By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 14, 2012) US Soccer Players — From the outset, Major League Soccer wasn’t just about getting professional soccer back on the American sports map after a decade-long absence. It wasn’t just about mollifying FIFA so they’d give us a World Cup, or giving a few American professionals in need of a job a place to play. It was about giving the next generation of American players a place to develop their talents, thereby contributing to the improvement of the United States National Team. This would inevitably lead to a World Cup title, the explosion of soccer into the mainstream, and a parade down Broadway. The League’s mandate was to “expand the popularity of soccer in the United States.” The quickest way to achieve that goal was a winning National Team.
So far, the effectiveness of MLS as a developer of US internationals is an open question. It’s difficult to quantify the impact the League has had on the overall quality of American players, in part because some of the country’s best talent goes abroad before ever suiting up for an MLS team. Still, Major League Soccer is the largest employer of American players at a top-flight level. At the very least, MLS has given Americans fulltime jobs playing professional soccer outdoors. Lots of Americas playing is better than a scattered handful of Americans looking for careers in distant lands.
It’s an obvious statement, but not every MLS player is American. This was never intended to be a closed league. Not only were there not enough Americans to fill every roster spot, but bringing in a complement of players from around the world accelerated the overall quality of the competition. As a matter of convenience, familiarity, and cost, however, MLS has naturally relied on nearby countries to improve their teams. That meant grabbing talent not only from powerful soccer nations and regional giant Mexico, but also from lesser soccer countries like Canada and those in the Caribbean and Central America.
MLS was like a new shining light in the world of CONCACAF soccer for many players anxious to move beyond small ponds in countries where some clubs might have opportunities but the leagues as a whole weren’t to standard. The American League was stable, the lifestyle good, and the pay competitive.
What was good for American soccer was in most ways also good for CONCACAF soccer. Playing time and solid competition makes players better, and many countries in the region benefited. MLS remains a distant second to Mexico’s top division in terms of spending power and quality, but the need for players at lower salaries means the American League is more likely to give opportunities to players from places outside of the usual Latin American hotspots.
Like the increasing number of foreign players when England’s old first Division transformed into the Premier League in the 90’s, the original intent might have been domestic first but the reality was something different.
The idea that improvements in the quality of professional club soccer in both England and the USA would also give the respective national teams a boost has one significant blind spot. It fails to consider that a new league with resources and room for foreign players will help other nations improve as well. In the case of both England and the United States, that might mean a more difficult road to major competitions. Over time, those other nations could make much large strides of their own, even as their domestic leagues never threatened to move up the power ranking.
When looking at CONCACAF as a whole, any gains the US makes thanks to MLS are mitigated in part by the gains made by other teams in the region with strong MLS representation. The two cannot be separated short of an Americans-only MLS (which is not only impossible thanks to the Canadian clubs in the League, but would also defeat the purpose).
The irony is that for every step MLS might help the US National Team take along the path to better players and better results, the League also helps any number of other countries in the region do the same. While we watch and presume that MLS and its growth should mean better American performances, or that the US National Team’s predominance should be in evidence at every turn, we sometimes ignore the knock-on effect that the MLS era has had elsewhere. That sort of tunnel vision leads to questionable conclusions about who deserves the credit or the blame when things don’t go as expected.
None of this is to say that MLS has turned CONCACAF also-rans into world beaters. We’re talking about levels of improvement. Still, it does mean the games will be tighter, the margins of error smaller, the tactics more evolved, and the players more savvy.
The middle of CONCACAF, a group that includes Canada (who obviously benefits directly from having clubs in MLS), Panama, El Salvador, Guatemala and others, will improve the most because they’ve typically underachieved. MLS is an opportunity to develop a stronger player pool in all of those countries. Players that might have spent their careers in domestic leagues of varying quality now have another option.
Stronger competition from that segment of the region will push those at the top to get better, or they’ll eventually lose their place. That almost makes the effect of MLS on the US National Team program a two-fold one. Young players get more opportunity, but there’s the additional pressure on the program for continued improvement to stay ahead of the pack.
Again, it’s the inclusiveness of the MLS player acquisition model and the availability of CONCACAF players that fit an MLS budget. It’s pragmatic, turning a league that was founded in part to develop US-eligible players into one that is molding talent for the entire region.
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