Thursday, September 18, 2008

MLS Needs to Look Beyond Europe

Jorge Rojas: MLS Super Signing

I’ll be honest. Late in this season with European Football having kicked off, the US National Team’s qualifying in full swing, USL about to decide its playoff participants, and College Soccer having started up I’m having my difficult being motivated to watch MLS games. My disinterest cannot be blamed on the quality of play: I’m used to watching plenty of third rate football: USL and College Soccer would qualify in those categories, but both right now are more compelling for me to watch and track than MLS whose recent public relations among other things have turned me off, as we’ve discussed on this site.

One very obvious thing emerges when comparing MLS and USL. Major League Soccer is becoming more latin flavored in its style of play, while USL is almost undoubtedly a reflection of how lower leagues in England appear in style of play. The two leagues though sharing the same geographical home now play a totally different brand of football: perhaps the direct, route one style of Northern Irish World Cup Veteran Colin Clarke is so atypical to CONCACAF that Puerto Rico Islanders are having success due to style of play more than quality on the pitch in the Champions League. The same can be surmised by Montreal’s solid play in CONCACAF and could have been assumed had Charleston not gotten a few unlucky bounces and beaten DC United in the US Open Cup final. This isn’t meant to minimize the accomplishments of USL sides in CONCACAF play which include defeating a Costa Rican side in a two leg tie, something never accomplished by an MLS side. Readers of this site and listeners to the show know I’m partisan in some regards towards USL but do realize much of the success of its teams when stepping out of what is essentially a second division and playing more talented sides be they in MLS or in Central America has been the style of play and the difficulty it causes for Latin oriented teams.

At the same time Major League Soccer is becoming more and more latin flavored. The New York Red Bulls lost last night to Columbus but I took note of how they played even without Dave Van Den Bergh, who is one of the best players in the league. Juan Carlos Osorio’s side valued possession and knocked the ball around with a purpose in the first half featuring incredibly technical touches on the ball. Jorge Rojas, the captain of the Venezeluan National Team leads this new look team and when you have other quality players like Gabriel Cichero and Juan Pietravello who are technically gifted no question exists in my mind that the New York Red Bulls represents where MLS is headed. On the other side last night, Columbus without the incomparable Guille Barros Schelotto featured the lively, Olympic medalist Emmaunel Ekpo in midfield. Early in MLS’ history Sunil Gulati spent alot of effort in attracting African players to MLS. These included such notable names in World Football as Shaun Bartlett, Junior Agogo, Uche Okafor, Ben Iroha and Abdul Thompson Conteh among others. But as time went on and the original management team of the league was ushered out fewer and fewer African players with the league signing more players from European second divisions like Pascal Bedrosian and Terry Cooke to fill out squads. This trend thankfully seems to have been blunted.

No point exists for MLS to continue to import large numbers of players from Europe. The league is more than welcome to cherry pick certain players like Darren Huckerby who want to be here, but the time of David Beckham, Lothar Matthaeus and Roberto Donadoni has come and gone. The future of MLS lies looking south towards Latin America and the Caribbean as well as across the the Atlantic with a southward tilt at Sub Saharan Africa. Changing the flavor of MLS will make the product more compelling and yes of a higher quality for the American football fan.