An easy, somewhat lazy narrative has developed through the years that Major League Soccer has helped the United States Men’s National Team grow. While this is true from a pure standpoint of quality of squad depth, the league has from my perspective not helped develop the very top players.
Before MLS launched in 1996, the USA reached one of the highest water marks in terms of success at Copa America 1995. The famous 3-0 win over Argentina, perhaps the best performance for the United States ever in a competitive match in the modern era, occurred on foreign soil, in Uruguay. At the time every US player was based in a league outside the United States. While the squad lacked depth, it had more technical players and arguably more tactically-aware players than the current US squad.
The growth of Major League Soccer has been fantastic for building the business of soccer in the United States. It has grown the club game and developed a real soccer culture in this country. MLS has proven to be springboard for the runaway success of the Barclays Premier League and other international leagues in the United States market.
The business of soccer has never been bigger or better in this country. It is possible for people to make a decent living, living entirely off of this sport. That was not the case before Major League Soccer came into existence. From a business standpoint, it is one of the top leagues on the planet. It’s well run, well marketed and — contrary to the views of some critics — extremely well supported.
But if you separate the business and culture of US soccer from the development of national team success, you realize Major League Soccer hasn’t delivered what was hoped. The top American players by-and-large are no more tactically savvy, technical on the ball or creative than they were in 1995. The United States has long been in a holding pattern from a player development standard as the lower leagues remain a political mess.
The US Soccer National Academy in Bradenton, Florida opened in 1999. It originally turned out top players but by and large has been a failure over the course of the past 10 years, producing very few top professionals and even fewer national team prospects. The “pay to play” schemes of American youth soccer did not help in the efforts to develop and identify top talents at a young age. Instead those whose parents could afford to buy their way through the system advanced rapidly. US Soccer’s leadership as well as Major League Soccer understood this was a problem and worked hard to set up a national development academy program as well as MLS club youth academies. But to this point even this more sensible approach has not yielded many top players because one can presume the technical and tactical management is simply not good at a high enough level.
Against the backdrop of stagnant failure, Jurgen Klinsmann was appointed as the Head Coach in July 2011. Inheriting a side full of relatively mediocre players and a youth system whose most recent international results had been nearly disastrous, the German legend sought to revamp the structure entirely. For many years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the USA performed well at the youth international level thanks to the Bradenton Academy and the players familiarity with one another. Most of the players on those youth teams however did not become full national team regulars. In time, the youth teams virtually stopped producing national team caliber players altogether.
Klinsmann’s solution has been to restructure the US system from the bottom up while scouring the globe looking for players eligible to represent the USA. Klinsmann needed to find players who had grown up in a proper youth development system who could represent a stopgap on a decaying national program that was producing fewer and fewer top level players.
Major League Soccer has had a hand in the failure to develop more top level players. The league, through its new academy structure, is trying to address this. But one of the criticisms of the league itself is the failure to evolve stylistically. The league employs many former players as head coaches, largely because of their network of contacts within the country and their knowledge of the salary cap and other peculiar MLS rules. This has inhibited the development technically and tactically of many young American players who come through the domestic system.
All of these factors have contributed to a malaise in the results for the US Men’s National Team. In each of the last four World Cups held outside of Europe, the US has advanced from the Group Stage. But in none of those World Cups has the United States finished with a positive goal difference or advanced beyond the quarterfinals.
In hindsight, that 1995 Copa America run looks like a continued high water mark for American soccer. Jurgen Klinsmann’s goals for the US team are to maintain more possession and to be able to control tempo of matches with greater regularity. But to achieve that, the United States must develop more technical and tactically aware players. Right now Major League Soccer and the US Development system is not accomplishing this. Klinsmann’s short-term results are less important than the long-term changes he hopes to bring to US soccer. Having inherited a set of players who came from a flawed setup, he has valiantly and creatively managed this side. The results may be decent but the problems continue to be deep. Thankfully, unlike after the 2002 and 2010 successes, the United States has a head coach (and now technical director) who has a long-term vision and a long-term plan of how to move this national program forward.