MLS fans and American soccer fans in general often take umbrage with every perceived slight against their leagues and how the sport is perceived on these shores. Take yesterday’s comments from Antonio Conte about his decision to leave out Sebastian Giovinco and Andrea Pirlo from his Euro 2016 preliminary squad.
“When you make a certain choice and go to play in certain leagues, you do so taking it into account that they could pay the consequences from a footballing viewpoint,” Conte said at his press conference. Not accounting for a possible loss in translation circumstance, these decisions are not made in a vacuum. Conte has quite a bit to lose in his last tournament as Italy manager, so risking two of his spots for a player he had fallen out with at Juventus regardless of quality, and a 37 year old midfielder — who if you included you would have to build your side around if you played him — doesn’t make much logical sense, from his point of view. These decisions were not made as anti-MLS statements, even though his comments might say so.
Andrea Pirlo seems to agree with Conte’s sentiments, though he expressed them in somewhat of a backhanded way. His thesis was that MLS has to improve as a technical league, and because of that deficiency, he was excluded from Conte’s squad. What he (naturally) won’t say is that he’s a 37 year old midfielder who is not at the height of his powers, and wasn’t when he was being called in consistently, and a player who a side has to be built around otherwise he would make your team worse. While he is right about MLS, Conte would have natural reasons to exclude a player who despite his name hasn’t been in good form ever since he joined NYCFC.
As for Giovinco, he and Conte never saw eye-to-eye when the both were at Juventus, largely because of the role Giovinco wanted to play and the role Conte saw him in. A direct result of that rift was Giovinco leaving for Toronto FC four months earlier than planned. He forced his way into Conte’s thought horizons via sheer inertia with TFC, but in a tournament where Conte has plenty more to lose than Giovinco does, Conte certainly would be averse to taking a player he has sparred with despite his successes in a league he might deem as inferior. What is critical here is that the inferiority of MLS (whatever it is) is not the deciding factor of why the two were excluded from Italy’s Euro squad, despite what Conte might be saying in public.
And just because Conte publicly slighted MLS doesn’t mean his views are universal. Laurent Ciman is in Belgium’s 23 for the Euros, and while his inclusion is down to injuries, he has played at a consistently high level in Montreal that he has forced Marc Wilmots to take notice. Shkëlzen Gashi is likely to make Albania’s Euro squad while playing in Colorado, and though the situations aren’t exactly analogous, his form speaks for itself. Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle haven’t exactly been ostracized from Martin O’Neill’s plans because they play in MLS either, and Krisztian Nemeth forced his way back into Hungary’s plans last year because of his form with Sporting Kansas City.
It seems inevitable that more players of the Ciman/Giovinco type will begin to ply their trade in MLS, and in all likelihood will not see their national team chances dwindle. While Conte’s views of MLS are technically true in that the league isn’t where it should be yet, his opinion is not the only indicator of quality, or how the league is as a whole perceived in Europe. While the league’s imprint hasn’t quite been left on Europe yet, it has certainly left a mark in Africa, North America, and even South America. The league is no more than 20 years old, and has already become one of the better leagues in the world without the years of heritage and history. Eventually, there won’t be the need to have this discussion anymore, but for now MLS fans and observers have to begrudgingly admit that this perspective is still prevalent, though not massively so anymore.
Would Italy be better with Pirlo and Giovinco? It’s hard to say. But is their exclusion a sweeping indictment of MLS qualities and virtues? Hardly, and just ask other managers and players about what the league has done for them.
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