Though the weather might indicate otherwise, we’re just about a week away from soccer season again here in the United States. The first week of Major League Soccer (MLS) kicks off next Saturday, March 8, after an active and somewhat controversial year of player transactions.
The root of this “controversy” stems from a six month period that saw a couple top U.S. players leave Europe to come back and play in the MLS and the supposed adverse affects of this return home on the U.S. men’s national team (USMNT), especially with the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil around the corner.
Last August, U.S. captain Clint Dempsey left Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League for the Seattle Sounders, to play back on home soil for a league-record salary. Then this January, Michael Bradley – the figurative and literal heart of the USMNT midfield – left Italian club AS Roma for Toronto FC (and, like Dempsey, a significant pay raise).
The Bradley move back across the Atlantic stoked the already heated debate that top American soccer players “settling” or “giving up” to play in the MLS was hurting the prospects of the national team in international competition. Supposedly, playing in the MLS left players lacking in the experience of playing against top-tier talent that they would get in the top European leagues. Less experience against quality competition, especially among team leaders, would leave the USMNT as a whole unprepared come June, when they’ll immediately have to fend off Germany, Portugal and Ghana in the “Group of Death.”
Firstly, this argument makes the false assumption that players like Dempsey and Bradley were getting the quality playing time in Europe essential to World Cup preparation. Dempsey, though having previously set records at London club Fulham, was facing diminishing minutes on the field in the face of an increasingly crowded frontline at Tottenham. Likewise, Bradley also was not receiving adequate playing time at Roma in a sport where match fitness is integral to performance at all levels. There’s no benefit to the USMNT of spending the prime of one’s career on a bench, even if that bench is European.
Conversely, there is precedent showing how increased playing time in the MLS (which remains unfairly stigmatized as a “sub-par” league despite being a developmental hotbed and boosting world-class talent) can benefit an individual. American striker Eddie Johnson found his way into the national team’s starting lineup only after returning from stints abroad to play in the MLS, where he flourished as the primary goal scoring threat for the Sounders.
After bouncing back and forth between Britain and Greece for almost four years, Johnson won the MLS 2012 Comeback Player of the Year and led Seattle in goals. Subsequently, Johnson was called up to play for the national team, scoring seven goals in 17 international appearances. During the previous four years, Johnson only had one international goal in 11 appearances; clearly Europe was doing him no favors.
Furthermore, anyone who wants to see soccer as a sport grow and succeed in the United States should applaud these moves. Not only does increased playing time benefit individual players, their presence will also increase domestic interest in the MLS. Just look at the impact one David Beckham had on the league; a slew of American stars should only continue this trend.
Additionally, increased westward movement across the Atlantic spurs a certain level of positive feedback, as other top-tier talents, international and domestic, will be more likely to follow. In the years following Beckham’s move to Los Angeles Galaxy, the MLS welcomed batches of international fames, including Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane, Tim Cahill and Juninho Pernambucano, among many others. And just days after Bradley signed with Toronto, 31-year old English international Jermaine DeFoe also signed for the Canadian club. Save for Juninho, the MLS is becoming a destination for globally renowned players increasingly close to their peaks, rather than a preretirement stopover.
If the United States ever wants to be a top-level soccer country, it needs to host a top-level domestic league, and if the MLS wants to be that league, they need more stars at the peaks of the career. Dempsey and Bradley’s moves are two sizable steps in that direction.
The MLS has seen tremendous growth in popularity over the past decade (another good link exploring this here), a crucial component for soccer’s rise in the United States. There’s no reason to disdain the decisions that only push this trend forward, to the benefit of themselves, club and country.