Back in the sepia-toned days of the 2002 World Cup, much of the American team that reached the quarterfinals was based in the US. Integral contributors like Cobi Jones, Brian McBride, and Eddie Pope hailed from MLS teams. Now, the 15-year-old league seems marginal, at best. Out of the established core of starters, only Landon Donovan currently plays for an MLS club, and his future in the US is in doubt, thanks to his recent successful loan stint at Everton. The vast majority of American players heading to South Africa this summer will be European-based.
Some might be tempted to say that the top level of American soccer has outgrown MLS. Young American standouts, like Stuart Holden and Jozy Altidore, are leaving earlier than ever to test themselves in Europe.
But while Major League Soccer’s days as provider of top USMNT stars may be coming to an end, it still has four important responsibilities.
First, it provides a reliable stream of backup and squad players who have experience playing first team soccer. Players like Sacha Kljestan, Brian Ching, and Jonathan Bornstein may not be the marquee names in the US setup, but they provide a valuable, experienced reserve for Bob Bradley to call upon.
Second, not all foreign careers pan out, and Major League Soccer offers a comfortable place for American players to regroup and rehabilitate careers that seemingly went off the track abroad. This safety net has brought back players like Heath Pearce, Michael Orozco, and Clint Mathis.
Third, MLS has an absolutely sterling record when it comes to developing players for the US national team. Of the current crop, some former MLS players include Tim Howard, Carlos Bocanegra, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Stuart Holden. Much of this is down to MLS providing talented young players with plenty of exposure to first team football at an early stage in their career.
Finally, and perhaps most vitally, MLS is charged with growing the popularity of soccer itself in North America. USMNT games are big events, but far too infrequent to sustain the attention of the casual fan. MLS is the stable, solid foundation on which the American soccer empire is being built.
Keith Hickey is a contributing writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at USArsnl@gmail.com.