Much has been made on this site and others about Bob Bradley reluctance to call in MLS based players (except those he is 100% comfortable with) for qualifiers, while continuing to call in footballers from European Leagues that some US fans believe are of lesser quality. For example, no objective analyst of the game would choose Danny Califf or Jay DeMerit over Jimmy Conrad, Chad Marshall or Michael Parkhurst (when he played in MLS) based on club form, nor would they pick Eddie Johnson ahead of Kenny Cooper, nor would they choose Benny Feilhaber over Kyle Beckerman or Davy Arnaud based on the same criteria.
Bradley seems to be set on using January friendlies or lesser occasions, like perhaps this summer’s Gold Cup which doesn’t yield an automatic both to the next Confederations Cup as the opportunity to call in MLS based players. Coach Bradley’s selection for the El Salvador match last month had the fewest MLS based players for a US qualifier since MLS began play in 1996. During Bradley’s tenure the influence of MLS based players has continued to decline at a rapid rate.
During Bruce Arena’s tenure, when successful MLS based players moved abroad, the manager gave younger MLS based players who were on good form in the league a run out in friendlies and qualifiers. Bradley on the other hand seems to be set on a core of players who with only limited exceptions either play in Europe currently, or have played in Europe in the past.
As I discussed on the Mad about Futbol Podcast after the last set of World Cup Qualifiers, MLS now has an established reputation of not being a strong enough league to keep potential internationals sharp. The example used was Colombia, that in the late 1990s, multiple Colombian managers had no problem selecting players active in MLS for World Cup qualifiers and the Copa America.
It wasn’t just Carlos Valderrama either that was being considered. The likes of Oscar Parreja, Antony DeAvila, and Alex Comas continued to be considered for selection even after coming to MLS. But these days Juan Toja (when in MLS), Juan Pablo Angel and Freddy Montero did not get seriously considered while in MLS. In presence of several more knowledgeable analysts of Colombian Football on the show than myself, the consensus was that MLS is less reputable in South America than it was ten years ago.
Much of the reputation of MLS was based around the success of one club, DC United in international tournaments. Now, MLS looks weak when teams are forced to play top clubs from other nations in the Americas, and thus the league has seen a decline in its reputation for developing and honing potential internationals.
No question exists that MLS still has a healthy does of full internationals that play in CONCACAF. But for that matter, USL lost a bunch of players to World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF last year also, and USL is a second division. Generally lesser footballing nations will pick players who play their club football in MLS or USL for internationals, but more established football nations have chosen to skip entirely any MLS based player, with the very notable exception of David Beckham.
Whether MLS is a better league now than ten years ago is certainly debatable. But what is not debatable is that the perception of the league hasn’t grown abroad at the same rate as the perception of the quality of American footballers. European clubs are now more willing than ever to take chances on American kids coming right out of high school and college than ever before, yet continue to low ball transfer fees and the value of any MLS based player.
The truth is that several MLS based players are probably better than their European counterparts for the US team. I’d personally take Jimmy Conrad over Carlos Bocanegra, Danny Califf or Jay DeMerit. I believe Davy Arnaud, with one ten minute appearance for the Nats in his career is probably better than Benny Feilhaber and is close in a caliber when healthy to Clint Dempsey. Taylor Twellman is, when healthy hands down the best American forward that is available for National Team selection. Yet he has not been afforded the chances Eddie Johnson has gotten from Bradley since moving to England. Looking at USL, I’d be more comfortable with Bill Gaudette in goal than Luis Robles or Troy Perkins.
But Bradley perhaps like many international managers is concerned about several factors in MLS which make outstanding play in the league less conducive to key qualifiers away from home and matches against better opposition, than less stellar play in Europe. These factors include a lack of intimidating road venues, training routines that are not up to international standards, the lack of one touch, pass and go football in MLS which Bradley clearly wants the US to play, and the small number of truly meaningful games in MLS.
Bradley having managed in MLS himself for nine seasons (and two additional as an assistant) seems to have determined he’ll select Jay Demerit or Danny Califf who have to sharp every day in training because they may lose their job over Jimmy Conrad who not only would start for every MLS team, but would be a superstar regardless of who he plays for in the league. Chad Marshall has improved dramatically as a player yet still received far more looks from Bruce Arena when a young prospect then by Bradley after he’s been firmly established as a top class player.
Bradley also appears to believe also that attacking players from MLS besides the young Sacha Kljestan, the hard working Brian Ching and the indispensable Landon Donovan don’t fit his attacking philosophy. Truthfully, I completely understand this and see similarities in Bradley’s tactics to the Dutch “total football” which uses space and the use of players who can fill multiple roles on the pitch as a determination of whom and how to play. Bradley needs a team that is ready to play at the highest international level, not a group of players whose league play has not kept them sharp enough to compete at the highest level.
This having been said, MLS based players are generally fresher and more motivated to perform when given the chance for the National Team. Many European based players have appeared gassed when called into National Team camp and have given half an effort when wearing the shirt. Clint Dempsey and DaMarcus Beasley looked completely unserviceable after a run of fixtures last season for Fulham and Rangers respectively. While MLS fans complain about fixture congestion and attribute the league’s colossal failures in CONCACAF to this, no MLS player has ever faced the calender DaMarcus Beasley faced late last season with Rangers.
The conclusion is that Bob Bradley may be a “eurosnob” but his player selection is not without reason. Coach Bradley, unlike Coach Arena seems to keep tabs on eligible US players regardless of where they travel, and has implemented a fairly logical standard for his side. You can agree or disagree with his player selections, but over the course of two plus years on the job his preferences are clear and players who want to play for the national team, a clear standard has been established.
Unlike under Arena, whose tactics changed constantly and who capped a remarkable number of average MLS based players even leading up to World Cups, Bradley is more serious about simulating the World Cup in friendlies and key qualifiers and thus has not changed his squad selection nearly as often as Arena did. Bradley’s tactics and selections can be debated, but their is little debate neccesary about what he wants to see from the US team.