We’re constantly hammered with one side of the coin, including Sunday at the conclusion of the US-Netherlands match on NBC by Marcelo Balboa, that Major League Soccer is responsible for the US being more competitive in major international tournaments.
This theory is so often repeated it has become gospel for many fans of the beautiful game in this country. But is this theory in fact accurate or does there exist another, perhaps less pleasant, reality? Today I am going to present the other side of this debate, the one which never gets aired in the United States.
Watching Stuart Holden’s repeated mistakes at the end of the US-Netherlands match reminded me how poorly MLS prepares players for major international matches.
The giveaways by an otherwise brilliant Sacha Kljestan and the lack of clock management by the US side in general against both Japan and Holland to me showed that unlike the young players in the J-League and the Erevidese, players in MLS never face the kind of intensity and urgency that you face in big international matches.
Even the best MLS coaches like Dom Kinnear and Steve Nicol cannot simulate situations for their players like the end of both games because they do not exist in Major League Soccer.
On one hand, Major League Soccer is very underrated. From a standpoint of individual players who make up the squads, MLS is under-appreciated on the world stage. MLS has several sides that could, based on their players, compete in top leagues in Europe. They may not compete to win the league but could certainly compete to avoid relegation. Contrary to what is bandied about on some other websites, MLS has a few teams that I certainly believe would avoid relegation in the English Premier League.
But on another hand, MLS is overrated. I watch a lot of football, including during the summer matches from various leagues in Latin America. In every single league I watch, the game is played with more passion and urgency than MLS. This includes so-called inferior leagues from the CONCACAF region. In addition, in MLS I see far more bad giveaways late in matches than in any other league I watch. MLS managers do not emphasize possession and ball control as much as they should, and when those players form the core of your national team, you end up with disasters like Sunday’s match. MLS teams and matches do feature more individual flair and skill than just about every Latin American league save Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil.
We must also look at the US program historically to properly debate this subject. A revisionism has developed that the United States was not successful before the advent of MLS. This is patently false. The best result, arguably ever, for a US squad in a major competition was the semifinal run at Copa America 1995, when none of the US players were in MLS (which began play the following year) and all of them were fighting for playing time in Europe or Mexico.
The United States continued to compete well on the international stage, but as the players who made the core of that 1995 Copa team drifted back home to MLS, their competitiveness was robbed and we were rewarded with the infamous 1998 World Cup in France.
Fast forward to 2002. Half the core of the US National Team has left MLS and headed to destinations such as Germany and Holland to pursue their club careers. US Soccer has founded a national academy in Bradenton, Florida, whose first graduating class helped take the United States to the semifinals of the 1999 U-17 World Cup. The best player from that inaugural class, Landon Donovan, helped lead the US to the semifinals of the 2000 Olympic Football tournament in Sydney and then became the best young player at World Cup 2002. In that World Cup, the United States made the quarterfinals. MLS got much of the credit – as it always does when the US plays well – but what followed the next few years demonstrates why MLS perhaps cannot be trusted with America’s best young talents.
One by one top talents emerged from the Bradenton Academy and signed with MLS: Santino Quaranta, Eddie Johnson, Justin Mapp, Freddy Adu, Danny Szetela, Eddie Gaven, Mike Magee, Chad Marshall, Tim Ward and Quavas Kirk among others. Of the above list, none – and I repeat none – have reached their full potential sitting in MLS.
The cases of Gaven, Quaranta, Marshall and Mapp are particularly frustrating. Each of these players seemed to posses so much talent playing for US U-17 teams, only to develop bad tendencies and have their game essentially neutered once arriving in MLS. For instance, Gaven went from being a dangerous attacking midfielder whose on the ball skill was outstanding for a 17-year old to being hardly serviceable by the time he was 20. He’s bounced back this season, but it appears the damage has been done to his game. Chances are, Gaven will never be the player we expected him to be.
Quaratana, as has been well documented, has had other off-the-pitch problems, but no question exists that his potential was largely unrealized in MLS, except for a brief stint when Peter Nowak coached DC United. Chad Marshall entered MLS in 2004 as a lock for the US National Team and helped lead Columbus to a great year. He displayed the same tendencies in MLS that he did with the US U-17 and U-20 teams, for which he excelled. Yet much like Gaven and Quaranta, as time went on his skills seemed untapped, and his game grew unfocused and stale. Now he is simply an average and injury-prone MLS player.
Justin Mapp is also a serviceable MLS left-sided player. But at the U-17 level and coming out of Bradenton, he appeared to be on a level higher than DaMarcus Beasley or Bobby Convey was at the same age. Mapp has developed, but not as quickly as many hoped or into the player most hoped, and he is now on the fringes of the US player pool.
The cases of players like Danny Szetela, who had played only 18 minutes in MLS during the 2007 season before impressing foreign scouts at the 2007 U-20 World Cup, and Freddy Adu, whose game never really improved in his three-plus MLS seasons, have also been well documented.
The fact that Adu rapidly improved as a player while playing sparingly for less than a season in Portugal – after failing to develop at all in MLS while playing regularly – speaks volumes as to MLS’ ineffectiveness in developing certain star players. The 2006 World Cup debacle for the US with arguably the most talented side the US had ever taken to a major competition spoke volumes as to how the lack of intensity and player development in MLS had undermined the competitiveness of the US program.
While we keep patting ourselves on the back for the perceived good work of Major League Soccer, nobody seems to want to explain why the United States gets progressively less competitive at every age level of FIFA competitions. Why is the US usually among the best teams in the world at the U-17 and U-20 levels going back to the mid 1990s, yet less competitive at the U-23 level and hardly competitive on the world stage at the full international level?
What is the solution to this malaise? MLS isn’t going to become more competitive overnight, since the passion of the fans and the intensity of rivalries doesn’t exist in this league on the level it does in leagues with admittedly inferior talent.
Unlike those leagues, MLS can never simulate the passion nor the intensity of international football at the highest level. It’s frustrating because the current group of American players competing in the Olympics could be the third most talented squad in the competition behind Brazil and Argentina. But they have the negative tendencies that they learn at the club level drilled into them, which is why they are notoriously slow starters and haven’t played a complete match yet in the tournament.
The performances are getting better because the more time they spend with Peter Nowak and Lubos Kubik – two accomplished internationals who know what these sorts of competitions are about – the more their individual brilliance and confidence begins to emerge. But weening international talents completely off of bad habits and negative tendencies learned in MLS is almost impossible.
Until MLS becomes more committed to the American player and puts more faith in the American player rather than importing washed-up foreign players to replace young American ones, the United States will never reach its full potential as a football-playing nation.
At a time when the talent level in the United States is reaching its highest level ever, Major League Soccer has a role to play in this growth. But MLS seems committed to a different course entirely, so do not be surprised if the frustrating results for the United States continue.