Jun 3, 2014, 9:43 PM EST
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.
4. 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.
Dec 21, 2014, 11:59 PM EST
Antoine Griezmann breaks out with three goals in Atletico’s 4-1 result over Athletic Bilbao.
A day of Ronaldo: Real Madrid star erects statue of himself, thinks Real can win Champions League again
Dec 21, 2014, 10:21 PM EST
Cristiano Ronaldo has made headlines twice today, for erecting a statue of himself and claiming Real Madrid could repeat in the Champions League.
Dec 21, 2014, 9:07 PM EST
The sky continues to fall in Dortmund.
Dec 21, 2014, 8:17 PM EST
Tim Howard converses about his recently released autobiography, “The Keeper.”
Dec 21, 2014, 7:40 PM EST
Jeremy Menez has done a fantastic job as AC Milan’s primary attacker, and he’s primarily aiming for the French national team call-up.
Dec 21, 2014, 6:20 PM EST
Ally McCoist has left Scottish Championship team Rangers, as the club has recognized the former star striker is now on “gardening leave.”
Dec 21, 2014, 5:30 PM EST
Catch up on Premier League Round 17 action from this Sunday.
Dec 21, 2014, 4:55 PM EST
According to Brendan Rogers, Liverpool’s prime attacker, Daniel Sturridge, will make his return from a multi-month injury in early January.
Dec 21, 2014, 4:05 PM EST
Sunderland winger Adam Johnson on game-winner and Tyne-Wear derby triumphs: “Three years in a row, they must hate me here!”
Dec 21, 2014, 3:39 PM EST
Brendan Rodgers gives his thoughts after a 2-2 draw despite what he called “dominance” on the ball.
Dec 21, 2014, 3:12 PM EST
With polarizing halves separating the teams, Arsene Wenger said a draw was the correct result based on performance.
Dec 21, 2014, 2:29 PM EST
Cristiano Ronaldo appeared to bring a grudge with him to Morocco.
Dec 21, 2014, 1:44 PM EST
With Newcastle yielding late, Alan Pardew thinks he may have left his team a little too exposed as the clock ticked towards the final minute.
Dec 21, 2014, 1:08 PM EST
Martin Skrtel returned from a nasty injury and took full advantage of the resulting stopptage time.
Dec 21, 2014, 11:58 AM EST
A day to forget for the American central defender in Germany’s top flight.
Dec 21, 2014, 10:26 AM EST
The boyhood Newcastle fan scored at St. James Park for the third year in a row as Sunderland stole the Tyne-Wear derby late.
Dec 21, 2014, 10:16 AM EST
Raheem Sterling looks to be the lone attacking option for Liverpool as Brendan Rodgers has left both his available strikers on the bench.
Dec 21, 2014, 8:52 AM EST
A magnetizing first touch leads to a meaningless but nonetheless beautiful goal by the man who gives us magic weekly.
Dec 21, 2014, 7:53 AM EST
The heated Tyne-Wear derby has brought us goals and fireworks of many kinds, and will be no different today as Sunderland looks to win four in a row over Newcastle for the first time ever.
Dec 20, 2014, 10:54 PM EST
Howard doesn’t think Lampard will start the MLS season with NYCFC, although he says he should.
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