I must say I have listened with much amusement the last few weeks as people have tried to convince me that the influx of foreign talent to MLS and the outflow of younger Americans from MLS or in some cases skipping MLS entirely is a good thing for Soccer in this country. That view is in my estimation completely misguided and fool hearty. Keep in mind the initial aim of MLS was not create a mini Bundesliga or Premier League on our shores but to build a player pool or unparalleled historical depth and quality for the U.S. Men’s National Team.
When MLS began play in 1996, 22% of the players were allowed to be foreigners. This was at a time when the United States did not have the blooming soccer culture of the advanced player development system it has today. Now in 2008, over 45% of the Senior roster members are allowed to be foreigners. These foreigners are being paid the highest salaries under MLS’ embarrassingly low salary cap. So essentially, any American wanting to make a decent living plying his trade in the game he loves must either play for several years making less than his peer in his age group make doing any other professional job or he must move to Europe, where an investment in young American talent isn’t something club sides worry about. After their job is to provide entertaining football and develop good young players for their club. But that isn’t MLS’ mission: Unless I missed the memo.
To this point MLS’ has done a remarkable job of deepening the player pool for the US National Team and making the United States in say 2002 more competitive at all levels of competition than at any time previously in the nation’s history of playing the sport. However that has begun to change. At this point in time not a single American field player could make a 23 man Tournament squad for England, Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain or France. These leading European nations are in a position where their worst pool player is better than our best pool player. This wasn’t always the case however, as I could point to several players in the US pool who could have contributed to England’s Euro 2000 or World Cup 2002 campaigns. Today, with England in a state of decline the United States is possibly in a more rapid state of decline which has gone unnoticed by those not maintaining a historical perspective on current events or those buying the refrain that we are always improving soccer in this country. We are replicating England’s failures without any of England’s history or footballing culture to fall back on. It could be argued that just about every World Cup that England qualified for between 1966 and 1990 (66,70,82,86,90) that they had the best team in the world. Bad luck in many cases can explain the defeats as it did in 1970 and 1986. In the early 1990s after the disastrous 1980s from a club standpoint in England thanks to Hillsboro among other things, the Premier League was formed. The league combined exciting British style football with lucrative TV deals and revenue sources. I would point out 15 years later in my estimation the exciting British style football is now played in Scotland and in England’s lower divisions and that the league has essentially become a depository for foreign talent which has stifled the growth of the English national team. Of the top teams in the Premier League, only Liverpool with the incomparable Steven Gerrard and the rock solid Jamie Carragher at the back can be claimed to be “led” by English players. Sure I’ll hear the arguments as to John Terry, and Wayne Rooney but if you think those guys actually “lead” Chelsea and United to their success we’re not watching the same matches.
Currently in MLS, very few teams are being “led” by Americans. New England perhaps, but their best player Shalrie Joseph, is playing for another national team (although he is essentially American having grown up in New York). New England much like the Houston Dynamo remain at its core an American team, or let’s say a North American team including Canadian and Carribean players. But what about the rest of the league? Who leads DC United, easily the most successful team in the history of the league? It’s almost always been South American players and now in the form of Marcello Gallardo we have the latest. How about the LA Galaxy? David Beckham: Is he American even though his kid’s name is Brooklyn? How about Colorado in “middle america?” Try Christian Gomez! Kansas City? It looks this team is looking more Latin than ever with Claudio Lopez becoming a DP signing. I could rattle off every team and demonstrate that Americans are “leading” any of them outside of Houston and New England. Sure, such and such is the captain, but who really leads these teams into battle and wins them points when they achieve success?
This wasn’t always the case in MLS. But as the league has decided the club game trumps domestic player development much in the same fashion the English Premier League did, the whole landscape has changed. When players like Pat Noonan and Troy Perkins accomplished in their own right here at home have to go to Scandinavia to be compensated fairly for their quality services the warning signs are flashing at an ever faster rate. The bottom line is MLS has made a decision it must live with it: to promote the club game and the welfare of its teams over that of football in general in the United States. Now that may be fine and well: in fact that may be the way to go. I am not entirely sure as to whether or not football/soccer fans in this country would rather see a successful national team program or a top class international league. The two are somewhat mutually exclusive in the near term given the footballing culture and history in this country. This isn’t Italy where Serie A can import top Latin American players while maintaining a high standard for the Azzuri. Besides, when Americans go abroad they are sometime looked down upon and written off when they don’t develop to the standard of the club or country they have moved to. This has happened countless times with top American young talent that went to Europe at an early stage in the players professional development.
I hear English fans lament what could have been in Euro 2004. But let me be quite frank: other leading European Footballing nations such as Germany, Italy and France have had more than one major tournament in the past 18 years where they had a shot to win a trophy. I blame this heavily on the influx of foreign players in the Premier League that have relegated top English players to simply being what we in American Basketball term as “role players” on top clubs. The American clubs system is undergoing a similar influx without the history, culture or quite frankly the understand of football the English posses. So where does this leave us? Potentially, with a very good league in MLS and a National Team that struggles in CONCACAF going forward. Do we really want this? Obviously MLS, doesn’t bear the entire blame for a potential reversal in fortunes for the national team going forward. Youth Development, training techniques, and technical direction all need to be improved. But MLS needs to do its part to protect, nurture and promote young American starlets and on that count the league is beginning to fall way short.