Sunday, October 8, 2006
In recent memory, ambitious young American soccer players looking to make the move to Europe have sought opportunities in England, Germany or Scandinavia, with the last of the three as a stepping stone to either England or Germany.

Even if these players have not been able to land deals in the Premiership or Bundesliga 1, they've taken spots in the League Championship or Bundesliga 2 with the hope of moving up through catching the eye of a top flight team or promotion.

Has this strategy been a wise one to get to the next level?

While the goal has been to get into the top flights of these leagues, the result has been players willing to take mid-table or lower teams, often not even in a first team role.

Sure, it's flattering to be on a Premiership squad, but if they're spending most of the time as a substitute or in the reserves, and if they're not playing European soccer, are these players really honing their skills?

I think not. The top level of competition in Europe is not the Premiership, it's the Champions League.

Getting to the Champions League should be the goal of American players moving to Europe and players should strive to get to squads that regularly play in the Champions League.

Furthermore, if a player can't get onto a Champions League squad, it's worthwhile to get on a team playing in the UEFA Cup, instead of jumping to mid-table or lower Premiership or Bundesliga 1 teams.

To get there, and to keep playing at the top level between Champions League and UEFA Cup matches, players should look to other leagues like France, , Greece, Holland and Portugal.

It's a numbers game. This year eight of the twenty EPL teams are playing in European competition (40%). But only a few Americans are playing for these teams, and even fewer are starting in these matches.

Likewise, seven of eighteen Bundesliga 1 teams are playing in European competition (39%) and only a few Americans are playing for these top clubs.

Instead of jumping into the EPL or Bundesliga 1, where they are very small fish in very big ponds, Americans should prioritize opportunities in other leagues rather than play for the 12 EPL teams not playing in European competition, or the lower English leagues. The same goes for Germany.

Instead of hoping to make the first team and then really hoping to qualify for European slots, good American players should look to be slightly bigger fish in slightly smaller ponds.

In general, Spain and Italy have the same situation as England and Germany. Seven of the twenty teams in La Liga are playing in European competition (35%); seven of the twenty teams in Serie A are playing in European competition (35%).

Although it would be great to have players in these leagues (and I'm praying for a breakthrough here), both Spain and Italy have restrictions on the number of non-EU citizens on a club's first team.

Now let's look a little farther and I think we'll be surprised by the answer. Denmark has four of twelve teams in European competition (33%), which compares well to the major European leagues and partially explains why so many American players go to Denmark.

But Sweden and Norway don't fair so well. Sweden has only one team in European competition - which is not even a top flight Swedish team. Norway has two of fourteen (14%).

On the other hand, Greece has six of sixteen teams in Euro competition (38%), as does Portugal.

France has eight of twenty teams (40%), making the probability of playing in European competition from the French league numerically equal to the EPL and Bundesliga 1.
Holland stacks up well too, with six of eighteen teams in European competition (33%).

Yet Americans are largely ignoring these leagues - there is one American in Greece (Philipakos), two in France (Westberg and White) and three in the Eredivisie (Bradley, Rogers and Nguyen), half of the amount from two seasons ago.

No Americans are currently playing in Portugal - although Eddie Johnson could have played with Benfica if MLS had agreed on the transfer.

What do these numbers tell us? They could be a blip in time, but they are generally indicative of the level of play in these other leagues as well as of opportunities to play constantly and play at high levels.

My guess is that it would be easier to get on the first team in France, Greece, Holland or Portugal than in England or Germany - which conceivably makes the player more likely to see more European action and to spend less time as a substitute or in the reserves.

The data also tells us that Americans plying their trade in the League Championship or below and Bundesliga 2 or below are not getting the most bang out of their European careers.

Who should make the jump? For starters, Carlos Bocanegra and Frankie Simek from England.

Simek getting to the next level with his game shouldn't depend upon Sheffield Wednesday's successes, or lack thereof, this year. Its time to come out of the Sheffield Wednesday shadow Frankie.

Bocanegra wasn't getting many minutes on the pitch early this season and Fulham aren't playing European soccer. I'm guessing Carlos could find a more promising role in Portugal or France that could help him develop into a great defender and get him playing constantly.

All of our Norway and Sweden based Yanks should be thinking about greener pastures in Southern Europe. For the guys looking to cross the pond in the next round, I think they should avoid looking to the best teams in the Premiership or Bundesliga and look to other countries instead (like Michael Bradley and Lee Nguyen).

Freddy Adu especially needs to be careful. I understand how he should have Arsenal and Manchester United at the top of his list if he's looking to go to the EPL (Chelsea has not defined itself as the team that develops young players).

But if Freddy is not getting into the top four in England (add Liverpool to the above three), he should look to the continent, especially Spain, Italy or Portugal.

We were all a bit upset when MLS didn't transfer Clint Dempsey to Charlton, but this may have been a blessing in disguise considering Charlton's performance thus far. Clint should forget about Charlton and prioritize top teams in Holland, France or Portugal where he could better develop his skills and get more high level playing time, as well as play in European competitions.

And Eddie Johnson, don't even think about going to the League Championship. After Benfica's offer last year, I don't think Eddie is suddenly only West Brom-caliber (although the rumored summer offer was mere gossip).

As soon as he can play another solid year, he should make a push back to Portugal or France. A tour of Southern Europe and Holland would open up better prospects.

Looking from the perspective of the US National Team, it also makes sense for our players to spread out to other European leagues.

The EPL and Bundesliga play certain styles of soccer - but these are not the only styles played in Europe. Holland, Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, France - each of these countries has a local flavor that our national team is lacking.

If we look at the performances of national teams over the recent and distant past, a number of these countries have dominated or won Euro competitions as well as the World Cup.

They didn't do it by predominantly using players from outside their domestic leagues, even though all of these countries have considerable player diasporas.

They did it by advancing their own styles - and the United States can learn from these styles, mix them with the English and German styles that we know well and add sophistication to our strategy on the pitch.

In many ways, I would contend that we are harmed by NOT being greatly exposed to strategies used in these countries.

The goal is to play high level soccer all the time, especially in the Champions League and UEFA Cup, not just garner some prestige from being the 25th man on a Premiership team.