By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 3, 2018) US Soccer Players - Sometimes outsiders can provide the most incisive perspectives. So when offered the chance to chat with Steve McManaman as he tours the United States in an ambassadorial role for La Liga, I sought out the retired English great’s views on a range of American soccer matters.
The former Liverpool and Real Madrid midfielder is on this side of the Atlantic to promote the upcoming La Liga season, which kicks off on August 17. His efforts are part of a wider push by that league to connect with Stateside audiences as several of its member clubs take part in big-ticket friendly matches and conduct preseason activities on these shores.
“It’s paramount that they grow their reputation globally,” said McManaman. “La Liga has the finest teams in world football. It’s important that they try and get the interest of the local fans here... Whether it’s the English, whether it’s the Spanish or the French or the Italian, they all want to be successful, they’re all trying to fight their corner to get a new market base.”
Television commentary gigs have brought McManaman to the US before, and he sees marked improvements in MLS and the rest of the domestic scene.
“It’s all going in the right direction, isn’t it?” he said. “Certainly teams like Atlanta are starting a new type of project where they’re bringing in younger kids from South America, going along that profile, and it’s all very interesting. But I think the profile of the MLS is getting better and better and better.
“It’s very well known and it’s on the televisions all over Europe,” he added when asked about Spanish players’ perceptions of the North American game. “As always, it’s the standard of football and what you want to do with your football life. We know that David Villa’s been out here now for a good number of years and has acquitted himself very well and been very professional. So a lot of people do follow it, and it’s certainly an option for a lot of players.”
Conversely, one of the USA’s best exports ever has been a subject of ample attention across Europe this summer. USMNT star Christian Pulisic is reportedly a transfer target of several huge clubs, including McManaman’s beloved Real Madrid. And while he rates Pulisic very highly, “Macca” urges caution with any such moves.
“He’s still very young, that’s the problem,” McManaman said of Pulisic. “The main thing in his development as a footballer which has been immense so far is that he needs to play football. He plays, at the moment, every single week for Borussia Dortmund, that’s no problem, but if he wants to leave and go to a team like Real Madrid, he mightn’t play.
“He might have to sit on the bench for five, six, seven games and he doesn’t want to do that. He’s got plenty of time, he’s only a young boy. If he doesn’t move this season, next season, the year after, he’s still only going to be a young boy. As long as he plays, he keeps on improving, keeps on learning, there’s plenty of time for him to move to one of the big superclubs in European football.”
One of the most successful English exports in modern soccer history, McManaman left behind his hometown Reds to sign with mighty Madrid in 1999. He's a rare example of a British star leaving the Premier League as it skyrocketed into the global consciousness.
It proved a wise move. He won two La Liga titles, two Champions League trophies, and a UEFA Super Cup over a four-year stint in the Spanish capital. He also endeared himself to fans and teammates with his positive mindset and embrace of the country’s language and culture. It’s a challenge that he urges every player to take on.
“I always wanted to play abroad, I always wanted to test myself in a new league, I wanted to learn a new language, I wanted to learn a new lifestyle, I wanted to accomplish different goals,” said McManaman. “I understand why people are fairly rooted to the Premier League, it’s a fairly successful league, there’s a lot of money involved, the teams are very well paid, on a professional level they’re treated very well … but I would never have felt accomplished if I didn’t want to test myself and put myself under pressure by learning a new language and struggling at times. You have to go through it all.
“You can always come home if you want to, if you don’t like it or you’re struggling,” he added. “But it was the best thing I ever did.”
Stability and playing time at home vs the great risks and rewards of big leagues overseas? It’s a debate very familiar to American readers. It did not escape McManaman that the recent sale of Vancouver Whitecaps phenom Alphonso Davies to Bayern Munich has added a new and potentially even revolutionary wrinkle to the topic.
“That’ll happen if the talent’s good enough,” he said. “When you see Atlanta now sort of bringing in a new philosophy as in not trying to get the old and experienced players but trying to get the younger, hungry South American players, I think it’s always a step – rather than them going from South America to Spain, they can come from South America to the MLS and then, as Alphonso Davies is showing, they can go from the MLS then to Spain or Europe. And I think that’s important, because in America you need to be in the transfer business as well.
“As soon as the Americans join in and transfer players back and forth, I think that helps everything – that helps the economy, that helps all the football teams and it shows that there’s business to be done, that players are coming through. And also, people now will see what Alphonso Davies has done and think, we can do that, if we want to go and play in Europe, we don’t have to South America any more, we don’t have to go to France. We can actually play in the MLS and move from there. Now the pathway’s getting a lot clearer.”
More from Charles Boehm:
- MLS transfer market moves: A turning of the tide?
- Fans, stadiums, and questions for American soccer
- Jesse Marsch, Tyler Adams, and American soccer's situation
- Pondering lessons for the USMNT from Russia 2018
Photo courtesy of La Liga