GEORGE MURPHY - Wednesday, November 7, 2007
This past weekend was an exciting weekend for any soccer enthusiast. The biggest game of the English Premier League so far this season was played at Emirates Stadium between Manchester United and a very young (and LUCKY) Arsenal team. In La Liga, Real Madrid were upset by a Sevilla team who seem to be putting their current losing streak behind them.
And, of course, the first round of the MLS playoffs has concluded.
People assume that the staff at Yanks Abroad have some sort of bias against the domestic league. This couldn't be further from the truth, it's just not what our coverage is based on (it's called Yanks ABROAD for a reason).
But as a long time MLS supporter, here are a few observations I've made in the past few weeks when comparing Major League Soccer with some of the top soccer leagues in Europe.
The biggest difference and probably the deciding factor in the first round of the playoffs is the lack of depth on MLS rosters.
In the DC United - Chicago Fire series, the best team in the league and supporters' shield winners limped into the first round with injuries to most of their key players. Josh Gros was lost for the season because of head and wrist injuries, and Golden Boot winner Luciano Emilio and Jaime Moreno were also both banged up.
Because of the injuries, unproven (and that may be a huge understatement) players such as Guy-Rowland Kpene and Nicholas Adderly were forced to step in and attempt to make a contribution.
Let's take another look at this.
The league's leading goalscorer this season, and the all-time leading MLS goal scorer, were expected to be replaced by a guy who played his last professional soccer in the second-division Vietnamese league (Adderly), and another guy who just last season was playing PDL (Kpene).
I have nothing against either of them. I know for a fact that both of them have a lot of potential and athletic ability. But how do you go from Vietnam and PDL to playing significant minutes in the MLS playoffs, after hardly being used at all during the season?
I'm all for players getting a chance to come through the league and prove themselves. United's most valuable player in the series, Clyde Simms, came from Richmond Kickers before working his way through the United ranks, and has even earned a cap for the national team. In his case, it happened gradually over time, and it paid off.
Another example can be taken from the New York - New England Revolution match on Saturday. Arguably the league's best striker and most successful import this season, Juan Pablo Angel, went down with a concussion, and in comes John Wolyniec.
Now, again, nothing against John Wolyniec. His partnership with Jozy Altidore before Angel came to New York was fairly successful, and he has two USA caps. But something has to be said when a player with seven seasons as a productive English Premier League player and three years experience at River Plate, is replaced by a player who has played for 10 different clubs in eight seasons, all domestic.
Young American players have three options right now: MLS, USL or indoor soccer, and heading overseas.
Now keep in mind that becoming a professional athlete before you're 21 (in most cases) can be difficult enough. But try going to a foreign country with a different exchange rate, different culture, and in most cases a whole different language. Imagine playing for a coach and you can't even understand what he's telling you. Pile on the problems involved getting work permits, housing situated and becoming homesick, it can all be quite a handful.
Hence why most of the more successful Americans in Europe spent a few years in MLS before heading across the pond. Most of the time it's the same with successful players in other countries. Italians, Brazilians, Germans... most spend a few years in their domestic leagues before moving to bigger clubs.
Meanwhile, here in the US, more and more players are hesitant to sign developmental contracts with their domestic league.
It's been well covered recently that undrafted (and some drafted) players have been accepting contracts with USL teams s when coming out of college, as opposed to signing developmental contracts with MLS, making $13,000/year or however much the minimal league salary is right now, and working part-time waiting tables or working at Sports Authority or however else they can make ends meet and stop mooching off of their parents.
These are professional athletes who excelled at the college level and are lucky to afford to pay rent in large markets like Washington, DC and Los Angeles where the cost of living in a decent part of town isn't exactly cheap.
The other option? Scrounge up whatever you have saved and borrow from mom and dad, buy a plane ticket and Eurorail train pass, and try to get a trial with a team in Europe. That is, if you can even get in contact with anyone who speaks English or would care about a player who can't get drafted in MLS. You could hire an agent to help you out, if you can find an agent who thinks you're good enough for him or her to invest their time in, and is impressed with your resume.
What is the league doing to keep decent, quality bench players from taking a chance overseas or becoming professional indoor soccer players? Because, when bill collectors call, the "I do it for the love of the game" excuse isn't very valid at that point.
It is true that the Beckhams and Blancos are eventually going to draw more fans and maybe a few more quality players to the MLS. But is this damaging the league right now, as a kind of trial period is going on?
One option could be bringing in quality younger players from other countries on loan for an MLS season. This could be beneficial not only to the league, but to soccer in the US as a whole.
The MLS season runs from April to November. The typical top European league usually runs from August to May or June. That means, if a younger player from a French, German or Italian league could benefit from consistent first team soccer in MLS during the offseason, as opposed to training and a few preseason friendly matches and reserve games, why not bring him over?
By the time the club would get them back, they wouldn't even be halfway through the season, and could start working their way into the first team. The players get a chance to play soccer in the States, along with the likes of Beckham and Blanco.
Meanwhile, MLS is building relationships with foreign teams who, at the same time, can start scouting American talent in the league at the same time.
I'm not saying go ask AC Milan to borrow Pato until he turns 18 in January. I'm saying make contact with some foreign teams who might have a young player or two who could benefit from some consistent first-team soccer in the offseason, and who could help grow the amount of talent in MLS.
Travelling to Europe straight out of college, with stories like that of Jay DeMerit and other players who were able to catch breaks on a lower-division club as inspiration, is not for everyone.
Playing USL or MISL soccer is an option, but it doesn't seem as if MLS is doing a good enough job in promoting standout players from lower domestic leagues.
Hopefully MLS can continue to grow its talent pool and continue to grow as a league, and get younger players excited about the prospect of playing in the league, as it is very important to how successfully the sport will grow in the country.