By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Nov 11, 2015) US Soccer Players – Imagine if we lived in a world where MLS didn’t exist. Would Americans care about the game as much as they do? Where would the US National Team develop its current and future talent? Where would foreign players go to resurrect their National Team careers? That last one is an outcome no one expected in the league’s early years. Twenty years later, top foreign talent is playing on US soil – not just those who are over-the-hill – with an increasing number of these players still in their prime.
The best example is Italian striker Sebastian Giovinco. Struggling to get playing time at Juventus in recent years, the club was more than happy to ship him off. When the chance came to play in MLS with Toronto FC, both the team and Giovinco jumped at the opportunity. Toronto FC made the playoffs this fall for the first time in its history and Giovinco had a standout season, recording 22 goals and 16 assists en route to the Golden Ball award. He’s also a favorite for league MVP.
Giovinco’s great season in MLS caught the notice of Italy coach Antonio Conte – the same manager who had benched him at Juventus – who called him up to the national side as it tried to qualify for the 2016 European Championship. Last month, the 28-year-old pulled off an impressive feat during a qualifier against Norway. The “Atomic Ant” was crucial in Italy’s come-from-behind 2-1 win at Rome’s Olympic Stadium. The victory ensured that the four-time World Cup champions advanced to Euro 2016 as Group H winners.
Just 27 hours later, Giovinco shook off the fatigue and jet lag in time to score a wonderful goal for Toronto against the New York Red Bulls at BMO Field. The 28-year-old Giovinco beat out three defenders and slotted the ball past goalkeeper Luis Robles with ease, like he had done so against many MLS ‘keepers this year, in what turned out to be one of the prettiest strikes in 2015. Toronto went on to win the game 2-1 and in the process helped the Canadian side clinch its first playoff berth ever.
Toronto coach Greg Vanney called the goal one of the best he’d ever seen, admitting that Giovinco had contacted him three hours before the game to say he was planning to play.
“(Giovinco) texted when he landed (in Toronto). He hit me up as soon as he got (to BMO Field). He said he was going to play. He was ready to play,” recalled Vanney. “I think when a player like that knows himself well enough, then I wanted him to touch the field. If the game was in a position where we could take the three points or we could secure ourselves in the playoffs, there was a good chance he was going to be on the field.”
Not only had Giovinco’s play all summer earned him a call-up to play for Italy (the same thing occurred to NYCFC’s midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo), but he had returned the favor by continued to dazzle in MLS, a league whose match days are not aligned with the FIFA calendar because of its spring-to-fall schedule. Although that creates challenges, it is always an honor to see MLS stars continuing to represent their national teams.
Another player who made a return for his National Team was Kaka. The 33-year-old striker, after a string of great performances with Orlando City SC this season, got the call from coach Dunga in August for two friendlies versus Costa Rica and the United States.
“It’s a big day for me, so I’d like to share this great news with all of the supporters,” Kaka said in a message on Orlando City’s website. “I’m back in the national team after almost a year, and I’m so happy for that. I think I can help the team in this period. We’re staring the qualification process for the next World Cup, so it’s an important period for everybody and also for me. So, I’m so happy and glad to be back in the national team again.”
Not everyone loved the idea of Kaka’s surprise return to international soccer. Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi echoed the sentiments of many fans on Aug. 15 when he wrote, “Besides, it’s not like Brazil actually needs Kaka for these exhibition matches that are essentially just a years-long series of practice games for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Don’t’ get me wrong, if Kaka were missing a crucial Orlando City game to actually play in the World Cup, then it would be completely understandable. The truth is, there is virtually no chance he will be on his country’s World Cup roster as a 36-year-old in 2018. He didn’t even make the Brazilian World Cup roster in 2014 at age 32.”
Bianchi argued that Kaka’s absence could hurt Orlando’s chances of making the playoffs, or worse, result in an injury that could have him miss even more matches. Kaka was not hurt in those games, but there was always a chance that could happen. In his column, Bianchi put the blame on MLS. “If the league ever wants to be considered a “big-time” American sport, then it needs to start acting big-time. It needs to do what the world’s other top leagues do by not playing during these international windows,” he said. “If it means playing more mid-week games to get the season in, then so be it. Even though mid-week games don’t draw nearly as many fans, the integrity of the league depends on having your best players during critical games during the regular season.”
Now that we enter another international window of World Cup Qualifiers and assorted friendlies, MLS – in the midst of what can be considered one of the most-entertaining postseasons ever – has to break that momentum ahead of the conference finals to accommodate call-ups, including two World Cup Qualifiers involving the USA. While there is no fear that players will miss games, there is worry that injuries may strike those on teams currently contending for MLS Cup.
For example, during October’s international break, 67 MLS players – including 12 for the USA and 7 for Canada – left for National Team duty just as various teams were making its final playoff push. For this coming week’s international window, that number dropped to 41. Nine players are members of the four teams still alive in the MLS playoffs.
MLS is definitely become a victim of it success when it comes to international call-ups. That adds to the pressure for the league to align itself with FIFA’s international calendar. Players pulled between club and country have long been a concern for European clubs, especially big ones. It’s also something MLS teams have to consider.
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