In Roger Bennett’s latest offering on ESPNFC.com, Alexi Lalas has once again said some incendiary things about soccer in the United States. In some cases Lalas is on the mark, but as is his custom, he overreaches and defeats his argument by going too far.
For starters, this article was written with the USA’s Gold Cup triumph as a point of reference. Consider that in the tournament Mexico’s most experienced player boasted 11 national team caps coming into the competition whereas the United States had two players with over 100 caps. While Mexico did not have a single player who had previously made a World Cup squad, the cumulative total of the World Cup squads made by the US team was 12, so while we can argue each major nation fielded something less than an “A” team, the USA team was far closer to being an “A” team than Mexico’s.
Let’s go quote by quote and I’ll share my thoughts.
“MLS was born the bastard child of self-loathing and self-doubt. We are apologetic to a fault when it comes to our league. The self-loathing is legendary and in many ways a hindrance. But it’s borne of a culture that always told us we could never measure up to the rest of the world when it came to soccer.”
On this, Lalas is correct. Too many soccer fans in America are dismissive of Major League Soccer’s quality on the pitch without actually evaluating the product objectively. From pure quality on the pitch among starting XIs, MLS is a more balanced league than some of the top leagues in Europe. And generally, top sides can measure up to just about any team in a major European league. However, the depth is just not there, and it is very difficult to see a MLS team constrained by rules to make the league hyper-competitive actually competing over the course of a season in a top European league. But in terms of actually quality, the difference between the starting XI for let’s say Norwich City and FC Dallas isn’t that dramatically different. But the Canaries bench is much deeper and filled with far more quality.
Many Premier League fans thumb their noses at MLS without really knowing, and on that score Lalas certainly has a valid point. By the way, the Premier League itself isn’t necessarily the top league in the world any longer, as results in Europe prove. The level of defensive shape and organization, as well as the frequent bad giveaways and defensive errors when compared to the other three top leagues in Europe all make the Premier League’s quality less questionable. The era when the Premier League was consistently putting two or three teams in the UEFA Champions League semifinals (2005 to 2009) is long gone.
Americans are “mesmerized by foreigners.”
Yes, and that is specifically the fault of Major League Soccer who repeatedly have increased the number of foreign players allowed on squads and have used foreign players as marketing tools, and have also until very recently been unwilling to pay as much money to retain good American talent in the league, which has resulted in them buying washed up foreign talent from second-tier European and South American leagues. Additionally, top US men’s national team players have complained in the past that MLS was unwilling to give them the type of top dollar salaries that they offered foreigners. So Lalas is correct, but don’t blame the soccer watching public in this country. Blame Major League Soccer.
“The league has a long history of foreign imports, from Lothar Matthaus to Rafa Marquez, who have not adapted despite their résumés because the level is higher than they anticipate here. It is a complete fallacy you have to go to Europe to be a better player. It may have helped Michael Bradley, but I don’t believe Landon Donovan’s growth and potential was stunted by staying in MLS.”
This is where Lalas’ argument really falls apart. Matthaus was 39 when he came to MLS and was clearly looking for a paid holiday after a great career in Germany and Italy. Marquez was already being phased out at Barcelona and was signed more as a marketing tool for Red Bull than a serious footballer. Though I have seen many players come from the British Isles and not acclimate, I think much of that has to do with the difficulty of travel in the States when compared to England, and also the quality of management.