As Landon Donovan settles into the Everton, Michael Bradley becomes even more a fixture at the Bundesliga, and Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark leave the US and take big career risks to fight for a position on European teams, many American fans are bemoaning the fate of the MLS. What if all our stars go to Europe? What if the MLS becomes just a developmental league for European teams?
It may be counter-intuitive, and perhaps a little heretical, but soccer in America, and MLS in particular, can thrive as an exporter of quality domestic talent.
As I have said before, there are plenty of great soccer nations that export all their quality players and yet command a fervent following from their fans. Nearly every great Dutch player plays outside of Holland, and that does not make the Ajax fans walk around bemoaning the state of their league. The majority of the Argentina national team plays in Europe, and the River vs. Boca Super Classico in Buenos Aires makes the Galaxy/Chivas Superclassico look like a garden party. And of course, there is not a single member of the Brazil starting XI who plays for a Brazilian club team (with the possible exception of the newly outcast Robinho), but there are still over 400 teams in the Brazilian Football Confederation.
For the casual US soccer fan, they need to know MLS is not some rinky-dink outfit full of future high-school soccer coaches and European geriatrics. Nothing affirms the quality of our domestic league like watching our players be able to compete in the best leagues of Europe. As Donovan, Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Tim Howard move from MLS, lock down starting XI positions and square off on a weekly basis against the best talents in the world, casual fans begin to accept the product put out by MLS as worthy of their attention and support.
The more talent we export, or more precisely, the more MLS talent is craved in Europe, the more esteem MLS will garner among US fans. As US players head off to Europe, US soccer fans are affirmed in their decision to follow the teams that can create that type of quality. As the US fans learn, through the experiences of our US players, about the culture and atmosphere of European soccer teams, they will want to replicate that atmosphere here with our domestic league.
Most importantly, the success of soccer in America has far more to do with the success of the US National Team than it does Major League Soccer. Do you want to see full MLS stadiums this summer and fall? If the US team has a decent run in South Africa, it will make a MLS ticket one of the hottest tickets in town. For the US to do well in South Africa, its best player must spend a lot of time in Europe playing against the best the world has to offer. I don’t think anyone seriously argues with that (if you do, I have the US/Honduras game from last month featuring a mostly MLS team on my Tivo to show you). Will Donovan, Clark and Holden be better players this summer after their European experiences? There is little doubt they will be.
Sometime in the coming years, the US will hopefully produce a truly world class outfield player – a player who may start in MLS, but will go on to play an important role for one of the great teams of Europe. The moment when some US player takes off their Kansas City Wizards or Columbus Crew uniform and puts on their Real Madrid or Manchester United kit will be one of the great moments in MLS history – the moment when the MLS will have truly arrived as a great league worthy of the casual sports fans’ attention.