KENYA BROWN - Wednesday, October 8, 2008
The United States is weeks away from electing a new president and as most of you may know when the "silly season" comes around a lot of issues are raised by voters and the media.
Before the recent financial crisis became the focus of discussion, the usual topics about the environment, foreign policy and various social issues were argued over. Then there is the controversial topic of immigration.
This one word almost seems like a swear word amongst the masses in the US and Europe. But, when we look at international soccer these days, immigration has become a welcome thing for some national teams.
In the last round of World Cup qualifiers, Mexico national team coach Sven Goran Eriksson called up Matias Vuoso and Leandro Augusto. Both players are naturalized Mexican citizens from Argentina and Brazil respectively.
Maybe among those of us that support the US Men's National Team this would not be such a big deal, but in Mexico, the use of naturalized players in the squad has been very controversial.
Mexican born coaches and players have been very critical of using so called "ringers" in the national team. Jared Borgetti, the all-time leading scorer for Mexico, has been an outspoken critic.
In a recent issue of World Soccer magazine he criticized this move by Eriksson as being something that's "going to be a little difficult to accept". But, what Borgetti fails to realize is that two of his teammates in the 2006 World Cup squad also came from South America.
Calling up naturalized players into national squads is nothing new.
This practice goes way back to the early years of the international game when Spain called up Real Madrid legends Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas, both coming from Argentina and Hungary respectively. It should also be mentioned that Di Stefano also played for Colombia in addition to his home country and Spain.
Recently, we have seen the likes of Chelsea's Deco, Villareal's Marco Senna and Real Betis' Mehmet Aurelio, all Brazilian-born, representing Portugal, European champions Spain and Turkey. Even the England squad under Eriksson's management had considered the availability of French striker Louis Saha, Italian goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini and Brazilian midfielder Edu.
All of this talk about naturalized players gets me thinking about the US Men's National Team.
Many of you should remember back in the nineties when players such as Germany-born Thomas Dooley, Holland-born Earnie Stewart, South Africa-born Roy Wegerle, Serbia-born Preki and host of other players in Europe were brought in to strengthen the squad and make the team more competitive.
This experiment by the USSF did pay dividends as the USMNT was missing some key elements to the squad.
With the former Kaiserslautern midfielder in Dooley, the USMNT found someone who could play roles in midfield and defense. He had the confidence to hold the ball, breakup attacks, organize the backline and provide leadership. Stewart, the former NAC Breda attacker, brought speed and a knack for scoring goals, which was so desperately needed at the time.
The much traveled EPL veteran in Wegerle brought not only his goal scoring prowess, but also his finesse and superior passing skills were something that was much needed for this young squad. Who can forget the backheel pass that set up John Harkes' goal against Ireland in the spring of 1992
As for the former Kansas City Wizard, Preki was the attacking midfielder that every national team would want to have. His vision, passing and occasional goal scoring provided the threat from midfield that the USMNT never had before.
Their presence was definitely needed at a time when the USMNT national team had very few players playing at professional clubs and many teams were running roughshod over the squad in friendlies and other international competitions. It also brought confidence to a team that so desperately needed it at the time.
The policy the USSF implemented back then could still be of great use today. With the rise of Major League Soccer and more American players on the rosters of teams in Europe the player pool for the USMNT has increased, but it still lacks the depth and competitiveness that so many other international squads have at their disposal. This is something that has to be addressed sooner rather than later.
Now, of course the USSF cannot just choose any naturalized players for the squad and I think USMNT coach Bob Bradley would have some objection to that kind of strategy. The USSF needs to scout the right players that will fit into the system. The federation needs to find the players who have a lot of promise and not just hype them up. Most importantly, the federation needs to bring in players well ahead of time of big international tournaments so as not to disrupt the squad.
How many of you can remember the fiasco in the lead up to the 1998 World Cup when former Troyes defender David Regis was granted citizenship and put immediately into the starting eleven. This move led to multiple MLS Cup champion Jeff Agoos being sent to the bench. While Regis played fairly well, this certainly was not a good move on the part of former coach Steve Sampson.
We have seen, at the junior level, that there are some naturalized players who show a lot of promise for the future of the squad. Freddy Adu, probably the most well known amongst US Soccer supporters, has been one player who has been talked for several years.
We've seen what the Ghana-born player can do at youth level. He is a gifted player on the ball, has great vision around the field and he can score the vital goals when needed.
He has yet to reach his potential, but once he is settled at a club and gets acquainted into Bradley's system it's highly likely that the AS Monaco loanee will be an indispensable player to the squad.
If you've been reading other soccer websites you probably have also heard of a youngster called Charles Renken. The Zambia-born midfielder has been receiving a lot of publicity not only for his life story, but also for his play on the field. He is an excellent player on the ball with a good touch and possesses a lot of speed. Currently at the U-17 residency camp in Bradenton, Florida, a host of European clubs have been keeping a close eye on him.
If all of the chips fall in the right place for the kid then he will certainly be a great asset for the USMNT in the future.
It's great to see guys like Adu and Renken are there for the future, but are there any players out there who could possibly make an impact on the USMNT now? Are there any foreign players in MLS right now that the USSF should be having a look at barring that they have not played for their home national team?
You may have read in recent weeks that Frenchman Sebastian Le Toux of the Seattle Sounders has shown interest in joining the USMNT. While I have no knowledge of how the former FC Lorient man is as a player (and you Sounders supporters can fill me in if you like) his stats are quite impressive.
Last season's USL leading scorer and MVP was a central defender, but later moved to midfield and then forward by coach Brian Schmetzer. Depending on how he plays next season in MLS with the Sounders can go a long way into seeing whether the USSF deems the former FC Dallas reject worthy of wearing the jersey of the USMNT.
If he has a strong interest in playing for the US then Sunil Gulati and the legal staff at the USSF had better get on the ball and see what they can do about getting him citizenship.
It's true that the USMNT is more competitive than it was several years ago, but they still need that edge, which can make them more competitive against the traditional powers in the international game. Bringing in the right naturalized players into the squad could go a long way into changing the USMNT from a regional power to a world power.