Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Follow the money - and talent - back to MLS

In the August 27th issue of Sports Illustrated, senior writer Grant Wahl compiled a team of American soccer players playing abroad. Such a mainstream publication – find any dentist in the States who doesn't subscribe – publishing a full-page “lightweight” feature on US soccer is relatively rare and Wahl takes the opportunity to pull the usual names from the regular hats. It's the basic, all-purpose US men's national team.

Assembling fictitious teams is a pleasant exercise in pointlessness. Almost every blogger and journalist has done so – they stimulate discussion, can be used to illustrate a point, attract pageviews like crazy and finally, much of the legwork (ie. research) is already completed meaning a quick turnaround. (Look here and here for some examples on Goal Posts).

For writers, they're our side of an enjoyable pub debate.

However, this team made for an interesting test-case. This is because many of the best US footballers – as with Canada, Australia and several other nations – play in Europe. The Americans, however, are a special breed as the quality of their local game is improving as its popularity increases. No longer does a player have to move to Europe to fulfill their footballing destiny or monetary desires, meaning that in the past half-decade the standard of MLS has taken a quantum leap.

MLS, while of inconsistent quality, can produce scintillating football and as the standard improves, so does local talent. Due to the Impact, Whitecaps and Toronto FC, Canadian football reaps some of the same benefits.

In fact, Major League Soccer has developed the quality of US football to a standard now where players earning a quid locally could quite easily compete with – and, if the conditions were right, perhaps defeat – a team made up of “exports”. This is a major signal that the league is prospering the sport both at a grass-roots and professional level.

While Wahl's team undoubtedly boasts more class than a team drawn solely from MLS, the gap in quality isn't as different as you'd initially expect. A team derived of American players who play only in MLS could be as potent as many European sides:

US MLS XI: (4-3-3) – Rimando (RSL), Beitashour (San Jose), Clark (Houston), O. Gonzalez (LA), Pearce (NY), O. Alonso (Seattle), Donovan (LA), Davis (Houston), E. Johnson (Seattle), Shea (Dallas), Wondolowski (San Jose).

courtesy: zimbio.com
While the team lacks je ne sais quoi, it would certainly be enough to trouble their overseas brethren. Eighteen years removed from the iconic 1994 World Cup – the event that begat Major League Soccer – the spot in general is seeing the results of hard work put in by the USSF/US Soccer.

Teams made up of local players in many of the “second-tier” big football countries such as Korea, Japan or Mexico would rival – if not defeat – their globe-trotting compatriots. These leagues, new and old, are deep enough to compete financially and competition-wise for the country's best players. The result is Keisuke Honda spearheading Japan's wonderful 2010 World Cup and Asian Cup campaigns or a major club like Arsenal signing Park Chu-Young.

The next step up in competition is when the league produces entire teams capable of contesting the CONCACAF Champions League and eventually, competing – if not beating – South American and European clubs at the World Club Championships.

Progress has been slow, but assured. Now the league is reaping the rewards.

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