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For the US team, the path to success starts in Europe

For those who watched the World Cup qualifiers, the American players often looked tentative, with long stretches of idleness and indecision. Maybe the idea of pulling on the USMNT jersey was too much for some.

That the USMNT lost a critical game to Trinidad & Tobago, a country the size of Dallas, exposed the enormous cracks in the United States soccer foundation.

The USMNT’s feeble second-to-last finish in the final round of WCQ points to systemic problems throughout the entire U.S. soccer system. It’s not an issue of money or poor training facilities or a lack of technology. It’s about coaching, scouting and politics.

But perhaps the biggest issue is player selection. Why are the best American players, those who are playing in the best leagues in the world, not on the USMNT?

For the entirety of WCQ, the USMNT roster consisted primarily of MLS players.

The USMNT favored a 4-2-3-1 throughout WCQ with a starting lineup featuring GK Brad Guzan (Atlanta United), RB Graham Zusi (Sporting KC), CB Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca/Liga MX), CB Matt Besler (Sporting KC), LB DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), CDM Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), CDM Darlington Nagbe (Atlanta United), RM Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), CAM Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund/Bundesliga), LM Paul Arriola (DC United), and ST Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC).

Players like Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union) and Jorge Villafana (Santos Laguna/Liga MX) would normally come off the bench.

Nine of the 11 starters were in MLS.

And therein lies the problem: Major League Soccer is simply not a top league compared to leagues in Europe. For the top players in Europe, MLS is a place to end their careers while living in cities like New York, LA or (soon) Miami. No top European players are going to MLS to improve. They’re going to relax.

Of course, USMNT coaches prefer a roster stocked with MLS players. It’s nice to showcase American players who are playing professionally in America’s top league. Why bring in American players who have built their soccer careers in England or Germany under a European coaching staff?

But the reality is that US soccer lags behind the top soccer nations. What’s wrong Americans honing their skills overseas, competing against top competition, then returning home to play for their country?

Fielding essentially an MLS all-star team for the USMNT isn’t working. We can do better.

There are currently 22 players on the USMNT roster playing in top leagues in Europe, including 14 in England or Germany (6 in the Premier League; 8 in the Bundesliga). Of those 14, less than half (6) are regulars with the USMNT: Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood, John Brooks, Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, DeAndre Yedlin.

During WCQ, players on the USMNT roster playing in Europe rarely made it into the first team:

Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest/Championship) – 2 games
Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham/Premier League) – 1 game
Matt Miazga (Chelsea/Premier League) – 1 game
Lynden Gooch (Sunderland/Championship) – 1 game
Timmy Chandler (Eintracht/Bundesliga) – 1 game
Aron Johannsson (Werder Bremen/Bundesliga) – 1 game

Four others – Emerson Hyndman (Bournemouth/Premier League), Danny Williams (Huddersfield/Premier League), Terrence Boyd (Darmstadt/Bundesliga), and Alfredo Morales (Ingolstadt/Bundesliga) – did not feature for the USMNT in WCQ.

And those are just the players who are on the roster. There are a number of other American players playing in Europe who were overlooked. For example, 20-year-old Weston McKennie of Schalke in the Bundesliga wasn’t even on the roster.

Why weren’t these Americans getting more time during WCQ? These are proven players who are used to competing against the world’s top players in high pressure games. In fact, the USMNT could field an entirely Europe-based squad that’s arguably more talented than the team that lost to Trinidad last October.

Here’s the good news: Immediately following WCQ, the USMNT began to experiment with its players playing in Europe. On November 14, the USMNT played Portugal in a friendly with a squad consisting of 11 players playing in Europe, including two players who weren’t featured in WCQ (Danny Williams and Weston McKennie).

Although it ended in a 1-1 draw, the U.S. side looked much more free-flowing and were fun to watch. By the way, the Americans’ lone goal came from McKennie, who surely could have helped during WCQ.

It’s time United States stopped building its national team around its MLS players and starts building it around its best players.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Alex Michalakos

    February 7, 2018 at 1:01 pm

    Ugh; this is written like someone who just started watching soccer. Or was this written 20 years ago? It reads like it was written by someone who only watched the last game of WCQ, then went on the internet and found which Americans play “in Europe,” without knowing any other distinguishing qualities.

    (1) The first thing wrong with this article is that most of the “MLS players” named have played years in “Europe” (Guzan, Beasley, Bradley, Altidore, Dempsey, Bedoya–Arriola in Mexico) and most of the “European-based players” (and Mexico) came from MLS (Yedlin, Miazga, Gonzalez, Villafana) . You don’t magically change when you travel between the realms.

    (2) Also, European-based players mentioned such as Wood, Williams, Chandler, Cameron, Boyd, Morales, Johnson and others did play plenty and/or failed to impress, or else play in lower divisions, or were injured. Cameron in particular played horribly against Costa Rica, made a huge error that gifted a goal, and was justifiably benched. Yet he’s been a starter for years at Stoke.

    (3) The Young European-based players referenced like Gooch, McKinnie, Vickers, and Hyndman were not playing much at the time and had little first-team experience.

    Many players from many countries are good enough to “go to Europe” but then don’t play much once they get there. Should they still play in the national team? Depends. Players like Besler and Nagbe could have gone to Europe (somewhere–at least the same level as Morales, whom you cite)

    The European leagues have been full of young US youth national-teamers who went to “Europe” and have not succeeded, (and many also later failed to succeed in MLS). But at one point they were “in Europe” so they would count under your criterion as national team-worthy. That’s silly.

    When MLS was founded, one of its missions was to provide a place for Americans to play–and lots of players came back from Europe to do so.

    We had a big quality leap after 1990, and then developed a larger pool of players at a similar, higher level. The real problem is that, whether in Europe or not, other than Pulisic there seems to be a lack of skilled U.S. players to replace those like Tab Ramos, Hugo Perez, Reyna, Joe-Max Moore, Wynalda, Mathis, Donovan, even Harkes, Eddie Lewis, Balboa, Cherundolo and Preki, You could say the top players are worse than 20 years ago.

  2. Luke Herron

    February 2, 2018 at 11:00 am

    “Why weren’t these Americans getting more time during WCQ? These are proven players who are used to competing against the world’s top players in high pressure games. In fact, the USMNT could field an entirely Europe-based squad that’s arguably more talented than the team that lost to Trinidad last October.”

    These kind of statements aren’t even helpful. It just sounds like you haven’t followed US soccer or done the research – Brooks, Cameron, Johnson, Wood, Yedlin were injured during major portions of the WCQ. CCV was not getting regular playing time on any first team. Miazga (owned by Chelsea NOT playing there) playing on loan in Dutch league, wasn’t an established starter til late last year. Gooch was injured and then mostly an unused sub til Sunderland got relegated and then started getting SOME playing time, but not alot. Johansson, battling multiple setbacks, including injuries and poor performance, is not “used to competing against the world’s top players in high pressure games.” I would like to see more of Chandler but anyone who watches USMNT knows that his decent performance last year (he’s much better this season BTW) did not translate into quality performances for USMNT. Lichaj, is maybe the one who I think deserved more of a chance and more confidence from USMNT coaching last. And he’s proving himself this year. But playing 2nd division in England, is not a massive upgrade from MLS. Many would argue that the competitions are comparable.

    The 4 others you mentioned: Hyndman, played well in the Scottish league, but aside from 1 or 2 teams, MLS is rated higher. Danny Williams, yes overlooked, but not better than Bradley and arguably not better than Acosta, people that play his position (also Acosta was playing really good for a hot minute in WQC – think Mexico game) Terrence Boyd, not getting consistent playing time in a bottom Bundesliga side. And Morales, injured much of last year, battling for playing time on a bottom Bundesliga side as well, now 2. Bundesliga.

    On top of all that, Mckennie wasn’t even training with Shalke’s first team until the summer, and didn’t start playing more consistently for them until later in the fall.

    Regarding the debate about MLS vs. Europe. It only makes sense to pull European players if they are getting playing time in top leagues. Bleacher Report rated MLS in the top 10 leagues in the world using stats. http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1922780-statistically-ranking-the-worlds-top-10-football-leagues, rating them above every other 2nd division side in Europe including England’s Championship.
    I’d say its even a tough decision to play someone not getting playing time in a top league over someone starting every MLS game and making a difference for their team there.
    As much as I’d like to see more young Americans playing in Europe, especially developing in Europe, its pretty presumptive to blame the coaching staff for not picking Europeans in the WCQ. I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t look like you were aware of what was happening last year. Pickings were slim, for many reasons. I’d say the biggest problem with our team was lack of chemistry, and then lack of selection, not picking MLS over Europe.

  3. Vicbklyn

    February 1, 2018 at 9:19 pm

    Arena and the rest of the MLS loyalist have pushed an MLS agenda during Klinsmann whole tenureship. Meanwhile every country in the world including Mexico wish for their players to play in the Champions league. Mexico’s la liga teams have consistently topped MLS Clubs in our version of the C.L… Yet, we and especially Arena don’t want to acknowledge that even having players play on European teams is a must at a minimum. Players like Morris will never be all they can be in MLS.

  4. SilverRey

    February 1, 2018 at 2:05 pm

    I want you to go back through that list of European based players and look at their availability over the last year of qualifying. There were a significant amount of injuries, you have a lot of youngsters who’s positions on their teams were in flux, and guys just fighting to get on the field. While I would have welcomed most of them on the roster, I’m not sure they were the ultimate answer.

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