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US Collapses: Is MLS to Blame?


p1 adu 201x300 US Collapses: Is MLS to Blame?

Freddy Adu did not develop well in MLS

We’re constantly hammered with one side of the coin including Sunday at the conclusion of the US-Netherlands match on NBC by Marcelo Balboa: we hear constantly that Major League Soccer is responsible for the US being more competitive in major international tournaments. This theory is so often repeated it has become gospel for many fans of the beautiful game in this country. But is this theory in fact accurate or does their exist another perhaps less pleasant reality? Today I am going to present the other side of this debate, the one which never gets aired in the United States.

Watching Stuart Holden’s repeated mistakes at the end of the US-Netherlands match reminded me how poorly MLS prepares players for major international matches. The giveaways by an otherwise brilliant Sacha Kljestan and the lack of clock management by the US side in general both against Japan and Holland to me showed that unlike the young players in the J-League and the Erevidese, players in MLS never face the kind of intensity and urgency that you face in big international matches. Even the best MLS’ coaches like Dom Kinnear and Steve Nicol cannot simulate situations for their players like the end of both games because they do not exist in Major League Soccer.

Major League Soccer is on one hand very under rated and on another hand highly over rated. From a standpoint of individual players who make up the squads, MLS is under appreciated on the world stage. MLS has several sides that could, based on their players compete in top league in Europe: not compete to win the league but certainly compete to avoid relegation. Contrary to what is bandied about on some other websites, MLS has a few teams that I certainly believe would avoid relegation in the English Premier League. But on another hand MLS is over rated. I watch a lot of football, including during the summer matches from various leagues in Latin America. In every single league I watch, the game is played with more passion and urgency than MLS. This includes so called inferior leagues from the CONCACAF region. In addition, in MLS I see far more bad giveaways late in matches than in any other league I watch. MLS’ managers do not emphasize possession and ball control as much as they should and when those players form the core of your national team you end up with disasters like Sunday’s match. MLS teams and matches do feature more individual flair and skill than just about every Latin American league save Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, however.

Now we also must historically look at the US program to properly debate this subject. A revisionism has developed that the United States was not successful before the advent of MLS. This is patently false. The best result arguably ever for a US squad in a major competition was the semifinal run at Copa America 1995, when none of the US players were in MLS (which began play the following year) and all of them were fighting for playing time in Europe or Mexico. The United States continued to compete well on the international stage but as the players who made the core of that 1995 Copa team drifted back home to MLS, their competitiveness was robbed and we were rewarded with the infamous 1998 World Cup in France.

Fast forward to 2002. Half the core of the US National Team has left MLS and headed to destinations such as Germany and Holland to pursue their club careers. US Soccer has founded a national academy in Bradenton, FL whose first graduating class helped take the United States to the semifinals of the 1999 U-17 World Cup. The best player from that inaugural class, Landon Donovan helped lead the US to the semifinals of the 2000 Olympic Football tournament in Sydney and then became the best young player at World Cup 2002. In that World Cup, the United States made the quarterfinals. MLS got much of the credit as it always does when the US plays well, but what followed the next few years demonstrates why MLS perhaps cannot be trusted with America’s best young talents.

One by one top talents emerged from the Bradenton Academy and signed with MLS: Santino Quaranta, Eddie Johnson, Justin Mapp, Freddy Adu, Danny Szetela, Eddie Gaven, Mike Magee, Chad Marshall, Tim Ward and Quavas Kirk among others. Of the above list none, and I repeat none have reached their full potential sitting in MLS. The cases of Gaven, Quaranta, Marshall and Mapp are particularly frustrating as each of these players seemed to posses so much talent playing for US U-17 teams only to develop bad tendencies and have their game essentially neutered once arriving in MLS. Gaven for instance went from being a dangerous attacking midfielder whose on the ball skill was outstanding for a 17 year old to being hardly serviceable by the time he was 20. He’s bounced back this season but the damage has been done it appears to his game. Chances are Gaven will never be the player we expected him to be. Quaratana as as been well documented has had other off the pitch problems, but no question exists that his potential was largely unrealized in MLS, except for a brief stint when Peter Nowak coached DC United. Chad Marshall entered MLS in 2004 as a lock for the US National Team and helped lead Columbus to a great year. He displayed the same tendencies in MLS that he did with the US U-17 and U-20 teams for which he excelled. Yet much like Gaven and Quaranta as time went on his skills seemed untapped and his game grew unfocused and stale. Now he is simply an average and injury prone MLS player. Justin Mapp is too a serviceable MLS left sided player. But at the U-17 level and coming out of Bradenton he appeared to be on a level higher than DaMarcus Beasley or Bobby Convey was at the same age. Mapp has developed, but not as quickly as many hoped or into the player most hoped. He is now on the fringes of the US player pool. The cases of players Danny Szetela who had played only 18 minutes in MLS during the 2007 seasons before impressing foreign scouts at the 2007 U-20 World Cup and Freddy Adu whose game never really improved in his three plus MLS seasons have also been well documented. The fact that Adu rapidly improved as a player while playing sparingly for less than a season in Portugal after failing to develop at all in MLS while playing regularly speaks volumes as to MLS’ ineffectiveness in developing certain star players. The 2006 World Cup debacle for the US with arguably the most talented side the US had ever taken to a major competition spoke volumes as to how the lack of intensity and player development in MLS had undermined the competitiveness of the US program.

While we keep patting ourselves on the back for the perceived good work of Major League Soccer, nobody seems to want to explain why the United States gets progressively less competitive at every age level of FIFA Competitions. Why is the US usually among the best teams in the world at the U-17 and U-20 levels going back to the mid 1990s, yet less competitive at the U-23 level and hardly competitive on the world stage at the full international level?

What is the solution to this malaise? MLS isn’t going to become more competitive overnight since the passion of the fans and the intensity of rivalries doesn’t exists in this league on the level it does in leagues with admittedly inferior talent. MLS unlike those leagues can never simulate the passion nor the intensity of international football at the highest level. It’s frustrating because the current group of American players competiting in the Olympics could be the third most talented squad in the competition behind Brazil and Argentina. But they have the negative tendencies that they learn at the club level drilled into them which is why they are notoriously slow starters and haven’t played a complete match yet in the tournament. The performances are getting better because the more time they spend with Peter Nowak and Lubos Kubik two accomplished internationals who know what these sorts of competitions are about, their individual brilliance and confidence begins to emerge. But weening international talents completely off of bad habits and negative tendencies learned in MLS is almost impossible. Until MLS becomes more committed to the American player and puts more faith in the American player rather than importing washed up foreign players to replace young American ones, the United States will never reach its full potential as a football playing nation. At a time when the talent level in the United States is reaching its highest level ever, Major League Soccer has a role to play in this growth. But MLS seems committed to a different course entirely, so do not be surprised if the frustrating results for the United States continue.

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 →

17 Responses to US Collapses: Is MLS to Blame?

  1. Pingback: Soccer News Aggregator » US Collapses: Is MLS to Blame?

  2. Mark says:

    Good read, thanks.

  3. J Harris says:

    A good read for sure. Some valid points here

  4. Mark says:

    Good read, thanks.

  5. J Harris says:

    A good read for sure. Some valid points here

  6. Joe L says:

    Talk about one side of the coin. Adu and Bradley, having been in Europe for quite some time, made two of the most naive, egregious, and costly mistakes in that match. Take a step off of your soapbox, dude.

  7. Max says:

    Until we send our U-20 kids over the South America or Europe for a year to emerse themselves in a footballing culture this will keep happening. Ever hear of no end in sight?

  8. Joe L says:

    Talk about one side of the coin. Adu and Bradley, having been in Europe for quite some time, made two of the most naive, egregious, and costly mistakes in that match. Take a step off of your soapbox, dude.

  9. Max says:

    Until we send our U-20 kids over the South America or Europe for a year to emerse themselves in a footballing culture this will keep happening. Ever hear of no end in sight?

  10. Joe L says:

    Let's add Michael Orozco to the list of NON-MLS players committing infantile mistakes that cost the US the tournament. Nice try on the article though. Really.

  11. Joe L says:

    Let’s add Michael Orozco to the list of NON-MLS players committing infantile mistakes that cost the US the tournament. Nice try on the article though. Really.

  12. evegoe says:

    Player development is like a flop of texas hold 'em… it's easy to look at the flop see what could happen and maybe you can even compute the odds, but you can't be certain how it'll end up at the end.

    I think you might be onto something about how the MLS lacks the emphasis on possession and individual ball skills, but to make an argument that the MLS is treading on the success of Sam's Army is a stretch. The opportunity to play professionally has expanded the number of players who have the opportunity to develop. Even Portugal's golden generation of stars couldn't deliver in the big tournaments–they had to wait for the second generation.

  13. evegoe says:

    Player development is like a flop of texas hold ‘em… it’s easy to look at the flop see what could happen and maybe you can even compute the odds, but you can’t be certain how it’ll end up at the end.

    I think you might be onto something about how the MLS lacks the emphasis on possession and individual ball skills, but to make an argument that the MLS is treading on the success of Sam’s Army is a stretch. The opportunity to play professionally has expanded the number of players who have the opportunity to develop. Even Portugal’s golden generation of stars couldn’t deliver in the big tournaments–they had to wait for the second generation.

  14. Ned says:

    The MLS may have stunk up a few careers, but going abroad has been a disaster for some young players. Kamani Hill? Lee Nguyen? Robbie Rogers – who only found his feet when he came back home (even if he still had a poor showing at the Olympics)? Eddie Johnson looks doomed for that road too (though he may never have been good enough). There's a lot more reward in going abroad, but a whole lot of risk as well.

    I think that the case of Benny Feilhaber sums up the issue of playing abroad for US players. He rose well at Hamburg, getting some Champions League appearances and settling into the US lineup; his high point came with a beautiful volley at the 2007 Gold Cup. So, in that case, playing abroad worked well for him. But then he made a disastrous career move in going to Derby County. Now, he's even considering moving to Maccabi Tel Aviv to get first team football, and, meanwhile, he's lost his place in the US team. In that case, playing abroad hurt.

  15. Ned says:

    The MLS may have stunk up a few careers, but going abroad has been a disaster for some young players. Kamani Hill? Lee Nguyen? Robbie Rogers – who only found his feet when he came back home (even if he still had a poor showing at the Olympics)? Eddie Johnson looks doomed for that road too (though he may never have been good enough). There’s a lot more reward in going abroad, but a whole lot of risk as well.

    I think that the case of Benny Feilhaber sums up the issue of playing abroad for US players. He rose well at Hamburg, getting some Champions League appearances and settling into the US lineup; his high point came with a beautiful volley at the 2007 Gold Cup. So, in that case, playing abroad worked well for him. But then he made a disastrous career move in going to Derby County. Now, he’s even considering moving to Maccabi Tel Aviv to get first team football, and, meanwhile, he’s lost his place in the US team. In that case, playing abroad hurt.

  16. bocia says:

    i think more to blame are obvious holes in us youth development. here (in us) everybody plays, but at a lesser level than overseas. we have talent, but more “late bloomers” because they don't get scooped up at age 12 by major clubs like overseas. it'll take time, but our huge numbers will compensate as youth development itself gets developed… eventually.

  17. bocia says:

    i think more to blame are obvious holes in us youth development. here (in us) everybody plays, but at a lesser level than overseas. we have talent, but more “late bloomers” because they don’t get scooped up at age 12 by major clubs like overseas. it’ll take time, but our huge numbers will compensate as youth development itself gets developed… eventually.

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