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Why Shipping Michael Bradley and Other US Players From Europe to MLS Harms USMNT Development

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.

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  1. Mikey Smith

    July 20, 2014 at 12:46 am

    Gotta think long term man.. Players in other countries are not by any statistical measures at a greater genetic advantage. Instead, they have more people interested, thus, their soccer population is larger. When American soccer grows, interest grows, population grows, and thus talent, if not now, in the future, grows. And in my opinion it has been doing just that, thanks to the increased interest. How do we keep that interest growing??? By keeping our best players here and eventually getting great players from other countries. Interest drives talent, and talent drives interest. Lastly, never judge a League off of their respective national team’s performance. Ridiculous.

  2. KapUSMC

    January 10, 2014 at 12:42 am

    I think it is probably a case by case basis. The only EPL player with as many goals as Donovan in the last World Cup was Luis Suarez. Where you play club isn’t not an apples to apples in how much international success you will have. I do agree that this trend of the big dollar contracts is detrimental to development, but not for the reasons listed. The issue I see isn’t the top tier players, its the next generation. Currently it seems the new paradigm is the bottom rung of players are straight out of college, then the better salary non-DP contracts are going to international players with top USMNT players and either passing their prime or smaller international stars. I was far more concerned when players like Villareal and Farfan going to Liga MX because they they aren’t getting the development / salary in MLS they should be with the new salary structure.

  3. Andre

    January 9, 2014 at 11:53 pm

    Even if he starts every game for TFC Michael Bradley will show up at camp for the World Cup with less than 10 competitive matches played since New Year’s Day. All the talk of playing time for the world cup rings hollow. This may well be the best move for his career long term, and reports indicate he will be paid better by Toronto than he would have elsewhere, but it is probably not the best way to prepare for Brazil.

    In a broader sense… I think it really is on a case by case basis. Different players do better in different places.

  4. R.O

    January 9, 2014 at 5:27 pm

    I actually have no issues or problems with US players coming back to play in MLS. The issue (and problem) is that MLS itself (play, tactics, style, etc) is below par and not very good.

    That leads to players not achieving their highest potential. Even in Europe, Latin America, Asia, etc players move to other leagues to get better. Improve their game.

    Until the MLS makes a dramatic change in play style and the game, (getting a new commish for one) it will continue to stagnate being a chaotic game without the chance to be a top league even in 25 years (contrary to what MLS commish wants and believes).

    Also, MLS stars don’t have to compet for their place on the squad in MLS squads, which leads to complacency and mediocrity for the game. Without having to compete to keep your place week after week, players have no worries about performance.

    MLS teams don’t train and practice like in other top leagues.

    In the end, the US game will suffer, MLS will be an also ran league and US fans will not be treated to see a US born player who is the “straw that stirs the drink” kind of player.

    The MLS game needs a complete overhaul including coaching methods and mentality, getting youth (college drafting is a joke)and ID’ing players and play style. Until then, if I were lucky enough to be talented to play the game at a top level, I wouldn’t play in MLS. Just my opinion.


    • Unak78

      January 12, 2014 at 10:25 pm

      I agree. Our biggest issues are tactics and technique.

  5. USMNT Fan

    January 9, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    How predictable from this site and this “write.” Soon we will see an article from another “writer” on this garbage anti-American site about how terrible MLS TV ratings are.

    Let me establish some facts.

    Discrimination exists against US players in Europe. It is a FACT. Krishnaiyer’s ramblings about all the Americans in the youth systems of Manchester United and unknown German clubs does not change that fact. NONE of those guys got a shot. Donovan was slaughtered in Germany because he was an American.

    Dempsey is better than anyone Tottenham tried to replace him with. The same for Bradley with Roma and the same for Altidore at Sunderland where he is being made the scapegoat for a TERRIBLE team full of the types of English, Italian and Spanish players this site thinks makes a team good.

    Further, MLS is MORE COMPETITIVE than Italy or England where the same teams exchange the titles every season. Individual games mean more as you are always jockeying for playoff position in a tighter more balanced league. Every mistake is costly.

    MLS is the most competitive league in the world and dare I say most MLS teams would have no problem doing well in the slow paced, non physical Italian league. Our best teams would run circles around them.

    So Bradley is escaping discrimination, while going to a more competitive situation where he will be paid more and start every match.

    Makes sense unless you are an MLS hater like these guys.

    Advice for those who care about American soccer. Do not read this site. We have plenty of outlets on our own including the excellent Soccer Morning show on NASN and SBNation that does not publish this type of crap.

    Christopher Harris, can we count on you to write today how bad MLS TV ratings are? I cannot wait for that dead-horse article with your “analysis.”

    • Jason

      January 9, 2014 at 4:11 pm

      As an avid American Tottenham Supporter, the fact is that Dempsey just wasn’t good enough. The problem with Dempsey, I believe his entire career and perfectly displayed with his time on the USMNT and at Tottenham is that he doesn’t have a position. Clint like many American players does a number of things well but being good at a bunch of things means that you’re going to get outplayed and find it hard to get minutes. Dempsey doesn’t have the pace or crossing ability to play out wide. He doesn’t have the strength or finishing to play up front and he doesn’t have the vision to play in the middle.

      Donovan has chosen to stay in the US – he had the option to play in England.

      Altidore is failing again in England. Altidore is only as good as the service he is given, he won’t create it on his own.

      Bradley – like Dempsey needs to find a position and strength. Is he a CDM, CAM or a deep lying creative CM? I think he can play in any of those positions but again doesn’t excel at any.

      IMO the MLS is on par with Championship level football in England which is 2nd tier. This is not an insult it’s just reality.

  6. Typical

    January 9, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    This site or possibly certain ‘contributors’ are becoming just too predictable. As soon as the Bradley news broke I knew there would be this very article.

    You want to strengthen MLS and get better pay for top American players BUT WAIT if they move from Serie A to MLS they won’t get enough competitive play (OR TRAINING – my God what will they do) that will translate into World Cup success. Stop your flip-flopping and realize if you want MLS to be a top league where American players thrive it has to start somewhere.

    What do you suggest no American ever play in the MLS?

  7. christian

    January 9, 2014 at 11:43 am

    Open the bank vaults. Stop with this salary cap nonsense. Allow us to become like Europe if you want this league to become bigger.

    It will probably take a generation or two for these clubs to develop academies that will keep kids from going to college so we can start churning out talent. We have to get kids to keep playing soccer after 12 and not going into the the other American sports.

    In the meantime show that there is a cash windfall waiting to play here in the states. Money will attract both local and foreign players.

    The big markets bringing in the better players will show off the sport more to people who aren’t paying attention.

    Kudos to Toronto for bringing in a quality American player.

  8. disagree

    January 9, 2014 at 11:33 am

    American players are underated and under appreciated in Europe’s top leagues. As a result, they can struggle to get the playing time they have earned. As an example, Dempsey at Fulham had to re-earn his starting spot every time they changed managers, which was like four time in as many years. Brek Shea goes to Europe and never even makes the bench. The best thing for the USMNT is to have the core of the team playing in the same league as long it is a top league, which it is becoming, and definitely will become if signings like Bradley result in increased TV revenue. When half our players were in Europe and half in MLS it was difficult to get the same core players together for international friendlies. We had a different MNT depending upon which area of the world the game was being played.

    • Unak78

      January 12, 2014 at 10:23 pm

      I agree with part of your statement. But I think that MLS is still far from the level of the Champions League which is really the type of games that prepare the best to compete for international title. Brazil has a very strong league, one that we can only hope to one day equal since it’s full of talented young Brazilians, but even yet Brazil sends it’s top players to Europe to compete with the best.

  9. Pakapala

    January 9, 2014 at 11:26 am

    “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.”

    If that’s your reason for changing your tune, then rest assured that this is great for the US men national team. For you to sit there and claim that sitting on the bench @ Roma and training with the squad is better than playing in a competitive game in MLS is asinine; any player knows the difference between a real game and training, and thank goodness Bradley understands that.

    • Jamieru

      January 9, 2014 at 12:07 pm

      Yes, but the argument shouldn’t be ‘this (Toronto) or that (Roma)’, the argument should be ‘this (Toronto) or that (Europe)’ because you can’t tell me a player of Bradley’s quality can’t find a team in a top flight league that would employ—and start—him.

    • Kartik Krishnaiyer

      January 9, 2014 at 12:30 pm

      I would agree with you completely if he weren’t getting games at all. But playing as a sub often enough in pressure games in addition to that training is important for the next few months.

      He did start 5 games and make sub appearances in 6 more games this season and has been hurt as well. So he wasn’t getting a full 90 but was playing. For me fighting for your position and getting competitive training while playing fairly regularly beats playing 90 on turf and training in Toronto. Obviously this is highly debatable and will admit I was previously in the other school (but after working in the sport I realize our training techniques and the general professionalism around the sport isn’t the same in the US/Canada as it is in England, Italy, Germany, etc…it is getting there but isn’t yet)but now feel it is best especially in a World Cup year to have our guys fighting for time in top European leagues.

      • Pakapala

        January 9, 2014 at 1:29 pm

        OK I understand now what you’re getting at. It is indeed better to be playing for Roma in Serie A even as a substitute than in MLS.

  10. Total Relegation

    January 9, 2014 at 11:10 am

    The only way a player gets better is by playing with and against the best. What is going on with our national team players and not wanting to fight for starting positions at European clubs?

    • David

      January 9, 2014 at 11:40 am

      It’s an interesting case study with our best players. Dempsey and Bradley thrived in Europe at certain points in their career. Donovan meanwhile has been able to produce on an international level without making a permanent move abroad.

      I’m still not convinced sitting on the bench at Roma but getting to train with the likes of De Rossi and Totti is better or worse than playing week in and week out competitively on the field in MLS.

      It’s a gamble in a World Cup year, but will be very interesting for all these players and especially Bradley since he’s still growing.

  11. Marco Esquandolas

    January 9, 2014 at 10:57 am

    Unless the player is on the level of Ronaldo/Messi, its better to shore up the quality and reputation of our national league which does more for USA Soccer than one player in Europe.

  12. Dean Stell

    January 9, 2014 at 10:56 am

    Kartik….do you think that some of this is due to the odd “Salary Cap + 3 DP slots” model in MLS?

    I mean, MLS will always overvalue TOP USMNT players because we can get a marketing bump from them in a way that an Italian club can. So, with the DP slots being uncapped, MLS should be able to “overpay” for a USMNT player in the same way that English players can get overvalued in England

    But, the overall league is held back by the salary cap, so you have a few excellent players playing with a bunch of average teammates.

    • David

      January 9, 2014 at 11:36 am

      No one wants the DP slots, but it’s a necessary evil until the league is sustainable. Being that it’s entirely different from any other league in the world since it’s a single entity league, things will be a little screwy.

      MLS is learning along with everyone here. It’s very much taking a different approach, and everyone just needs to understand that. Does everyone enjoy MLS play and competition more than EPL? I’m sure not, but the league can’t afford the salaries and transfer fees that major European leagues deal with.

      Growing pains are not fun, but I’m optimistic for MLS. I just wish Dempsey and Bradley didn’t move in a World Cup year, other than that I’m intrigued.

      • Dean Stell

        January 9, 2014 at 11:57 am

        Oh…I’m not saying that to judge MLS’s structure harshly. It’s just that they have this weird structure where it makes sense for the wealthier teams to pay a LOT for their DPs because that is the one area where they can flex their muscles. And if they can overpay, it basically means that all elite Americans will be in MLS soon. Jozy Altidore would be worth more to an MLS club than to a random European club, right? He would be more useful for marketing purposes in Portland than he would be with Sunderland. So a club like Portland would probably we willing to pay more money for him than another team would be.

        It’ll be the mid-tier Americans who can still make more money overseas because they aren’t big-time enough to be attractive from a marketing standpoint.

        • David

          January 9, 2014 at 12:19 pm

          Agree 100% with everything you just said. The structure definitely isn’t perfect, but in a way it’s necessary is all I’m saying. The day that all stadiums are full and people are tuning in, will be the day that these stipulations will be long gone.

          Hopefully the progress that the league makes will help them avoid mistakes of big leagues in Europe so they don’t have another financial meltdown.

          Only point I’ll make is that any domestic player is more valuable in their domestic league (unless they’re a superstar, then they’re valuable everywhere). English are overpaid in England. Germans overpaid in Germany, etc. The US just has a different standard for rewarding them.

          You’re absolutely right about the mid-tier players and that’s always been the problem with a “3rd world” esque league, if you will. They need a solid center but hopefully that changes as the league makes more money.

  13. David

    January 9, 2014 at 10:44 am

    This how the league grows and becomes more competitive. You have to be able to hang on to your top-level talent from your home country. Bradley going to Toronto might not be the best thing for World Cup 2014 but we have to be thinking about all the competitions to follow. We need a strong domestic league and I think over the next 10-20 years the MLS can become more competitive which will translate to greater international success for USMNT. If these marketing efforts bring more money into the league, then over time MLS will be able to target bigger international players at younger ages.

    • Proud Eurosnob

      January 9, 2014 at 11:43 am

      Yes and No.

      Yes because I do believe as most of the National team players should be in their Domestic League.

      But you forgot one key thing, and I’ve learned this starting with the 2006 WCQs. Notice the number of players on their respective National Teams that had at least some playing time in the UEFA Champions League during the preceding seasons. The number is rather staggering and when the WC rolled around, you won’t believe how many faces became familiar.

      That is what the MLS will continue to miss unless and until The MLS Cup Champion and the supporters shield winner gains a berth into the Copa Libertadores like some Mexican Teams do.

    • EverTheGreen

      January 9, 2014 at 12:03 pm

      Actually, Bradley coming to MLS now is vital. He’s only getting substitute minutes at Roma, he will be counted upon to go the full 90 in Brazil. So why not ship him to a place where he’ll be guaranteed to get the full 90 every game? Frankly, I;m surprised that Gio Dos Santos and Chicarito Hernandez haven’t come back to Liga MX for the exact same reason.

      • Riiiight

        January 9, 2014 at 1:42 pm

        Chicarito’s best option to get more playing time is to go to Liga MX? I think it’s fair to say that if he’s not getting enough time at Manchester United he has better options than Liga MX

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