BRENT LATHAM - Wednesday, November 25, 2009
MLS will always be key to US players
Sometimes it's pretty easy to bash MLS. Attendance is sparse at times. There are still fields with American football lines. The play can be downright awful. And now the champion is a team that has never compiled a winning record.
But if those who make a sport of belittling our national soccer league would slow down for a moment to consider the level of play on show in the championship game Sunday night between Real Salt Lake and the LA Galaxy, they might reassess their perspective just a bit. That championship match, despite the inability of either team to establish dominance, was an eminently watchable game with some free-flowing soccer and quality individual skill on display.
The best news of all is that while Englishman David Beckham, Jamaican Andy Williams, and not-quite-yet-American Yura Movsisyan were some of the top performers, it was a predominantly American cast that did not only the heavy lifting in defense and midfield, but provided possession and flair in the attack.
In the absence of the Galaxy's Dema Kovalenko and Real Salt Lake's Javi Morales, American national team fringe players like Kyle Beckerman and Robbie Findley, among others, showed some real class going forward.
If this shift towards American offense is the start of a trend, then it's a big improvement over past years, in which skill in our domestic league has come largely through foreign connections. The top of this year's MLS scoring charts also bears out a slow tilt towards American firepower, a change which may signal that the league is poised to fight a trend that threatens to make it less relevant on the international soccer scene.
Much of this, the latest generation of American internationals, has found fields abroad to be fertile terrain for developing their games, either early in promising careers or mid-career after a handful of season domestically. While the proving grounds of Europe or Mexico may well be the ideal places for the best American players to hone their skills, the adaptation process does take a toll on America's top young players as they struggle to break into lineups overseas and often see limited playing time, and the competitive nature of European soccer means no job is safe for long.
If there is more room for creative American players in MLS, the league's execs should embrace that advantage. Quality of play is obviously paramount towards providing a good product. But for years it seems that MLS teams have felt obligated to look abroad for their creative midfielders and goal scorers. Maybe that's changing for the better.
There remains the question of how to get more Americans involved in a domestic league with relatively limited opportunity, and with the low absolute number of roster spots available, potentially gifted young players seem to still be getting squeezed out in favor of high priced foreign imports, many of whom turn out to be duds. With expansion on the horizon, this happens to be a unique moment in the history of MLS to fix that.
The consensus seems to be that there is simply not enough domestic talent in the US to fill the expansion roster spots that will come on line when Philadelphia joins the league next year, followed by Vancouver and Portland the next, and that more players will have to be brought from overseas to make up the ranks. But doing that will come at a high economic cost to MLS, so home-grown alternatives should be considered.
Including younger American players by expanding Generation Adidas should be at the top of the list, as well as the obvious step of re-visiting developmental roster spaces. But the most novel chance begins this week, when the Philadelphia Union begins to take shape at the expansion draft.
The Union, with their already growing fan base edging towards ten thousand Sons of Ben season ticket holders already, has a chance to make history and create a bang from the start, by going American. One-hundred percent American, that is.
Based in the heart of an All-American city, Philadelphia's FC should establish a policy of using only American players. That model is in use a couple places in the world: in Mexico in the form of Chivas, and in the Spanish league (more accurately the Basque region) at Athletic Bilbao. Few teams have stauncher, more loyal fan bases than those. (Team America of the NASL was a more haphazard attempt at a similar concept back formed primarily as an attempt to get some American national team players some games in the foreigner-heavy league.)
Now, before calling me any ugly names, understand that as an international soccer journalist, I'm about the farthest thing from a nationalist you'll find. (Notice I say that the Union should use only American players, not only American-born players.) Like any good fan, I'm enthralled by the uniqueness of international soccer, the style of play that each nation brings, and the border-bound war for pride that soccer brings to an otherwise borderless game.
But one large corner of the soccer world is about nationality, and MLS needs exposure and marketing as much as ever. And soccer fandom in the USA, unlike most other soccer-loving countries in the world, is as much about the national team as any club team. An all-American club team addresses those issues. By using only American players, Philly would instantly become a fan favorite nationwide, a focal point for those fans and yet-to-be fans who haven't embraced MLS, and a curiosity that would further increase the appeal of MLS nationally and internationally.
Of course forgoing international players might slightly handcuff the team on the field, but creative personnel management and the economic and marketing benefits of the concept more than outweigh the disadvantages. And the existing examples prove otherwise. Chivas is perennially among the best teams in a league that can afford much better foreigners than MLS, and Athletic has never been out of the top division of La Liga – perhaps the best league in the world - despite brining in only players from a land with about one percent the population of the USA.
Indeed, there are few real risks in trying out the concept of an All-American team. For MLS to continue to grow and remain relevant on the international scene, it would benefit from a renewed emphasis on the American player. There could be no better place to begin than the city sometimes called the "Birthplace of America."