AN UNEASY RELATIONSHIP
Major League Soccer and the US Men's National team have one obvious thing in common. They are both based in America. In some ways the common ground ends there.
There are many factors contributing to their lack of common ground but the main reason their relationship remains distant is probably their only similarity - The obscurity of overall goals and a focus on the immediate future instead of the long-term.
Major League Soccer seems to be like the wild girlfriend in the relationship. She's younger, a little immature, and her focus still materialistic. She isn't ready to settle down yet and just wants to have fun and spend money needlessly. She's into older men, but for the wrong reasons. The USMNT although much older is still focused on the present, not ready to envision a future, or maybe not able to yet. He's a little stubborn and not sure what he wants. Sometimes he seems to want a future, but most of the time he's scraping by on a day-to-day basis.
It's a relationship that works. They both get along, but never really challenge each other to become great. They will each remain stagnant or grow out of mere necessity, but never reach their full potential.
It would be a silly comparison if it weren't true on many levels.
In effect this type of relationship cancels out the progression of both. The USMNT and MLS could work in tandem and improve together if one group was focused on fostering the youth, let's say MLS, and one was focused on immediate success, i.e. the USMNT qualifying for the World Cup.
Or the other option, although with a much slower payoff, is if both organizations focused on long-term growth and strengthening from the bottom-up. This would potentially help both improve to a level on par with the leagues and national teams of Europe.
However, it would require failure, or lack of perceived success in the immediate. As painful as it would be, maybe the USMNT should focus on improving their relationship with MLS and really cultivating the younger players. Get them the game experience they need. Put less focus on qualifying for this World Cup and focus entirely on improving the US Soccer system as a whole. Solidify the base by creating deeper roots. Maybe sit this World Cup out and then in 2018 take the world by storm. I know, a tough ask, and not one that American soccer fans, myself included, would like, but one we'd surely appreciate down the road.
The US loss to Honduras in the World Cup qualifier in February was first and foremost an example of poor soccer. It was boring and slow and uninspired. Secondly, it was a squad comprised of primarily European based players - 17 of 24 to be exact. Of the 14 players that actually played in the game, only 3 of them render their services in the MLS. Not that it had a direct effect on the outcome of the game, or the lack of quality, but it's worth exploring.
In the two qualifiers against Jamaica back in September (one a loss, the other a meager 2-1 victory) Jurgen Klinsmann named a squad that included 19 of 24 players employed by clubs outside the MLS. One of those five MLS-based players was Brek Shea, who has since moved to the English Premier League.
What it says is that MLS isn't nearly good enough yet. That much is obvious. Nothing ground breaking there. But what it also shows is the disconnection between the two.
On the other hand the USMNT is still losing, or at least struggling, even with a team of players from supposedly superior clubs in Europe. So what's the answer?
In the game against Honduras, Klinsmann chose a club full of European based players that had to travel half way across the globe. They were asked to leave their mild to cold climates, where lasting 90 minutes is just another day at the office, for a full day of travel and a run in the thick air of 80-degree humidity in Honduras. MLS wasn't in season and those players are at least on the continent making for easy travel. Klinsmann still avoided them as if they'd inflict a disease of mediocrity on the rest of the team. The MLS players were as fresh as they will ever be; granted they probably weren't in top game condition because they haven't been playing.
That's another major disconnect. The MLS season is not on the world soccer schedule. It's a long debated topic, but one that clearly affects Klinsmann's decisions. I don't blame him. Why would he choose players that are not in peak game condition, or play against a lower level of competition? The season schedule is just one issue among many, but an important one that not only stalls the league's growth but also puts a wedge in its relationship with the USMNT.
MLS commissioner Don Garber announced during the opening week of the MLS season, that his goal is to improve the league to a level on par with the best in Europe and the world by 2022. If actions speak louder than words, then Garber's plan is nothing but a whisper. If he and the league really had long-term goals of being the best in the world why do they continually bring in over-aged players with bloated salaries? Yes, that means the league gets the David Beckhams and Thierry Henrys of the world and with it a few new fans, more ticket sales, and the media attention they desperately crave, but you also get aging legs, multiple injuries, and $5 million salaries for guys that play half the games.
It all sounds great, sort of, but will it actually improve the league? Salaries are tied up on guys that give the league notoriety and star power, but they don't actually improve the level of play. Not to mention it takes money away the youth. From the guys that give the league pace, the guys that when ready to sell back yield more profit for clubs.
Pace is what MLS desperately needs. Not necessarily faster players, but a faster paced style of play. End to end action.
They still need to focus on promoting players to Europe, but they also need to bring in players who are on the fringes of European teams. Guys that need experience and want to play at a high level but aren't quite able to break into a team like Manchester United.
Those fringe players would rather go on loan and play in the second tier of England or Spain than come to Major League Soccer. If just half of the money spent on aging stars of years past would be used for stealing a few young stars from Europe or South America, the league would eventually become known for its quality, instead of its current reputation as a retirement league.
This is not an argument against American players going to Europe. They should play there. The level of play is higher, the reward greater. They will become stronger players in the long run. But if there is a player with great potential and he can't quite break into the first team at Real Madrid, pay him the money it takes to keep him in the MLS. Don't waste that money on the fading fame of tired 34-year olds.
MLS is improving, but don't expect by 2022 that it will be at the level of leagues that have been at it for almost 120 years. Give the European creators of the game at least some level of respect. That sort of history and reverence for the sport is not earned over night.
If the league would at least show some interest in signing or holding onto the Eric Lichajs, Josh Gatts, Fabian Johnsons, Jozy Altidores; the emerging stars of American soccer, it would greatly improve the league, and in effect strengthen their partnership with the USMNT.
The point again is that there seems to be some disconnect between MLS and the USMNT. At the same time it also seems as if the European based players aren't cutting the mustard, at least not when they play for the USMNT. They aren't fitting in when combined with the MLS players. Maybe they lower their level of play to those around them? The problem is a difficult one.
Of all the top soccer nations across the world, with the exception of maybe Brazil and Argentina, a strong national team is a direct result of a strong domestic league. With that said, even the Brazilian national team players are staying home longer than they were a few years ago and plying their trade in the slowly improving Brazilian league - Neymar being a prime example.
The answer is in how the young American players come up through the ranks. MLS doesn't really know how to handle them and US soccer fails to realize their potential. Both systems struggle to work together and neither knows how best to cultivate them. Until they sort that out, both will meander around mediocrity, improving slightly, but never becoming great, at least in the eyes of the world.