By Andrew Villegas
Is MLS becoming the “no-brainer” league for middling Americans abroad?
In February, when Charlie Davies was deciding if he wanted to take his comeback tour to D.C., he called U.S. Men’s National Team Coach Bob Bradley to see what Bradley had to say about joining D.C. United on loan.
“He told me it was a no-brainer,” Davies told the LA Times. “To get back to where I used to be, I need not only 15 or 20 minutes, I need 90-minute matches. That’s the only way I’ll get back to full fitness. That was all I needed to hear to make the move.”
For American soccer pros languishing on benches or in trainer rooms abroad, Davies – who has an MLS-leading five goals in four games – is making the case that many mid-career pros having trouble finding playing time in Europe would be better suited playing in MLS.
Just this season we’ve seen such moves from Davies, Kenny Cooper (who is trying his second go-round with MLS) and Jay DeMerit (who couldn’t find a European club willing to take a chance on a six-year Football League Championship vet). Now USMNT attacking midfielder Benny Feilhaber – who was reportedly considering offers from Europe, Mexico and Brazil, where he was born – has become the latest American to return to the states to revive himself mid-career. On Friday he signed a contract with MLS, which owns all its player contracts. Who he would play for was decided via allocation draft order. Tuesday night, after a lengthy delay which created a #Feilhaber worldwide Twitter trend, Chivas USA, which had the first right to Feilhaber via allocation order, decided to pass on him saying that Feilhaber’s contract, reportedly around $375,000, would hamstring their efforts to bring other talent onboard. The Philadelphia Union also passed on Feilhaber, who was then acquired by the New England Revolution. If Feilhaber stays with the Rev is anyone’s guess at this point, but it’s not the welcome he probably expected.
In need of a star, Chivas would have done well to take Feilhaber, a home-grown former UCLA attacking midfielder. Instead, they’ll hold their breath, keep their #1 spot in the allocation order and hope that another USMNT player like DaMarcus Beasley or Eddie Johnson decides to make the move to MLS. If past is prelude, they probably won’t have long to wait.
The best players have often played in their prime in Europe only to return home as the sun drooped on their careers: see Ronaldinho, who now plays for Rio de Janeiro side Flamengo after success at Barcelona and Milan. But Americans like Feilhaber are returning home with a different spirit: trying to use the MLS as a trampoline on their journey and to get back in the eyes and ears of U.S. Soccer’s top leadership again.
It seems hard to believe that Feilhaber could be fighting for attention from the USMNT coaches and staff after playing in three games for the U.S. at the 2010 World Cup, but Feilhaber failed to move to a different club after his team, Danish side AGF Aarhus, was relegated to the second Danish division. In the winter transfer window, Feilhaber’s agent said he was linked with three clubs, and some Mexican media suggested a move to Cruz Azul was in the offing. But he failed to move anywhere before the European transfer window closed and his choices became severely limited.
Add to this that the USMNT midfield has become more crowded than a rush-hour subway ride and Feilhaber has a lot of heads to turn before he sees playing time on the national team again. Think about it this way, who would you put in front of Feilhaber on the midfield depth chart for the USMNT? If the U.S. continues to employ one of their midfielders in a holding position, that leaves Feilhaber fighting for one spot in the midfield – assuming Michael Bradley continues to occupy that holding midfield position. He will have to overcome Jermaine Jones, Maurice Edu, Sacha Kljestan, Mixx Diskerud and an injured Stu Holden for playing time.
Indeed, Feilhaber was on the roster for for the friendlies against Argentina and Paraguay, but he failed to find playing time or even sit on the bench for the games. But, despite playing in what some term an inferior league, Feilhaber still has the skill to turn those heads once again, especially in MLS, which should give him an opportunity to showcase his ball-striking ability as well as his creative force in the midfield.
There are holdouts to this line of thinking. Freddy Adu, it seems, would rather remain on loan to a second-division Turkish side from Portuguese giant Benfica, than seek a transfer back to MLS. And perhaps partly for it, Adu has been off the USMNT radar for some time. He is focusing on returning to the USMNT squad for the 2014 World Cup, but he too needs regular playing time in a place where USMNT coaches can actually watch him play, and not just on a computer screen.
Many think it’d serve Adu well to return to MLS – where he started his career. Indeed, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that if Feilhaber, Cooper, DeMerit and Davies all explode early in the season that each could find themselves on the U.S. Gold Cup roster this summer. MLS success led to Bradley taking chances on offensive players untested overseas – Robbie Findley’s inclusion on the World Cup team, for instance, is an example of this. Such hopes for Adu seem at the moment as distant as, well, Turkey.
It doesn’t take an analytic mind to see that Bob Bradley values playing time – and the extra evaluation readily available game tape provides – over the mere promise of talent when evaluating players – Jozy Altidore’s experiment notwithstanding. True, Bradley could have sent a scout to watch Danish second division games if Feilhaber had stayed with AGF (which is not a foregone conclusion either), but he could much more easily follow Feilhaber from MLS stadium to MLS stadium on U.S. soil to get a better idea of just where Benny stands and if he’s ready to be back in the USMNT midfield discussion.
And if he hasn’t yet already, Bradley could always get Feilhaber on the phone to reprise some familiar advice on what he really thinks of Feilhaber’s move to MLS: It’s a no-brainer.
Andrew Villegas writes a weekly column about Major League Soccer for The Yanks Are Coming. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and you should follow him on Twitter at @ReporterAndrew.