Kljestan is one of four MLS players on the current US squad/AP Photo
Some may blame the MLS playoff race. Others may simply claim Bob Bradley is biased towards players playing their club football in Europe. What is undeniable is that MLS has put only four squad players on this training camp roster for the United States. That’s an all time low for a qualifier since MLS began. By comparison MLS boasted 17 of 23 squad members in 1998 World Cup. However, Bradley’s squads have consistently included the same players and several of them have moved from MLS to Europe during his tenure, meaning even if the MLS playoff race wasn’t ongoing at this time perhaps only one or two more MLS based players would be in the squad. Also the inclusion of Jose Francisco Torres, a player too skilled to ever waste his time in MLS is a further sign that the US talent level is moving beyond what is a lower tier professional league in the world football.
For all the hype and flair surrounding MLS’ recent foreign signings its overall commitment to developing American players has declined the last few years. The years 2001 through 2005 are considered lean years in MLS history from a financial standpoint but that was a golden period for the league in the sense that it was committed to building the domestic product with domestic players, many young, many getting a taste of first team, first division football which propelled them forward in their careers. The truth be told the emphasis on MLS rosters towards American players in that era may have owed itself to the leagues then precarious financial situation.
MLS has recently been exposed for its poor quality: games are often unwatchable and the second division in the United States, USL-1 used a backdoor route to place two teams in the CONCACAF Champions League: until this year continental competitions were not open to USL sides partly due to MLS’ insistence. In the Champions League USL-1 sides facing greater fixture congestion and travel demands on a lower payroll than any MLS team have vastly outperformed the MLS contingent. Of the four MLS sides that qualified for the event only the remarkable Houston Dynamo and their first class manager Dom Kinnear have managed to even put up a fight: ironically the same two teams from the region that knocked out MLS sides Chivas USA and New England in the qualifying round have since been beaten by the two participating USL-1 sides.
MLS did some very good work in player development between 2001 and 2005: good work which currently benefits the US team. Prior to that MLS produced in my opinion better football from 1996 to 2000 than it currently does. The rules were Americanized and odd, as were the funky looking NBA influenced kits, but if you could separate that and focus on the football, it really was surprisingly good for a brand new league. But currently, MLS is less compelling than ever: fewer and fewer American national team players call the league home, more American youngsters like Charlie Davies, Andrew Jacobson, and Sal Zizzo are skipping MLS entirely and plying their trade in more competitive football atmospheres and the league seems to be operating in more of a vacuum than ever. The league deemphasizes the established regional championship which holds with a ticket to the club world cup, something that could help MLS sagging international credibility (just this morning the Independent a fair minded British daily compared the top of MLS to bottom of the second flight Championship in the England: I believe Houston could play in the Premier League but for the rest of MLS that is a fair comparison.) in favor of a contrived three week long event, Superliga which MLS controls the revenues from.
We’ve discussed MLS’ problems and lack of quality before on this site. I’m not sure I want to rehash everything other than encouraging new readers to look at the archives going back to early this season and to observe my displeasure as a thirteen year fan of the league. But I do think it is telling that Bob Bradley who coached eleven seasons in MLS as head man and an assistant to Bruce Arena seems to value club form in Europe and Mexico over club form in MLS when making his selections. “in form” European based players like Charlie Davies while ignoring for many months in form MLS players like Chad Marshall and Kenny Cooper. (Davies is virtually the only American “in form” currently in an average to above average European first division: yet Bradley relies on European based players to form the backbone of his squad.)
As the United States national team continues to push forward and MLS becomes more concerned about making money, expansion and meaningless friendlies/Superliga, the backbone of the US team will continue to be players based in Europe and Mexico. MLS is becoming more and more of a retirement home for foreign players and select American stars like Brian McBride and Eddie Lewis. It is a league that has been shown up the second division that covers the same are in continental competition, and is a league whose insulting salary scale has pushed mid level American players like Clarence Goodson, Brian West and Hunter Freeman to seek fair pay for their services abroad. Bob Bradley knows this and as the US manager he has a responsibility to keep ahead of the curve with his national team and based on his last several squads he’s moving past MLS other than some very precious exception.