MLS / USMNT

What will the accumulation of top Americans in MLS mean for the US in 2014?

Photo: Barb Colligon

Eighteen.

It’s an age where excitement and daring begin to set in — and maybe a bit of rebellion. A couple years earlier, you got the keys to a modest used coupe, which you drove to school and maybe took your girlfriend to a movie. Now in the transition between high school and college, you want to impress. Can you convince Dad to spring for that shiny new sports car that will scream “Big Man on Campus”? If he does, will it end in glory or a pile of bent sheet metal, a bruised ego, and much disappointment?

In much the same way, MLS is making the jump from its 18th year to its 19th. Much like a college freshman, the league could see a great deal of growing pains and forced maturation in its 19th year.

The real concern for next year, however, lies in the US Men’s National Team as they seek to better past performances in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The efforts by MLS to increase their own brand could bring about consequences for the USMNT. It’s the synergism between these two considerations that could spell success or failure for both enterprises.

A year of consolidation for MLS

The 18th season for MLS turned into quite a coup for the league. The resigning of players like Omar Gonzalez, Graham Zusi, and Matt Besler through the new Retention Fund initiative coupled with the return of Clint Dempsey appears to have boosted the league’s marketability for the next couple of seasons.

A pivotal financial moment approaches as well. New television negotiations are on the horizon. The additions of New York City FC, Orlando City, and David Beckham’s anticipated Miami franchise are key to maximizing what MLS can pull in for the rights.

Keeping marquee names in the league is another factor, albeit a little less important. MLS Digital has been allotting many resources towards marketing the Graham Zusis of MLS. Keeping these players is a step towards improving the product on the field, as well as a marketing edge, allowing USMNT fans to connect names they recognize to clubs within our borders.

But no event seems to win over more fans to the sport than a World Cup. Many World Cup players will likely ply their trade in MLS after returning from Brazil. Only three players who started 2010 World Cup matches for the USMNT were on an MLS roster during the tourney (Landon Donovan, Robbie Findley, and Jonathan Bornstein). In 2014, that number could double or even triple.

The nuances – players not being in Europe

There is a downside to this. Many believe that national team players need to play in the top leagues to be at the top of their game. Besler and Gonzalez are primary examples, as they would become accustomed to routinely facing top attacking talent in European leagues. While MLS has Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane, Donovan, and Dempsey, that pedigree isn’t spread as evenly across the teams in MLS as it is in league like the EPL or La Liga.

That’s a gamble heading towards Brazil. Maybe things turn out just fine. Or maybe the US get a horror group, making escape nearly impossible regardless of the players’ professional clubs.

But a tough draw could be a godsend for U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann. The national team seems to play better as underdogs. Remember when we all worried back in 2011 after Mexico stormed back that World Cup qualifying might be hairier, that the gap was growing between El Tri and the US? The US played like a mad dog backed into a corner. A surprise 1st place in the Hexagonal, and now confidence is soaring.

If the US gets dumped into a Group of Death, then that confidence takes a severe shot across the bow. Failure becomes the expectation rather than the fear. But maybe that’s the elixir Klinsmann needs after a couple of mediocre friendly performances against Scotland and Austria.

What if the US crashes out?

The real nightmare would be for the US to catch a break — getting a perceived easier group such as Switzerland, Algeria, and Croatia — and then falling hard.

The questions would be raised about the wisdom of these players staying put. We could end up considering the coexistence of MLS and US Soccer, how they can work together, but also how the advancement of one can hamper the progress of the other. What is the goal of soccer in this country? Is it to win a World Cup? Is it to have a profitable, successful, top league in the world? Can both happen simultaneously?

These are questions that will be answered over decades, not years. Much like a teenager has decades to show their competency as a driver, that teenager also has the immediacy to wonder if we can trust them behind the wheel. It’s a scary world out there, but all of this will make 2014 one of the most interesting sagas in US Soccer history. A growing league, a popular national team, and a country sown with the seeds to be a vibrant soccer nation.

2 Comments

  1. Good stuff; two things (and they may seem contradictory) –
    1) I’m sorry, but as a USA fan first I can’t get up for keeping our “bright” talent in this league. It’s a 2nd tier league, and there is no way in hell someone like OG is going to get good enough staying in LA than going to Europe and actually testing himself. The MLS will forever be grappling with this idea of wanting to be a top tier league (which I think is much farther away than 2020) and actually helping America produce the top tier talent that may one day help us become a top tier league.

    2) But, even then. “What if the US crashes out?” – lets be honest here; these pots are straight from hell. You couldn’t hand pick a worse case for us. Chance are we won’t make it out of the group stage. But, it will have nothing to do with MLS or Europe. This will just be a year with a horrible pot draw. Let’s hope people keep that in mind.

    • Agreed. I was excited to see the Donovan to Everton rumors, which Arena immediately pissed on.

      Would Howard or Guzan be better if they played for Houston or KC? Does anyone really think that? So why is the scenario reversed? The best players should play in the best leagues. MLS isn’t there. Maybe someday (look out Qatar!!), but not now. I wasn’t a fan of Dempsey coming back, I don’t think it will help his game at all. And instead of Eng Championship sides, I’d prefer to see other USMNT hopefuls look to leagues like Ligue1, Swiss SuperLeague,or the Eredivisie and latch onto a side that will also play Europa/CCL soccer too. Tough, competitive and the opportunity to play against some of the best. Plus, less travel. Netherlands is slightly larger than Maryland.

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