reality naturally favors players from Latin America, who because of geography and the style of play have excelled in MLS. English Football is played largely in the air and at a fast pace in more pleasant weather. Does the faster pace mean the players are better? Not necessarily, because Serie A whose style of play more closely resembles MLS than that of the English Leagues produced the 2006 World Champions, with the entire Azzuri roster save one player playing their club football in Serie A.
Could English players of an average quality come and dominate MLS as many in the British press have speculated? The answer is a resounding no, Here are some examples of former English footballers who came to MLS and flopped.
- Steve Howey played 191 games for Newcastle United and 76 for Manchester City before coming to MLS at age 31 in 2003 to play for Steve Nicol and New England. Howey had been capped five times by England as a Senior International in "A" matches. Yet Howey lasted four games in MLS and was quickly looking for work again in England. He landed with Bolton of the EPL before being let go and playing in the Championship with Leicester City.
- Steve Guppy was another player capped by England at the Senior National Team level. In 2004 he came to the US and started for DC United in the highest rated game ever for the league on ABC, when Freddy Adu made his debut. Less than two months later Guppy, whose lack of quality touches and inability to play the Latin brand of Football DC United has become known for was released and he signed with Leeds United.
- Mark Wlson was a highly touted English midfielder that even played for Manchester United in a Champions League match. After a failed stint at Boro, he came to the US and flopped totally at FC Dallas, demonstrating an inability to cope with the summer heat. He was released when the club signed Shaka Hislop, my next footballer to discuss.
- Shaka Hislop was a top keeper in the Premier League. The English born keeper choose to play for his parents home nation of Trinidad and Tobago and he has been excellent for the national team and of course had a great World Cup. Hislop even started the FA Cup final in 2006 for West Ham just weeks before his awesome World Cup and a month before he signed for FC Dallas. Hislop however only started matches for the Hoops when Argentine net-minder Dario Sala was injured or suspended, and when Sala was suspended most recently, Hislop was beaten out in training by American youth team keeper Ray Burse Jr. Hislop has now been released by FC Dallas.
- In 1995 Paul Rideout scored the winning goal for Everton in the FA Cup final against Manchester United. Two years later Rideout with a decent amount of fanfare signed with MLS and was allocated to Kansas City. A year later after scoring only one goal in league play Rideout was released. He is now back with the Wizards as the coach of the clubs U-18 team.
- Chris Woods was one of the best goalkeepers in England during the 1990s. His play with Sheffield Wednesday and the National Team was outstanding. Woods career with Rangers and Sheffield Wednesday was near legandary. However when he arrived in MLS as a big signing in the league's first year he had trouble judging the ball flight and looked miserable. He was eventually replaced by Marcus Hannehman who had been signed from the Seattle Sounders of the A-League. Woods returned to England to play in the EPL with Southampton and Blackburn.
I am by no means claiming MLS is on the same level as the Premier League. What I am trying to point out is that the league and its style of play are dramatically different from that of English football. To assume as many do that any English player with any accomplishments whatsoever can dominate in MLS has been dis-proven by fact. Additionally the theory that any international playing in MLS is simply not good enough to play in the English Premier League is again folly. Names such as Ryan Nelson and Shaun Bartlett among others should lay rest to that arrogant notion of many in the British press.
Major League Soccer is different than the English Premier League. The writers in Britain that understand that more quickly will be doing their readers and their nation a service. Much of England's problem on the international football scene stems from a lack of understanding or appreciation of continental football or the beautiful game the way it is played in Latin America or even in the United States.