The exodus of the United States’ best players from Europe to the homeland continued this winter, with Mix Diskerud and possibly Sacha Kljestan signing with MLS clubs. We have written a novel’s worth of stories about its impact on the U.S. national team, whether it is good for this country’s soccer development and how concerned we should be about its long-term impact. However, as the number of U.S. players in the top leagues dwindles, we haven’t fully thought through the other side of the coin – its impact on the European leagues.
Undoubtedly the major European soccer leagues are making inroads into the U.S. soccer market. Expected reasons (immigration, globalization) and a few unexpected ones (like the massive success of soccer video games) mean the conversation about when soccer will “arrive” in the U.S. is over. There is a difference, however, between a foothold and a stranglehold, and the influence of international soccer is more the former than the latter. No matter how many stadiums are filled during summer friendly tours and how many more Liverpool or Barcelona jerseys you see on the street, there is not a unifying figure to propel the collective sports consciousness to focus on the European game.
Landon Donovan was the closest the United States ever came to having a unifying figure that would drag the Yanks into the larger soccer community. His success, however, was at Everton and for a limited time so there were few prime opportunities for the American networks to showcase him in the league. In the perfect world, a great American soccer player would be a starter for Liverpool, Manchester United, Barcelona or a club of equal stature that got TV coverage, was known to the casual sports fan, and would be an easy attraction to casual viewers. This player would finally introduce the American sports public to the beautiful game at its highest level and cement the sport in the top four of the U.S. sports pyramid.
The leagues know this and U.S. Soccer knows this. The problem is there is not a player that is close to that height. On occasions a Jozy Altidore or Clint Dempsey will be hyped as the next great American player and find a place at a top-flight club. With a little more development or playing time, they could be signed by a top tier club and drive their Q rating through the roof. However, either due to lack of development or simply lack of talent these players seemed to plateau and then came running home to MLS for a payday and a chance to keep their coveted spot in the national team.
Very few players start at the top – a rare breed are signed by a massive club, earn playing time early on, and stick throughout their prime. Rather, players grow into their talent by climbing the career ladder and working their way up to clubs like Manchester City or Bayern Munich. This could involve some sacrifice and struggle, such as earning playing time for a relegation-bound club and showing that your abilities exceed that of your teammates. Instead, we too often see these same players, when they struggle or see a less than desirable offer, run back to the MLS league offices to find a comfortable landing place.
The additional problem is the pressure that is placed on the players making the move to become that star. Will Deandre Yedlin become a BPL star? It’s too early to tell, but already the media pressure is building on him to succeed at Tottenham Hotspur. What happens if he struggles at age 22 and doesn’t earn first-team playing time early, which is what happens to the majority of people his age at clubs fighting for Europe? Will he be considered a bust over here, and if he does move to another side farther down the table will he be considered a disappointment? Too often our MLS-friendly media only focus on those teams that everyone knows and, if a player doesn’t make it with them automatically, they are castigated for not succeeding – unless they choose to come to the U.S.
Besides Yedlin there are a few promising young U.S. nationals playing for major clubs, but there aren’t many. Until the media, U.S. Soccer Federation, and fans re-calibrate their expectations and allow players to struggle to succeed, European soccer will lack those few pioneering American fielded players that will allow the sport to break through the U.S. sports clutter.
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