Thursday, March 26, 2015

MLS and the Global Tipping Point

Not Olympic, yet somehow totally appropriate.
Where is the tipping point? That’s the question under examination here.

When Major League Soccer (MLS) kicked off with a handful of U.S. World Cup heroes and some decently high-profiled internationals (here, I'm thinking of guys like Carlos Valderrama, Roberto Donadoni, and Marco Etcheverry), the league came off as a carnival barker's novelty. Even as MLS has grown and, somewhat recently, noticeably improved, it has never shaken the minor league status.

One major assumption has held through all this – the idea that any given American player's ambition is defined by his willingness to go to the European big leagues. Failure to find his highest possible level and test himself against it was, by definition, a preemptive denial of whatever potential he, or his career, had. Anyone who doubts this should read up on Landon Donovan's career, who could never do enough during his time with Everton because he failed to transfer to the Liverpool club outright.

A number of Americans – maybe one score, maybe two (maybe more; fuck it, I'm not counting) – put in real time in various European top flights. While some other enjoyed more success with individual clubs – here, I'm thinking Clint Dempsey and Brian McBride at Fulham, or maybe Sacha Kljestan at Anderlecht - Michael Bradley probably compiled the most storied and prolific European career of any American player. And then he came back to MLS. Like Dempsey, like Kljestan, like Jozy Altidore, etc. etc. That's all pretty new, so I guess we're all still sorting out what that means.

Another trend has moved parallel to that one – an influx of players from other leagues from around the world. MLS's early days featured players from Central America and the Caribbean. Colombians followed, if memory served, along with the odd (and often novelty) Brazilian, but now, MLS draws from a bigger pool, including classic "selling leagues" like Argentina and Africa (seriously, how many Ghanaians have come this year alone?), or Europe's (allegedly) lesser leagues like Belgium, Switzerland, and France. Between the high-profile Americans and this influx of new players, the quality of MLS has visibly, palpably – insert your word ending in "ly" here – grown. MLS is a better league today than it was even five years ago. I don't think anyone seriously doubts that. And that gets back to the question of that tipping point? Where is the pivot?

While the biggest European clubs are absolutely better than the best MLS club (yeah, yeah, the Los Angeles Galaxy), even Liga MX has our number 8 times out of 10, the question of how MLS stacks up against, to name random examples, Sunderland or Anderlecht or even Nantes gets more open with each passing season. The point is that we're increasingly drawing from the same pool as the world's leagues; it's just on the (much, much) shallower end of it. But, as revenue grows in MLS, as perceptions of the leaguge improve, and as teams improve generally, MLS will start wading toward the deeper end of the pool. Say the top European clubs are that deep shit under those big goddamn diving boards: where is MLS today? Five feet? Six feet?

More specifically – and, significantly, setting aside huge questions about playing time – at what point will it make more sense, both professionally and for this country's World Cup fortunes, for a promising young, American (or nearly-naturalized American*) to spend his entire career in MLS, without, in so many words, getting boat-loads of internet shit for it? That was on my mind this week as I watched Dillon Powers play (way the fuck out of position) for the Colorado Rapids this weekend, or when I read (well, mostly heard; sorry no links) about Harry Shipp's weekend and saw what he did in the Chicago Fire's low highlights against the San Jose Earthquakes. Or what do I think every weekend of every MLS season as I watch Darlington Nagbe* do his thing for the Portland Timbers?

I can drop one name after another into this conversation – or at least as long as I can click through MLS rosters: Wil Trapp, Steve Birnbaum, Dillon Serna, Agudelo (though he was found wanting...or never found), Gyasi Zardes...hmm, if I'm being honest, the list is drying up. So, uh, moving to the conclusion...

Even if the thesis unraveled a little, the point didn't. The past two decades have been ruled by the argument that the best American players would improve their games most by moving to Europe. When those same players came back – some of them just on the wrong side of their prime, some in their prime, lately – how did that change the equation? How about the influx of better players from better leagues from around the globe? Young Americans now face sterner tests week after week within MLS than ever before. Logically, that should improve their game. The question is how much – which matters when it comes to the World Cup.

The one thing I know for sure is that I haven't seen players like Shipp or Powers in MLS until now. The same goes for Agudelo, or even Altidore (e.g. just about the only guy everyone liked from last night's Danish Debacle). Things are changing. Now, it's just about when they tip...

...if I'm honest, I think we'll know MLS has made it when it's poaching top guys from Europe's big leagues is neither an oddity, or an occasion to break the bank. Mr. Giovinco.


No comments:

Post a Comment