MLS Or Europe

John Todd -

By Michael Lewis - NEW YORK, NY (Feb 1st, 2010) US Soccer Players -- Let's say you're a gifted American soccer player who seeks greater challenges. What's the next step? Why of course, it's the great leap across the pond to Europe, where riches, treasures and fame just waits. As many players from this country have discovered, that's not necessarily the case, at least not immediately.

In Major League Soccer, the top US players are among the big fish in a small pond. After a number of years, many of them will earn decent money. Some players might end up making around $200k a year. That's a dream salary for most Americans, but at the same time a professional athlete only has a short career window.

So, it is a natural desire to make the move for larger salaries in Europe. Who could blame any player if they have an option?

Making the European move, whether it is in England, Portugal, Germany or wherever, doesn't come with guarantees. A player has to be good and has to be lucky. Even a high transfer fee that dwarfs the entire payrolls of MLS clubs isn't necessarily an indicator.

Just ask Jozy Altidore (Hull City), Freddy Adu and Eddie Johnson (both Aris FC, Greece) and several other Americans who are trying to break into the starting lineup for their respective clubs and play regularly. There is a thin line because no one including high value stars is promised a job. You have to prove yourself in practice every day. If you're fortunate enough, you get the next test, in a game week in and week out.

It's different in MLS. Small rosters and small payrolls normally means that spending on a player means playing that player. Though no MLS coach would talk guaranteed positions based simply on salary, the reality is that they don't have as many options as their European counterparts.

In Europe, players are challenged in practice every day. You don't cut it in practice and you find yourself on the bench or worse -- you don't dress and helplessly watch your teammates from the stands, the biggest downer of them all.

Yes, the money isn't bad. But it should be more than that, much more. Players usually only get the one chance at a big pay day. All know they only have a few top earning years.

For any elite American player, the expectation is that they play for their MLS team when healthy. That's never been the case overseas. Even with the lengthier schedules for most European clubs, a player can see more game time in MLS simply because they're playing whenever their club takes the field.

Americans struggling for playing time in Europe isn't new. It's been going on for nearly two decades, ever since the players from the 1990 World Cup team took their first steps and kicks on European soil.

Even former US National Team captain John Harkes had to pay his dues when things happened that were out of his control.

He joined Sheffield Wednesday (England) in 1990 with Ron Atkinson as manager. But Atkinson left the club for Aston Villa in 1991 and Harkes' playing time suffered a bit under new coach Trevor Francis before proving himself a valuable member of the 1993 English F.A. Cup runners-up (to Arsenal). Harkes wound up spending six season seasons in England before joining DC United for MLS's inaugural season.

The lesson here? There is no handbook or only one way on on how to succeed, although picking the right time, team, and league is important.

Signing with Real Madrid or Manchester United shouldn't be the short-term goal of a player, but rather playing in a league against those type of clubs should be. If a player is good, he will stand out and be noticed by those teams and other clubs. A player might get a better deal from one of those middle-of-the-table teams rather than the elite ones.

For example, US international goalkeepers Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel played a lot of games for clubs not normally associated with European places. Friedel started his European journey with a big club, Liverpool, but made his mark as one of the best keepers in Premier League history with Blackburn. Keller chose to join the Bundesliga's Borussia Moenchengladbach knowing they were going to struggle against relegation even though he had other offers.

US midfielder Michael Bradley went to the Netherlands first and set scoring records for Heerenveen before joining Keller's old club Moenchengladbach.

These days, former Houston Dynamo midfielders Ricardo Clark and Stuart Holden are trying their luck across the Atlantic with Eintracht Frankfurt (Germany) and Bolton Wanderers (England), respectively. Holden made $34,728 last season, though MLS reportedly offered him a ten-fold increase in salary. The economic reality mixed with an opportunity at a low-lying Premier League club was simply too good to pass on.

Still, a number of players have made that move only to find limited playing time and decreasing options. Going overseas is always a gamble, but in a World Cup year there's the risk that it moves a player down the depth chart based on actual games played.

That's what led Kenny Cooper to seek a rest of the season loan from 1860 Munich to Plymouth Argyle. Recovering from injury, he wanted the most time to impress US National Team coach Bob Bradley. Without playing, that becomes very difficult.

We all know the upside of the European environment. Yes, the players will be pushed, forced to stretch more than they would have be asked in MLS. They have found themselves in a total football, err, total soccer, environment -- 24/7. But if they have serious aspirations of entering the World Cup training camp in top-flight shape (mental and physical), they need playing time.

So, did they make the right decision in the short term? That's what led Kenny Cooper to seek a rest of the season loan from 1860 Munich to Plymouth Argyle and why Landon Donovan chose to spend his off-season playing for Everton in the English Premier League.

Only time will tell.

Michael Lewis covers soccer for the New York Daily News, MLSnet, and He can be reached at

2 Responses to MLS Or Europe

  1. East River says:

    For the likes of Altidore, and Johnson they have had plenty of opportunities. Altidore is getting good minutes at Hull as he has started in a good amount of games or has came in as a 2nd half sub. Jozy needs to score assist are good but he needs to score goals to legitimatize the minutes he’s getting.

    Johnson got his chances at Cardiff City but just could score. MLS would let you get away with the lack of production. Chad Barrett is a good example of that.

    But its not all about minutes. A player should continue to challenge themselves and prove they can play against better competition. Its about how you are performing some like Marvell Wynne get plenty of minutes and still suck. But Spector gets spotty minutes and yet performs well. You could argue that playing under the pressure to perform in the EPL is a key reason Spector performs well on the national level. We’ve seen at times that MLS players with plenty of mintues can’t hack on the national level. Gold Cup final served a good example and those guys were in mid-season form, but in front of a large loud crowd they really folded under the pressure. I think thats why Bradley thinks players should go to Europe. You really don’t get the opportunity to play in a difficult environment against skillful players much in MLS games. All the South American competitions the MFL players have seen and the bench warmers from Europe (Dos Santos and some others) has really help Mexico play. Same for Honduras.

    In the end a player who is looking to go to the World Cup has got to examine whats going to get him their. Clark, Cooper and Holden may have heard from Bradley that going to Europe would increase their chances. I don’t think they would have taken the leap if they thought it would kill their World Cup dreams. Players must also weight that not going now may mean they never get to go at all in their careers. Clark is past 25 both Cooper and Holden is nearing it.

    To go or not to go is not an easy decision at all.

  2. ddeluca says:

    Question for Michael and the masses: As regards general opportunity and playing time, do we feel there is any anti-“American player” bias (not anti-American bias) in Europe? And, if so, what will it take to change things?

    We see American players going to somewhat improved clubs – the Fulhams and Evertons – but outside the Onyewu experiment and a few keeper examples – Freidel at Liverpool, Howard at Man United – we’ve seen really no American field player given a go at the highest tier. While ingenues from Africa, S. America, etc. seem to slide right into big teams as teenagers.

    It shouldn’t be unthinkable to think of a Dempsey at Liverpool – but somehow it seems that way – perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves but if we think we can compete in a WC, we need top players in the best sides.