By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 23, 2012) US Soccer Players — I suddenly feel old, and it’s all Major League Soccer’s fault. The League is changing, and I’m struggling a bit to keep up. Like an old-timer who laments that all of the names he knows have left his favorite sport to be replaced by guys he doesn’t recognize, I’m left staring at the transaction trackers and rosters with a certain confused grimace slapped on my face. It’s not a good look.
At fault isn't the regular turnover of players in MLS. As an observer of the League over the course of years, I’m used to seeing players go in an out. The entry draft additions are mostly known quantities. College kids have normally played at least a few years in full view. We have trusted analysts of the university game at the ready to breakdown, evaluate, and rank. Information is abundant an easily accessible. No rising academy players is without a dossier of information to pour over.
CONCACAF is home. It's very tough to ignore the players in this region's domestic league with CONCACAF Champions League games and international competitions.
When it came to European names trickling across the pond, their former leagues were at least visible, their reputations well known. In other words, it didn’t take much effort to assess their potential impact on their new team and the League. There was familiarity with the new names added to League rolls, because most of those coming in do so on the strength of profiles built in one of Europe’s bigger leagues.
There are exceptions of course. Most American fans probably don't have a working knowledge of the Scandinavian leagues, Africa's domestic leagues, or the players from the clubs in the smaller European leagues that aren't regular Champions League participants. Fans and even pundits shouldn't be expected to know everything. Honestly, few things are as annoying as those soccer obsessives that pretend they do. Most of us who aren't directly employed by MLS clubs have the time, access, or contacts to scour the competitions outside of the most marquee for possible MLS signings.
For the most part, the players meant to make immediate differences to their teams weren’t outside of the general observer’s (read: me) particular area of knowledge. It might take a little bit of research, but it normally was just a little bit. "Oh, he plays for (blank)? I saw them play (blank) and I remember reading an article…."
That’s not true anymore, and in realistic terms it won’t ever be true again. As Major League Soccer grows, so does its appetite for new blood from distant lands far afield of my – and probably your – awareness. It’s not necessarily that they’re complete unknowns – someone has seen them, rated them, probably written a bit about them – it’s just that the amount of information available about them, in English, is scant compared to what I’m used to having.
Sure, there’s always something. YouTube, with its tiny morsels of visual evidence, tantalizing with the best a player has to offer. But trying to glean useful information from highlight reels is a pointless endeavor akin to judging Seattle on sunny days alone. It’s a fine city. But the weather isn’t always that nice.
I’m stuck then, relying on a small number of secondary sources, blips of form as parsed by the internet, and whatever scouting reports become available as teams start up their pre-seasons. All of that data has serious flaws. No wonder the reliance on stats in modern soccer is growing. Sometimes, the only way to know a player existed before he showed up in your league is through his stats. As imperfect an indicator as they can be for future performance in a new environment, at least they’re something to go on.
Speaking of Seattle, the Sounders are a particular perpetrator of the 'signing a new guy I know nothing about' crime. Seattle is mining Scandinavia for pieces to help them challenge LA in the West, and I’m at a loss to guess how much better the new players might make them. Is it my failing that I know almost nothing about Christian Sivebaek? That I’m unsure how will he improve the Sounders? It’s a positive sign for MLS that the Sounders are able to attract international caliber talent away from Denmark, but it does me no good while I try to assess their chances to actually challenge LA.
Let’s be fair. This isn’t a new phenomenon, its just growing over time. The rather tenuous grasp we had on who will be good and who won’t slips further. Uncertainty is part of the Major League Soccer’s makeup, and while parity was the primary culprit for most of the League’s history, the arrival of players of unfamiliar provenance is a variable that was bound to become more important.
As we enter Major League Soccer's 17th season, don't underestimate the importance of familiarity in picking favorites. Pundits might be right that the Galaxy will sweep aside all challenges on the road to multiple trophies, but this is a familiar team full of familiar names. It's much more difficult to make a case for several teams trying a variety of relatively unknown – and certainly untested in MLS – options.
It's that uncertainty that could create more intrigue than a last gasp effort from multiple clubs to sneak into the playoffs as the regular season draws to a close. We know that story already. With single-entity not allowing clubs to compete with each other for players, MLS and its 19 clubs have no choice but to continue to expand it’s potential player base. That means moving further away from the tried-and-true areas with which most of us are familiar and bringing in players from clubs and leagues we’re unlikely to have seen. It's not a new step, but it's certainly a bigger one than the League has taken in the past. One that should already be hampering a season preview near you.
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