By Neil W. Blackmon
This is the fourth piece of a seven-part series highlighting the most intriguing subplots of the 2011 MLS campaign. Our other MLS preview pieces are linked below:
4. Despite cynical arguments to the contrary, the USMNT is littered with players in or approaching their prime who started plying their trade and cultivating their games in MLS: Why this will get better, and who’s next?
You’ve heard the argument before: the MLS is a subpar league that doesn’t do enough to develop talent in the United States. The end result, the cynics suggest, is detrimental to the US Men’s National Team and its ability to transform itself into a globally elite side. Academies aren’t good enough, scouts don’t travel far enough into urban areas to find elite talent, the league’s revenue-sharing structure isn’t conducive to homegrown talent, the cynics argue. The touchstone for many of these arguments, if one really felt the need to psychoanalyze them, is likely related to the history of professional soccer in this country.
The NASL, MLS’s clumsy grandfather, did very little to develop talent in the States and the prevailing sentiment among MLS critics has been, and to some extent continues to be that MLS will repeat its mistakes. Typically, the cynics point to modest MLS attendance and argue that at least the NASL drew—ignoring that sometimes you can’t have it both ways. Once famously called “an elephant’s graveyard” by the great AC Milan and Italian midfielder Gianni Rivera, the NASL relied on legendary players in the twilight of their careers to draw immense crowds in geographically identified, soccer-friendly areas. George Best, Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Neeskens each closed their careers in North America—playing in front of physically present if not mentally engaged crowds. Cynics seem to cling to this history to its extreme—arguing that MLS will only draw by following a similar path—and of course making the correct argument that, to use Rivera’s phrase, “an elephant’s graveyard” is no place to cultivate talent. To make matters worse, cynics and critics cleverly point to the signings of designated players such as Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, David Beckham and the like and argue that the MLS is becoming just that—an “old man’s league” where the generation and development of elite, homegrown players is stifled at the expense of the gate and revenue. The good news, of course, is that these arguments, made by various writers and “reform” advocates on a constant, sometimes frustrating, sometimes downright annoying basis, are becoming increasingly flawed and detached from reality.
Putting aside youth-centered programs such as Generation Adidas and the increasingly visible and successful MLS academies just for a moment, any retort of these arguments can easily start with the national team. Over the past decade in particular, the number of dynamic US Men’s National team regulars who started plying their trade in MLS is eye-opening. Among MLS success stories, both at the national team and global club level, include at least seven USMNT starters: Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Maurice Edu, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Jon Bornstein (for better or worse) and Landon Donovan. Donovan, who remains in MLS, is, with all due respect to David Ferreira, the league’s finest player, and is perhaps the greatest American player ever produced. In addition to this group, Stu Holden (now shining in England), Teal Bunbury, Juan Agudelo and others appear poised for increased national team roles. That’s a pretty substantial number of quality players, and an endorsement of the league’s ability to prepare players for higher levels of competition.
The good news goes beyond the identification of national team regulars with roots in MLS, however. The good news includes a concentrated focus by the league to make its identity one where young talent is cultivated and can eventually flourish. A look at MLS academies is as good a place as any to start. The young academy talent is easy to identify: Juan Agudelo, Andy Najar, Tristan Bowen are just a few who are visible emerging star-type talents. What’s more critical is the infrastructure in place to make the academies matter more. First, there is a financial incentive to develop homegrown talent. Homegrown players are not counted against the salary cap, for example. If a homegrown, academy player transfers abroad, the league receives a revenue windfall: three-quarters of the transfer fee, instead of the typical two-thirds. Second, the academies ensure high-level competitive environments at ages where only soccer hotbeds could provide them previously. That means that when a kid isn’t from a notable soccer hotbed like Atlanta, Washington DC or St. Louis—he can find his way into an academy and play against the country’s most elite talents before college—which was the only level where that type of competition was ensured in the past. Former USMNT manager Bruce Arena says the effect is to create better development: “”The starting point is placing more of our young, elite players in better soccer environments. Ultimately, all this stuff, as it moves forward, will naturally create better players. It’s a trickle-up effect.” That competitive environment also creates incentive for enrollment: as more academy players sign with MLS clubs, parents begin to understand the value of removing their child from their immediate care (a tough choice) and allowing them to pursue their talent in the academy setting. The end result is a better league, and ultimately, though these results are more distant, a better national team.
Supplementing academies (or possibly bolstering their future effectiveness) is the Generation Adidas program, which finds elite level talent in a similar fashion. These pieces are effective companions to one another and as Alfonso Mondelo, Director of Player Programs for MLS recently told The Shin Guardian in a wonderful interview, the endgame is to identify weaknesses in the game in MLS and correct them with a focused curriculum and development program at the academy level. Mondelo, for example, actively recognized that the US lacks classic number nine or ten type talents, and thinks the academies can help identify those innate talents and then nurture them in a manner that wasn’t possible in this country even a decade ago. Competition helps breed that, particularly in the United States, where such a premium is placed on “winning” at a young age, often at the expense of development. Mondelo suggested that those cultures don’t have to be mutually exclusive—high-level competition can in fact be competition to see who can best cultivate and develop their individual talent in a team setting. There’s no question the net result of that will be an improved national team.
The rest of the tale involves players already in MLS itself, and which ones appear poised to take the next national team step. As a culture, features such as ESPN The Magazine’s “Who’s Next” demonstrate the premium placed on identifying the next big thing in this country and generating hype. For better or worse, even academies where development is privileged over wins and losses won’t change the nature of the American sports media’s hype machine. The best thing we as sportswriters can do, and we at TYAC have certainly done (see anything we write about Alejandro Bedoya), is identify promising players while tempering expectations. Some of those players, such as Tim Ream of the New York Red Bulls deserve the hype. In fact, this writer openly admits that only Sinatra himself, with the help of the adjective “man”, is capable of summarizing my sentiments on Ream as a player. One look at Ream and you see a USMNT starter for a decade, alla Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey. But there are others, who if we are cautious, provide reason for optimism. Among them, Dax McCarty of DC United, Danny Mwanga of the Philadelphia Union once he loses his Indiana Jones “no ticket” passport status, Zac MacMath of the Union in goal (though Earl Edwards is better, in my view, and I’ve seen them both play in person), Omar Gonzalez of the LA Galaxy, the aforementioned Bunbury and Agudelo, LA Galaxy sideback Sean Franklin and Earthquakes defender Ike Opara. And yes, that is just a preliminary list, and one that doesn’t include this kid I heard about who started in MLS and now plays in the Turkish second division, whose name is escaping me right now, and Honduran/US future star Andy Najar, who is probably from a pure talent standpoint the best of the lot. All in all—it is a bright future—and watching that future develop in front of your eyes will be one of the most exciting subplots of the 2011 MLS season.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Editor-In-Chief of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.