Sunday, February 4, 2007
With another transfer window having come and gone, the headlines concerning the Americans were all fairly obvious - Clint Dempsey and Oguchi "Gooch" Onyewu hit the big time with transfers to Team USA, err Fulham, and Newcastle, respectively, while Captain America returned to his native New Jersey to play for the Red Bulls.

The stories that grabbed less attention involved the increasing number of young Americans being given trials abroad with some of them accepting foreign offers rather than playing at home in MLS.

Oh yeah, there was one other one.

Apparently MLS spent a bunch of other people's money on someone who used to play for England. So what does it all mean to the growth of the sport here at home or the future of the USMNT on the international scene?

A Chance to Shine

This was a quiet transfer period in England, relatively speaking. The teams at the bottom of the standings explored all avenues to avoid relegation and the loss of 30M in TV revenue for next season but generally struggled to add any players likely to dramatically change their fortunes.

With the "Big Four" of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Arsenal, being content that their stranglehold on Champions League places is secure, the teams at the middle of pack were left as the only ones with the potential to really have something to show for their transfer window activity.

Among the clubs with a chance to make a second half run at a UEFA Cup spot, Newcastle's defense was perhaps the unit with the most glaring hole (well, holes really). Into this void steps the imposing figure of Oguchi Onyewu.

For the first time, an American outfield player is being viewed as crucial component for a club in a top tier league that, deluded or not, has aspirations of competing for European glory.

Largely, American players have been viewed as complimentary players good role players, hard workers, etc., but rarely have they been thought of as potential saviors or difference makers for a clubs with the potential to contend maybe not for the title but certainly for a UEFA Cup spot.

This situation is not without risk since if the Magpies defense continues to leak goals it will likely reinforce the perception that Americans can be no more than fringe players in a top league.

The potential rewards are even greater, however, if Gooch is able to solidify the makeshift Newcastle backline with anything close to the same level of success that Ryan Nelsen had after moving from DC United to Rovers. Then, the powers-that-be in English football will be forced to examine their stereotypes of American players.

A Chance to Alter Perception

Clint Dempsey has a similar chance to break stereotypes associated with American players with his new club Fulham where he joins fellow Americans Brian McBride and Carlos Bocanegra.

While the Texas native wasn't brought into Fulham with the same level of expectations one expects that there are more immediate dividends expected of the Vincenzo Montella signing the creativity and flair that are so integral to his game are not generally associated with American players.

If Dempsey experiences some level of success in the Premiership there are likely to be two benefits, the first of which being that it may become more acceptable for young American players coming up through the ranks to display a little flair of their own.

Without this sort of development, the National Team will certainly hit a plateau. Hard work and industry will get you only so far (say, the second knockout round of the World Cup if everything goes right) but to advance beyond that, there need to be multiple players on the team capable of individual magic.

Assuming Dempsey's success breeds more creative players from the States, the second benefit will be that these players will be given an opportunity that they might not have had before.

If a scout or agent can tell a club's manager that a prospect is "the next Dempsey" there is a frame of reference. Without this point of comparison, it becomes easy to write someone off with excuses like "sure, he's been great in MLS or CONCACAF but that's the minor leagues" this is the same argument that is made about small college football and basketball players here in the States.

To use an example from the NBA, John Stockton was considered a major risk coming out of Gonzaga because he was small, white, and from a relatively unknown school. One Hall-of-Fame career later, getting drafted in the first round out of Gonzaga isn't really news anymore as Adam Morrison, Ronny Turiaf, and Dan Dickau can attest.

A Chance to Compare

The return of Claudio Reyna to American shores after spending a long career on foreign soil offers a little less obvious benefit but I think there are some subtle things that may become apparent.

First, Claudio offers talent evaluators in England a point of comparison for MLS talent that they probably haven't had for a while. With very few players heading directly from the Premiership to MLS and the two league not really having overlapping seasons, it must be difficult to get a sense of the respective talent levels.

When Premier League teams come to the States for preseason training, they're just getting into shape (and in the case of Celtic and Fulham last year, not even close to full fitness). MLS players look good by comparison but again, I'm sure it's easy to write that off with a variety of excuses if there is an inclination to be biased against American players.

What Reyna offers is a chance to compare the impact he can have on a Premier League match with the impact he can have on an MLS match. If he is one of the best players in MLS at his age, it will prove that the league still has a long way to go before it is considered a good developing ground.

If, as I suspect, he returns home and proves to be nothing more than a good (but not great) MLS player this will be another data point that will help calibrate what it means to be a standout in MLS.

Certainly, there will be other benefits to Claudio's return including helping his teammates understand the dedication required to compete at the highest level and his ability to distribute and control the field, though always a little overrated in my mind in an absolute sense, is still better than any American in MLS.

Finally, after a long career in Europe, I'm sure he has a few connections to his former clubs and managers that might help open doors for up-and-coming players who might not get a chance without an endorsement from a known quantity. Even in sports, it isn't always what you know (or can do) but who you know. I'd guess Claudio knows some of the right people after all these years.

Looking back on this January's transfer window, it will almost definitely be remembered for the Beckham signing and little else.

For those who choose to look beyond the hype and think about the longer term success of soccer in this country, the Beckham media machine will only be a small part of a growing credibility that will likely mean increased opportunities in England's top flight and a changed perception of the roles an American can play in that league.

Now, if only we could make similar inroads in Spain and Italy.