By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 6, 2016) US Soccer Players – Major League Soccer remains, for all of its progress and big name signings, a league built on the back of the American soccer player. An increase in the number of international roster slots, combined with the rise in the amount of allocation money each team is able to use to pay down the salaries of foreign players, has changed the face of MLS. Not so much that the competition has moved away from a focus on soccer players born and bred within the borders of the United States.
That reliance goes beyond just pure numbers. At least it should. The bulk of the player pool needs to be American to satisfy one of the purposes of the league. Creating MLS was to grow the sport in the United States. It’s difficult to do that if the most of the players are from somewhere else. There are number of other factors that make it an obvious area of concern.
The most cynical point, and therefore the one worth getting out of the way first, revolves around the economics of MLS. American soccer players are naturally cheaper than their foreign counterparts, both in terms of salary and overhead. MLS can pay a scant wage to a young player looking for a break. A player of equal age from elsewhere may not only command a better contract, but will require investment (via money and time) in acclimating the player to a new soccer culture and lifestyle. All of this impacts the value those foreign players can bring to the league immediately.
Beyond economics, there’s the matter of promotion. Again, for emphasis: MLS is a league created out of nothing in the early 90s to bring the world’s game to an American audience. Before anyone knew Americans would get up early on Saturday mornings to watch the Premier League or turn to Mexican soccer in big numbers, the belief was that Americans need a competition run by Americans, for Americans, and featuring Americans. The people in charge of the US Soccer Federation certainly knew that there couldn’t be much progress on the international stage without a league in which young American player could grow.
The original NASL was a league so dependent on foreign players that it stretched credulity to even call it “American soccer.” Where the NASL in large part failed in developing and providing real opportunities for the American soccer player, MLS is meant to succeed. That means there must be a requisite number of American stars in MLS.
Further, the league has a mandate to hold on to young, talented American players whenever possible. In order to be able to promote MLS as the future of American soccer, players must see the league as a player to play regularly and grow. In order to improve the quality of the league, American players who are capable of raising the level need to be playing in the US league. They represent something of a precious commodity.
As MLS matures, the issue is only becoming more interesting to follow. While the league has spent millions to bring back top names from the USMNT (Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley chief among them), it must also keep tabs on the next generation of player. American soccer’s growing profile around the world – and the shirking nature of that world – means young, talented American players are attracting attention from beyond MLS. Sometimes players already in MLS systems are lured away because their skills are in demand elsewhere, putting pressure on the league to find a way to keep them.
Jordan Morris is only the latest example, opting to train in Germany with Werder Bremen. Morris hasn’t made a decision about his future yet, and there’s really no reason to belief he won’t end up signing with the Seattle Sounders. Then again, even a hint that he could be enticed to turn down MLS for the greener pastures of the European game serves as an unnecessary reminder. For all of the North American League’s progress, it still lags behind much of the world as a dream for young players coming into their professional years.
MLS has already tipped in the direction of the foreign player, mostly in a bid to get better more quickly than the American player pool will allow. Expansion has exacerbated the limits of the player pool, resulting in an influx of foreign talent to fill some of the gaps. That only heightens the importance of holding on to American talent, particularly American talent with name recognition like Jordan Morris.
Does MLS “need” these players? More than that, should that “need” factor into any decision a young player makes about his future or how MLS values those players monetarily? The sanctity of salary controls can’t be threatened, but the raison d’être of MLS is to build up soccer in America. Talented American soccer players are key to that mission, which makes every single one choosing a foreign league a problem for Major League Soccer.
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