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MLS Failing in its Mission

I must say I have listened with much amusement the last few weeks as people have tried to convince me that the influx of foreign talent to MLS and the outflow of younger Americans from MLS or in some cases skipping MLS entirely is a good thing for Soccer in this country. That view is in my estimation completely misguided and fool hearty. Keep in mind the initial aim of MLS was not create a mini Bundesliga or Premier League on our shores but to build a player pool or unparalleled historical depth and quality for the U.S. Men’s National Team.

When MLS began play in 1996, 22% of the players were allowed to be foreigners. This was at a time when the United States did not have the blooming soccer culture of the advanced player development system it has today. Now in 2008, over 45% of the Senior roster members are allowed to be foreigners. These foreigners are being paid the highest salaries under MLS’ embarrassingly low salary cap. So essentially, any American wanting to make a decent living plying his trade in the game he loves must either play for several years making less than his peer in his age group make doing any other professional job or he must move to Europe, where an investment in young American talent isn’t something club sides worry about. After their job is to provide entertaining football and develop good young players for their club. But that isn’t MLS’ mission: Unless I missed the memo.

To this point MLS’ has done a remarkable job of deepening the player pool for the US National Team and making the United States in say 2002 more competitive at all levels of competition than at any time previously in the nation’s history of playing the sport. However that has begun to change. At this point in time not a single American field player could make a 23 man Tournament squad for England, Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain or France. These leading European nations are in a position where their worst pool player is better than our best pool player. This wasn’t always the case however, as I could point to several players in the US pool who could have contributed to England’s Euro 2000 or World Cup 2002 campaigns. Today, with England in a state of decline the United States is possibly in a more rapid state of decline which has gone unnoticed by those not maintaining a historical perspective on current events or those buying the refrain that we are always improving soccer in this country. We are replicating England’s failures without any of England’s history or footballing culture to fall back on. It could be argued that just about every World Cup that England qualified for between 1966 and 1990 (66,70,82,86,90) that they had the best team in the world. Bad luck in many cases can explain the defeats as it did in 1970 and 1986. In the early 1990s after the disastrous 1980s from a club standpoint in England thanks to Hillsboro among other things, the Premier League was formed. The league combined exciting British style football with lucrative TV deals and revenue sources. I would point out 15 years later in my estimation the exciting British style football is now played in Scotland and in England’s lower divisions and that the league has essentially become a depository for foreign talent which has stifled the growth of the English national team. Of the top teams in the Premier League, only Liverpool with the incomparable Steven Gerrard and the rock solid Jamie Carragher at the back can be claimed to be “led” by English players. Sure I’ll hear the arguments as to John Terry, and Wayne Rooney but if you think those guys actually “lead” Chelsea and United to their success we’re not watching the same matches.

Currently in MLS, very few teams are being “led” by Americans. New England perhaps, but their best player Shalrie Joseph, is playing for another national team (although he is essentially American having grown up in New York). New England much like the Houston Dynamo remain at its core an American team, or let’s say a North American team including Canadian and Carribean players. But what about the rest of the league? Who leads DC United, easily the most successful team in the history of the league? It’s almost always been South American players and now in the form of Marcello Gallardo we have the latest. How about the LA Galaxy? David Beckham: Is he American even though his kid’s name is Brooklyn? How about Colorado in “middle america?” Try Christian Gomez! Kansas City? It looks this team is looking more Latin than ever with Claudio Lopez becoming a DP signing. I could rattle off every team and demonstrate that Americans are “leading” any of them outside of Houston and New England. Sure, such and such is the captain, but who really leads these teams into battle and wins them points when they achieve success?

This wasn’t always the case in MLS. But as the league has decided the club game trumps domestic player development much in the same fashion the English Premier League did, the whole landscape has changed. When players like Pat Noonan and Troy Perkins accomplished in their own right here at home have to go to Scandinavia to be compensated fairly for their quality services the warning signs are flashing at an ever faster rate. The bottom line is MLS has made a decision it must live with it: to promote the club game and the welfare of its teams over that of football in general in the United States. Now that may be fine and well: in fact that may be the way to go. I am not entirely sure as to whether or not football/soccer fans in this country would rather see a successful national team program or a top class international league. The two are somewhat mutually exclusive in the near term given the footballing culture and history in this country. This isn’t Italy where Serie A can import top Latin American players while maintaining a high standard for the Azzuri. Besides, when Americans go abroad they are sometime looked down upon and written off when they don’t develop to the standard of the club or country they have moved to. This has happened countless times with top American young talent that went to Europe at an early stage in the players professional development.

I hear English fans lament what could have been in Euro 2004. But let me be quite frank: other leading European Footballing nations such as Germany, Italy and France have had more than one major tournament in the past 18 years where they had a shot to win a trophy. I blame this heavily on the influx of foreign players in the Premier League that have relegated top English players to simply being what we in American Basketball term as “role players” on top clubs. The American clubs system is undergoing a similar influx without the history, culture or quite frankly the understanding of football the English posses. So where does this leave us? Potentially, with a very good league in MLS and a National Team that struggles in CONCACAF going forward. Do we really want this? Obviously MLS, doesn’t bear the entire blame for a potential reversal in fortunes for the national team going forward. Youth Development, training techniques, and technical direction all need to be improved. But MLS needs to do its part to protect, nurture and promote young American starlets and on that count the league is beginning to fall way short.

About Kartik Krishnaiyer

A lifelong lover of soccer, the beautiful game, he served from January 2010 until May 2013 as the Director of Communications and Public Relations for the North American Soccer League (NASL). Raised on the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the old NASL, Krishnaiyer previously hosted the American Soccer Show on the Champions Soccer Radio Network, the Major League Soccer Talk podcast and the EPL Talk Podcast. His soccer writing has been featured by several media outlets including The Guardian and The Telegraph. He is the author of the book Blue With Envy about Manchester City FC.
View all posts by Kartik Krishnaiyer →

14 Responses to MLS Failing in its Mission

  1. dan says:

    Yes, the MLS needs to nurture and promote young american startlets… however, I do agree with the MLS though that with the influx of foreign players (though many are older) can only help the american players develop to a higher level. I choose to look at what the MLS is doing as raising the bar and making the american player perform at a higher level. Yes, some may not make it because they may not get a chance, but many more will succeed and become even more skilled in the long run.

  2. Jeff_Hash says:

    You know, I’m going to write this, and I’m going to regret it. But I’ve heard so much bashing in of one side of the equation that it’s time for someone to call out the other.

    When exactly did the US Soccer Federation obtain a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card? You talked about parallels to England, but there’s one I notice far more than any other: the USSF has become the CONCACAF version of the FA. Accountable to no one and never held responsible for falling asleep on the job.

    You glossed over it at the end, but what is MLS suppose to do when it comes to youth or coach development? That falls under the handling of a national federation the last I checked. And yet, the USSF failed to do anything to exert control on this matter. Instead, we have a fractured system of any number of teams across any number of leagues without a governing body to check and see if the job is being done right. The USSF only launched a standardizing method (the US Development Academy) in October 2007. This should have been around years ago. Why wasn’t it?

    Furthermore, if the problem is MLS, then why doesn’t the USSF look elsewhere to accomplish that mission? The USL has more clubs and more spots to fill by far between the PDL and it’s 2 divisions. But I haven’t seen USSF do one thing that might suggest they give one single care about this league. The USL is far closer to the grassroots of the game in this country than MLS, but they get treated as afterthoughts.

    And what about Toronto FC? Should their responsiblity be towards development of the game in Canada, where they are from? In that case, does that betray the so-called mission of MLS? From what I see here, it would seem to. So should they do nothing to help the game among the fanbase that it needs to count on most?

    Major League Soccer’s business is their league. Without it, they are nothing. So of course that is going to be the first priority. Well, how do they that? By providing the best entertainment they can to it’s current fanbase and provide a game which attracts a future one. And that means bringing in the players who will achieve that goal. I notice you talk a lot about enjoying the Latin style of the game in MLS, but where do you think that comes from? It comes from foreign players. It comes from Argentina, Brazil and Colombia The American development program hasn’t come far enough to emulate that, again a problem with the USSF.

    Just like it’s time for the EPL to stop being the boogeyman when it comes to the failures of the FA, MLS needs to stop being the boogeyman for the failures of the USSF. There’s plenty of blame to go around. It’s time to start sharing it properly.

  3. Kartik says:

    Good points Jeffy. We just have a different perspective on the purpose of the league, given the original purpose 12 years ago. But the league has evolved and your suggestions for the USL and PDL are excellent!

  4. joejoejoe says:

    Maybe the 45% cap on foreign players should be couple with a rule that says 45% of wages have to be paid to US players and the salary slots abandoned.

  5. bandeeto says:

    On one hand I can see the higher % of foreign talent muscle out young americas for the attacking and skill positions. This could be detrimental to our national team in the short term (next 5-10 years or so). On the other, the USA has always been a melting pot… for everything. I don’t see why soccer should be any different. In the end, I believe high quality soccer is better than low, even if some young american has to ride the bench and get schooled in practice for a couple of years. The problem arrives when that promising young player gets payed well below the poverty level while others his age are getting payed more for doing less. Even worse, other footballers are getting payed MUCH more for doing the same thing in the same country. That is de-motivating. It’s no wonder more and more youngsters are leaving our shores. This problem can be fixed though, and it is not due to the number of foreign players in MLS.

  6. bandeeto says:

    I ment same thing in a DIFFERENT country.

  7. Paul says:

    When exactly was MLS led by American stars? When you think of the early days you think of Valderamma, Etcheverry, Nowak.

    It seems that the American stars that MLS produces have always tended to leave for Europe (McBride, Friedel, Dempsey) with the big exception being Donovan.

  8. Rob C says:

    I’d have to disagree with most of what was said in the original article and in the comments as well. Having watched the youth national teams (U-16 Nike Friendles, U-20 World Cup, U-23 olympic qualifying), I think the American game is in rather good shape in terms of international play. The U-17s were EXTREMELY impressive. They played wonderful attacking soccer and had several players with great skill on the ball. The Under-20s were fabulous at last summer’s world cup, from Freddy Adu and Jozy Altidore to Sal Zizzo and Michael Bradley. And look, 3 of those 4 players spent quite a bit of time in MLS and Jozy is still there. The Under-23s have struggled so far in Olympic qualifying, but I think Peter Nowak is to blame for questionable tactics more than anything else.

    I think that young American players deserve their shot in MLS, but they have to earn it by beating out foreign players for a spot on the team. This competition, as well as better in-game competition, makes the American player better. If they can’t get a spot on an MLS squad, do you really want them suiting up for the National Team?

    Yes, low salaries are a big issue, but this will be addressed after the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires at the end of 2009. The cap will be raised and smart organizations will pay higher prices not only for foreign talent, but for good American talent as well. I think when the cap increases, domestic players will stop heading for Scandinavian leagues, which are on-par with MLS in terms of quality, and will stay at home.

  9. srichens says:

    you lost me in the third sentence — the inital aim of MLS was to make money for its investors.

    A viable first division in the United States will certainly (and has already) create new opportunities for American players.

  10. davedenholm says:

    I couldn’t disagree more with my co-host on this article. Kartik, virtually all American player WORTH developing have developed in recent years in MLS.

    The list is too long to write down. Now, if you want to write about how coaching in MLS needs to improve, then I’ll co-author.

    For now, this article is dead wrong.

  11. Pingback: This Is American Soccer, US Soccer, MNT, WNT, and MLS » Blog Archive » the barometer

  12. tps says:

    Poor use of statistics (comparing 22 percent of players in 1996 to 45 percent of SENIOR ROSTER players in 2008, ignoring the developmental slots), poor use of the English language (four errors in the first paragraph alone and lots of awkward writing), logical lapses and an overall whining tone — sorry, I can’t take this seriously.

  13. Joe says:

    Actually the article says senior roster.

    This firestorm is typical of the lack of critical thinking apologists for this league apply to everything league related. Kartik, you surprise me. This is the best work you’ve done but the visceral reaction on here demonstrates why your writing is often so generic and lacking in insight.

    If you try and provoke any sort of critical thinking this is what happens, and it is very very sad.

  14. Thomas says:

    This is a well thought out and argued piece. While some errors may be prevelent in reasoning, the case is argued well. However, the USSF must bear equal if not more responsiblity for the failures of the national team.

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