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MLS and the U.S.: Why the league is making a bigger impact on the national team

Jun 3, 2014, 9:43 PM EDT

US men's national team player Michael Bradley runs with the ball during a World Cup preparation match against Azerbaijan at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on May 27, 2014.    AFP PHOTO/JOSH EDELSON        (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images) Getty Images

Major League Soccer will have 21 representatives on Brazil’s fields at the World Cup, the highest number since 1998 – the first finals after the league began play in 1996. Unlike that tournament in France, however, most of MLS’s representatives are not going to be on the United States’ roster. Whereas 16 players from the nascent league made Steve Sampson’s squad in 1998, only nine MLS’ers are among the 23 that Jurgen Klinsmann will take to Brazil.

Considering so many have trumpeted 2014 as a World Cup resurgence for MLS, that figure may be seen as disappointingly small. It’s the second-lowest in league history. When you consider where the league was four years ago, however, you can see why the trumpets are out. Only four Major League Soccer players made Bob Bradley’s squad for South Africa.

In that light, the resurgence is both remarkable and, as if four years ago, unforeseeable, with its main effects apparent on the U.S’s starting lineup. Of the nine players Klinsmann’s taking to Brazil, five are potential starters: Matt Besler, Michael Bradley, Brad Davis, Clint Dempsey, and Graham Zusi. Not only are Major League Soccer’s numbers up; the league’s significance within the team is climbing, too.

The cause of all this isn’t a complex one. The league is just better than it was four years ago, when it was climbing out of its nadir of the early- and mid-oughts. The steep nature of that climb, however, deserves a little more examination. Within the U.S. team, MLS has gone from nearly irrelevant to a necessary part of the squad.

1. Core stability – While so many have focused on Major League Soccer’s lack of television viewers, the butts in seats continue to be solid. Combined with the league’s single-entity structure, that’s provided Major League Soccer with a reliable foundation from which it can grow. As the league becomes more aggressive in seeking out talent, it knows its large, loyal core of fans provides an enviable stability.

2. Increasing the quality of play – You can have all the fans you want, but if nobody’s going to improve by playing in your league, you’re not going to convince World Cup talent to stick around (or, come back). Thanks largely to its efforts in Central and South America, the league has been able to bring in affordable talent that’s significantly raised its quality of play. Real Salt Lake’s Javier Morales is the poster play for this movement, but thanks to others like him, Major League Soccer is now a place where the likes of Davis, Kyle Beckerman, and Chris Wondolowski can improve. They’re all going to Brazil.

3. Money, Part I: Retention funds – Not every player is like Beckerman or Davis, however. If players like Besler and Zusi had come along five years earlier, they’d probably be in Europe by now.

With its new security, however, Major League Soccer has made it a priority to compete for those types of talents. Thanks to retention funds — a mechanism that allows teams to offer increased compensation without taking up a DP slot — players like Besler and Zusi, as well as a number of non-U.S. players, have been kept in the league.

source: Getty Images4. Money, Part II: Transfer fees – And then MLS really stepped it up, going into the transfer market to reclaim one of its own. Starting with the fee the league paid Tottenham Hotspur to bring Clint Dempsey back, the league committed to competing for the U.S.’s best talents.

This winter, the league struck again, paying AS Roma for Michael Bradley. In transfer fees alone, the league committed $19 million to two of the U.S.’s biggest stars, an amount that would have been unfathomable 10 years ago.

5. Increased international profile – Call this the David Beckham effect, but don’t forget the influence players like Thierry Henry have had on international perception, too. Whereas Major League Soccer was recently seen as a player’s last stop, it’s becoming more and more viable to make the switch earlier in your career. That not only means getting players like Tim Cahill and Jermain Defoe a year or two sooner than you would have before, but it also gives the Bradleys and Dempseys of the world reason to come back early.

Major League Soccer still has a long way to go, but some of the early returns will be seen at the World Cup. Only nine leagues across the world will have a greater representation in Brazil, and within the U.S. national team, there will be more than twice as many MLS’ers in the squad.

That may not mean the U.S.’s team is built around league talent, but if this new pattern holds, it won’t be too long before the domestic league is again claiming a majority of the national team’s spot.

  1. dohpey28 - Jun 3, 2014 at 10:21 PM

    “Only nine leagues across the world will have a greater representation in Brazil”

    way to be 10th MLS!!!! Oh wait weren’t you guys arguing last week about it being 5th or 6th best?

    • Nick - Jun 4, 2014 at 10:32 AM

      Two very different discussions…

    • lyleoross - Jun 4, 2014 at 11:50 AM

      We’re number ten! We’re number ten!

  2. el timo - Jun 3, 2014 at 11:27 PM

    Nine this, stat that. Who cares? Can I go up to Toronto and see Bradley and Defoe and kids like Doneil Henry and Nick Hagglund play hard for 95 minutes and pull out thriller wins like Saturday’s? Am I certain that all across MLS, teams can now move more and better players into and out of the best leagues in the world? Is the Pope from Argentina?

  3. mknow406a - Jun 3, 2014 at 11:50 PM

    I’m still concerned about this attitude about not being seen as a “sell on” league. Transfers are part of the game. Period. When Real Madrid comes calling, Tottenham have to sell Bale. No, I am NOT comparing MLS players to Bale. Rather, it doesn’t matter who you are, or what league you are in, players will always want to move on to bigger and better (from their point of view) things. Getting nothing for Agudelo makes NO sense at all. Cash in on the assets while you can, re-invest that income into continued development and an increased salary cap to attract/retain talent and grow organically, It’s crazy to throw away potential income just to ‘save face.’

  4. innovativethinking87 - Jun 4, 2014 at 12:14 AM

    MLS is nice it’s only going to get better. Imagine the league in 10 years for example.

  5. midtec2005 - Jun 4, 2014 at 9:14 AM

    Also surprising, I’m confident that a game of the USMNT MLS squad would beat the Euro squad. 4 years ago there’s no way that would have been the case.

  6. patriotsdefense - Jun 4, 2014 at 10:45 AM

    Anyway, it’s 8 leagues now after the transfer of David Villa. At least that is what ESPN said.

  7. lyleoross - Jun 4, 2014 at 11:54 AM

    There is no question that MLS is better, is it good enough? When you are bringing in guys that still look close to the top of their game like Villa, DeFoe, Bradley and maybe Dempsey, that’s a pretty strong statement. But it isn’t just individual talent, it’s how you play. MLS needs to start thinking Brazillian or Spanish if they want to move into the top echelon. We still look too Central American/North American in style. Either the league needs to campaign for a different style, or the referees need to change what they are doing/allowing.

    • Sgc - Jun 4, 2014 at 4:22 PM

      Good enough for what? To be the basis of a World Cup contender? No, but the National Team wasn’t going to be that, this soon, either way. It seems to me that the inference that could be made (and one I would agree with) is:

      Within the last 4 year cycle, MLS has improved by more than the National Team has.

      • lyleoross - Jun 4, 2014 at 4:41 PM

        I think I conceded the point that they are better, but I wouldn’t want to carry that too far.

        Good enough means good enough to help us compete at a high level on the international stage on a regular basis. That should be the goal. And I’d have to say that they are still short of that. If they were that good, instead of our younger players heading off to England and Europe, and our older players closer to the end of their careers coming home, you’d have the reverse.

        My recollection is that we spend more than any other country in the world on youth development, and that we have something like five million kids playing now (13 million total). That can be compared to say, Portugal, total population of 10.8 million or so. I’d say we are falling a good bit short.

        Last, I’m not sure I’d the MLS improved more than the national team. The national team went from a boring pack it in on defense, and play long ball for the break away structure to an exciting play it through the middle structure. MLS is still playing thug ball with too much physical play instead of technical play. Of course that is just my opinion.

      • Sgc - Jun 4, 2014 at 5:34 PM

        And I would differ with it. I see a very significant development (team specific, but that’s how these things go) in tactical styles in MLS over the last four years. Now, it is still too physical a league, but a lot of that is cultural values (that is, a bit of overdose of machismo that probably comes from the traditional insecurity of the sport) that we need to shake off that infect how our refs call the game.

    • mvktr2 - Jun 5, 2014 at 8:39 AM

      Lyle this is not a douche comment but do you watch MLS? Sometimes it does break down into a long-ball contest, Colorado-Chicago last night was the perfect example. However I’d argue an overwhelming majority of teams in MLS play an on the ground possession based game. Besides that one of the most exciting moments in soccer is the counter attack/break which teams like LA & NYRB excel at. Look at how KC plays in possession, it’s exceedingly Dutch at times, RSL’s diamond, Pereja’s tactics, Vancouver’s young attacking side, and the list goes on. For the most part it’s good soccer, very competitive. I choose to see the positives while recognizing the negatives but it is what it is and it’s ‘MY’ league and I’m going to watch it grow into a world power which I believe it will be in 15-20 years. The next media rights deals are gonna be game changers, not the needed bump of the most recent deals.

      Is the finishing great, generally not and it’s the hardest thing to find consistently in soccer with really only a few teams in the world having a bench full of consistent finishers. Is the vision great, no but players like Beckerman, Bradley, Feilhaber, Morales(RSL), Morales(Van), Diaz, and Higuain have and it’s present on every team in the league. There’s great joy in watching Will Trapp and Harry Shipp develop. Luis Gil, Palmer-Brown, Harry Shipp, Zardez (okay so maybe not), Garcia (Dal) and so many more young talents are coming through MLS whom is just now getting it’s academy systems fully sorted out. The future for MLS is astoundingly bright if they continue to follow sustainable patterns while claiming the ground in front of them at every given moment. The 2 things that bug me most about MLS play is when players don’t ‘eat up space’ when it’s there for the taking and how rare diagonal and visionary runs are made.

      • lyleoross - Jun 5, 2014 at 11:56 AM

        Yes, I do watch MLS, and I agree with you, it is way better than it was. I worry less about the long ball play at this point, than the over reliance on physical play. Even with that, it is much better. My real concern would be pace.

        Remember where we started, #10 in the world, and our goal is to produce enough quality to compete against Europe. For all of the improvement, would you say that our pace of play, our ability to develop through the mid is anything like what you see over seas? For me, the answer is no. It is that simple. The MNT, as weak as it is, is still closer to what you are seeing from other national teams than the MLS is to European Leagues, and it still devolves into long ball more than what you see there. Is the trend getting better? Yes. Is MLS exciting and a real league? Yes. But it still has a long way to go before it is producing the kind of quality that the European leagues are. Just my opinion.

        BTW – your comment wasn’t DB, you simply have a different view of it. I see the things you are seeing, but IMO they need to be taken in context, not on their own. I referee NPL, and the players and games are amazing to watch. But if you lined them up against top of the line college players, they’d get spanked.

  8. mkbryant3 - Jun 4, 2014 at 1:47 PM

    Will never be world class as long as we play on turf. Those games would be so much better on the natural stuff.

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