Going into the World Cup, a major storyline around the U.S. national team was the number of key players who had left overseas clubs to return to MLS. Facing a logjam in the AS Roma midfield, Michael Bradley accepted a designated player spot with Toronto FC to earn more money and a starter’s spot. Prior to his high-profile arrival was “Captain America” Clint Dempsey’s acquisition by MLS and the Seattle Sounders after a so-so stint at Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League. Before being left off the World Cup roster, Landon Donovan had remained with the Los Angeles Galaxy a few years back rather than try his luck one more time in Europe. Other players like Maurice Edu who were on the fringe of the national team and needing playing time in front of U.S. Soccer officials, arranged moves back to MLS franchises.
Every time a “name” U.S. national team player came back, it revived the debate over the best way for national teamers to earn their way onto the squad. While the arguments are nuanced, they could be somewhat condensed into two camps – MLS gives these players starters’ minutes in a competitive league versus these players need to try and earn playing time in more competitive leagues overseas. Some of the hottest debates in U.S. soccer circles revolve around these issues and the long-term impact on U.S. soccer.
Yet despite mixed results in the World Cup, some of the United States’ up-and-coming or support players are attracting attention from European clubs. Based on published reports, DeAndre Yedlin is on his way to American-owned club Roma while Matt Besler has said in recent interviews that he is open to a move abroad. Even older players like Kyle Beckerman (age 32) are being mentioned as possible overseas targets by media that have a more neutral view of these moves.
It are these kinds of moves made by players that are not the team’s “stars” that may ultimately have the greatest impact on the future of the national team if proven successful. While every World Cup cycle “surprise” players become subjects of transfer frenzy (see James Rodriguez), the Yedlins and Beslers of this team getting an opportunity to prove themselves overseas may ultimately have a bigger impact than Bradley and Dempsey going the other way.
I think we ultimately can look at Roger Espinoza as a major “help” in this regard. While European leagues have always poached MLS players who have shown promise, Espinoza’s career path is very similar to a Matt Besler (not coincidentally they both played together at Sporting Kansas City). While a Honduran international, Espinoza became one of the best midfielders in MLS before his play in the 2012 Olympics inspired Wigan to take a chance on signing him straight from MLS. While he has not been a “game changer” for that club, he has played well and shows that U.S. college-trained players from MLS 3.0 can contribute in the European game.
While the temptation may be to try and hold on to now-more valuable and recognizable players like Yedlin in the U.S., the USSF would be wise to help facilitate moves that would be advantageous to these players. An example of why can be found in the 2006 USA World Cup squad, where a Furman graduate playing for the New England Revolution made a name for himself with his solid play in that World Cup. Clint Dempsey was shopped and eventually signed with Fulham, where he would have some spectacular moments on the way to being molded into the player he is today.
We want our new American stars, those now known to the casual soccer fan, to stay in MLS and help the league grow. However, for the long-term good of the sport in this country, it’s more important to help them move away when the time is right than to fight established names when they want to return.