MLS still targeting USA players in Europe? There are hardly any left


MLS Commissioner Don Garber re-opened his dispute with Jurgen Klinsmann last week when he said that the league would continue to pursue U.S. national team players regardless of what the national team coach thought of that approach.

While the comments sparked another round of debate about the relationship between Garber and Klinsmann, the reality is that this is mostly hot air – because when it comes down to it, there aren’t really many Americans left in Europe to tempt back.

Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Jermaine Jones and Mix Diskerud have all moved to MLS in the past year or so. Juan Agudelo and Brek Shea have headed back after failing, for differing reasons, to establish themselves in Europe. The German-American players performing in the Bundesliga, the likes of Fabian Johnson and John Brooks, are in a different category, unlikely to be tempted by returning ‘home’ to a country they have never lived in.

There are a crop of very young players in the youth systems of mainly English and German clubs, the likes of Christian Pulisic at Borussia Dortmund and Cameron Carter-Vickers at Tottenham, but they aren’t the players that Garber is thinking about at this stage.

Geoff Cameron at Stoke, along with goalkeepers Tim Howard and Brad Guzan, are the only American players of national team calibre playing in the Premier League. But utility defenders and goalkeepers tend not to make Designated Player material. Alejandro Bedoya, who recently signed a new long-term contract with French club Nantes, is perhaps the only current U.S international who would fit into the same sort of category as a Diskerud. DeAndre Yedlin might fall into that category if he can earn a regular place at Spurs.

This is a surprising state of affairs because many observers expected to see more and more Americans establish themselves in Europe. Dempsey’s success at Fulham, followed that of Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna and John Harkes in England, while Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra also proved their worth in Europe.

There is surely no doubt that it is good for the American national team if it has players performing in the best leagues in the world. I don’t blame Dempsey or Bradley (and certainly not Jozy Altidore) for accepting the big money deals to come back. What is more concerning is why so few Americans are being targeted by European clubs and why so many American players are under-achieving when they do move to Europe.

Let’s dismiss one argument straight away. Despite what is sometimes suggested in the States, coaches in the Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga don’t have an anti-American agenda and aren’t discriminating against American players. Almost all top flight teams across the continent are multinational these days, with African and Asian players alongside South Americans and Europeans from all corners of the continent. If coaches have got used to playing Japanese and Ghanian players, why would they have a problem with an American? They don’t.

What may have slowed down the movement of senior American players to Europe is the fact that MLS is now willing to pay to keep those players at home – the likes of Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and Graham Zusi might, in other times, have headed to Europe. Instead, they are on Designated Player contracts in MLS.

But I also wonder if enough modern American players have the hunger and desire to take the risk and test themselves in Europe.

When Harkes went to Sheffield Wednesday in 1990, he had no real chance of being a professional footballer in the United States. There wasn’t a serious national pro league and the indoor circuit offered only low wages and low security and, of course, a very different kind of soccer. Wednesday offered Harkes a chance to earn a living in the game, if he was good enough and if he worked hard enough. Harkes wanted it bad enough to put in the effort, cope with the challenges of living abroad and grind out a pro career in England.

Even when Dempsey went to Fulham in 2007, he did so at a time when MLS could only offer limited rewards to a player of his ability and he played like a man who knew he would have to give his all every week if he wanted to enjoy the benefits of playing in a better paying league.

Now read what Brek Shea said in an interview this week about his time in England where he failed to make the grade at Stoke City and was unimpressive in loan spells in the division below:

“One of the reasons I didn’t enjoy England so much is that it’s so small and soccer is the biggest thing there. So everything you do is magnified times a thousand.”

While he was still in England, Shea told Sports Illustrated:

“It’s more like a 9-5 job over here. In America, you’re having fun and you’re with a group of friends. It’s still very serious – you want to win – but you have that camaraderie. It’s just different. (In England) it’s a job. You go in and you go home and in MLS, you have a team barbecue once a week. You hang with people outside the facility. You don’t really do that here.”

Of course, players in England do ‘hang’ with their team-mates. The most frequent lament of players who have retired from the game is that they miss the camaraderie and the dressing room banter. But even if Shea was just unlucky to have been at a club where that was, according to him, missing, his comments are still revealing.

Yes, soccer is the biggest thing in England and there is a lot of attention on it. The same goes for Germany, Italy or Spain. Being a professional footballer is a job and people approach it as work. What did Shea expect?

I wonder how common the Shea attitude is? How many American players actually prefer the lack of intense pressure in MLS and the relative anonymity of being an MLS player? How many, like Landon Donovan, just prefer the comfort of living and playing in their own country to proving themselves in the best leagues in the world?

I doubt Michael Bradley fits into that category. He learnt languages everywhere he went and appeared totally dedicated to becoming the best player he could be in Europe. But what are the percentage of Harkes, Dempsey and Bradley types in MLS compared to the Shea/Donovan types?

If there is a sense that MLS allows a good soccer player a chance to extend his college athlete years into his 30’s, that is likely to change. The influx of foreigner players on MLS club rosters will surely change the mood. Players from Colombia and Argentine aren’t in MLS for the barbecues.

As for American players in Europe, it will be interesting to see what happens to the generation of Under-20 players currently working their way through the systems in Europe. These are players who have played little or no college soccer, have had no experience of MLS and who have been living in Europe, playing at top pro clubs throughout their formative years as players.

Will they emerge in the coming years as a new kind of American player – to whom there is nothing strange at all about being under constant scrutiny and pressure? It will be fascinating to see and potentially crucial to the national team program.

Editor’s note: Every Thursday, World Soccer Talk featured columnist Simon Evans shares his thoughts and opinions on world soccer topics. You can follow Simon on Twitter at @sgevans. Plus, read Simon’s other columns for World Soccer Talk.


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  1. AJ April 30, 2015
    • Kei May 1, 2015
  2. Jack May 1, 2015
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