Saturday, September 9, 2006
Our 23 Tickets feature tends to ignite a fiery debate on our US squad selections, but the reaction this time around has been a little more pointed than usual.

I guess we were always on a hiding to nothing, nearly four years before the actual announcement for South Africa (yes, we will qualify) and with a US National Team still waiting for the post-Bruce Arena era to begin.

The closer we get, the more accurate predictions will be - and even then you can easily get it wrong.

We felt our final prognostication before Germany would be spot-on until Bruce surprised us by picking Brian Ching and Jimmy Conrad ahead of Taylor Twellman and Gregg Berhalter.

So it goes without saying that a definitive list for 2010 written in 2006 could well end up looking like a shot in the dark, but that is not the crux of what has got a few people's backs up.

While fans will argue until the cows come home about the relative merits of players, a few readers have accused us of brazen Euro-snobbery in this particular edition, an ingrained bias against MLS players and in favor of Americans playing on the other side of the Atlantic.

I have two responses: Firstly, we are not called Yanks Abroad for nothing, so one could forgive us for singing certain praises when we have been impressed by watching somebody live, especially if he is off the radar back home.

For instance, we picked Jay DeMerit - thus far ignored by the National Team – because based on the countless times we have watched him in the flesh, he deserves at least a call-up.

Then we put faith in guys who have yet to establish themselves at their clubs, but have sound potential. Players like Benny Feilhaber, whom we have watched playing for the Under-20s at the 2005 World Youth Cup, as well as for Hamburger SV's reserves in Germany.

If you are based in the States, you have to make an effort to follow the fortunes of the Euro-Yanks. And if you do manage to cram into that Irish pub an hour's drive away at 10 o'clock on a Saturday morning and part with your $20, chances are you won't be watching Heath Pearce or Frankie Simek.

This, of course, works both ways. If you live in Europe, you depend on for the lion's share of your domestic soccer diet. ESPN is not available as an individual network, although here in England, Channel 5 carries a recorded game once a week - transmitted at 4.30 AM every Friday morning.

But whichever side of the Atlantic you inhabit, it is hard to rate players you see on a screen above those you watch in the flesh.

When you are there in the stadium, reporting for YA, your eyes are more fixed on the Americans than the cameras ever are. You note their positional play, the communication to their teammates and everything else that the TV broadcast misses.

There is a great schism at work in US Soccer because the domestic league is too young and poor to compete with those in Europe, where Clint Dempsey, for instance, could at least quadruple his current salary.

In decades past, Europeans would dream of crossing the Atlantic to the States, but in a curious reversal of history, ambitious American soccer players now make the trip in the opposite direction.

No offense to Real Salt Lake, but wouldn't you rather play for the Reál McCoy at the Bernabéu?

Now here is the second wall of our fortification (and let us shout it loud from the ramparts): Americans in Europe are generally better players than those in the States.

Yes, it is not just money that pulls those guys across the pond, but also the chance to perfect their trade, and most of the best Americans play in Europe.

Why? Because European soccer is a higher quality than MLS just like the NBA is superior to the Greek A1 basketball league.

Hines Ward did not rush from winning Super Bowl MVP into a career in NFL Europe. Ichiro Suzuki left an already impressive career in Japanese baseball for the same reason: in Major League Baseball, he has scaled even greater heights.

This is a globalized world now and sport is not exempt. An employee will go where he can hone his skills best and get paid well for it, wherever that opportunity is.

It's not just MLS that feels this pain; every soccer league outside Europe feels the pull of that continent's football traditions and money, with only perhaps the Argentinean and Brazilian leagues able to compete in terms of quality.

There might be days like Fulham's calamitous 4-1 surrender to the All-Stars in 2005, but without a doubt the Cottagers' league is still a higher quality finishing school for a soccer player than MLS is at present.

The fact that John O'Brien and Jonathan Spector bypassed their home country to kick-start pro careers overseas tells a tale. And as long as young players like Chris Lancos prefer to hack their way through the reserves in Europe rather than forge an MLS career back home, the old continent will remain pre-eminent.

And it is not just the quality of the football, but the style Americans are exposed to over here that matters. If our ultimate goal is a stronger National Team, as it should be, then we need to take heed of our Achilles' heel: We tend to struggle against the top European nations.

Despite a side boasting nine players with European experience, those 90 frightful June minutes against the Czech Republic in Gelsenkirchen were proof positive there is a lot of work to be done.

And when Arena fielded an MLS-heavy team against Germany in Dortmund earlier this year, a 4-1 mauling cruelly exposed our lack of strength in depth and the inadequacies of a domestic education on the world stage.

In short, I am not here to justify YA's existence to a handful of "keyboard ultras" beyond saying we are proud to have brought you exclusive interviews with the likes of Josh Grenier, Brian Waltrip and Charles Kazlauskas.

We all want MLS to improve for the greater good of the American game. Even if it means YA becomes "Yanks at Home" when the transatlantic traffic finally turns tail, then so be it.

But until that day, we have work to do and we'll continue calling them as we see them – not how we would like them to be.

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