The news that Michael Bradley is likely to sign with Toronto FC of Major League Soccer was met with cheers from many fans of MLS while being greeted with snickers from Americans who are inclined towards the European game.
While the popularity of the European game has grown in the US, fewer and fewer top US national team players are playing in Europe. Once upon a time this wasn’t the case, and we thought that by 2014 we would see several Americans playing not only at AS Roma but at the biggest clubs in the world.
Ten years ago, Tim Howard joined Manchester United, a club that at the time had two American youngsters on its books, Jonathan Spector and Kenny Cooper. Claudio Reyna had just joined Manchester City after having previously played for Wolfsburg, Rangers and Sunderland, while John O’Brien was a regular for Ajax. Youngsters Frankie Simek at Arsenal and Zac Whitbread at Liverpool looked to be the next great American defenders.
Meanwhile, Landon Donovan was still on Leverkusen’s books and Taylor Twellman had come back from 1860 Munich a much more complete and professional player than before he left. Frankie Hejduk’s time at Leverkusen forged him into being a mainstay with incredible versatility for the US team.
At that time, very few top American players were in MLS. That was because the league did not value American players as marketing tools. And while MLS had consistently went and signed big name foreign players even before the DP rule, they underpaid Americans. In the mid 2000s, we saw a mass exodus of mid-level MLS players, many of whom were not even in the national team picture, to second and third-tier European leagues. By the time the 2010 World Cup rolled around, only a handful of players that were in serious consideration to make the final 23 man squad were in Major League Soccer.
At the time, I criticized MLS for not having a commitment to American players and for paying mid-level foreigners more money than high-level Americans. In retrospect, I wish I had not said those things because even though I felt I was right, and others were mirroring my commentary, the change in MLS’s policy we advocated has led to the best American players leaving Europe.
I encouraged friends of mine who worked in MLS to raise the issue and stop discriminating against Americans. But now with Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley both in Major League Soccer with a World Cup looming, I thoroughly regret my prior views.
It has been mentioned to me in the last 18 hours that Michael Bradley is not guaranteed games at AS Roma but would be in Toronto. But what Bradley was guaranteed, if he had stayed with the Serie A giants, was training each and every day with the likes of Daniele De Rossi, Miralem Pjanić and Francesco Totti. To me, it’s more important to prepare a star player for what awaits in Brazil instead of getting games in a league that lacks competitiveness.
Flying the flag in top European leagues and at top European clubs is important to the development of the American soccer ethos. Unfortunately while domestic interest in the game has grown exponentially, we have seen more players abandon the opportunities abroad for a big pay day and an easier life in MLS. On one hand that is great for the league as a business, but it is regrettable for the development of American soccer as a world power.
Editor’s note: For the latest MLS opinion, analysis and news, visit the MLS page.