The United States Men’s National Team’s 2-1 loss to Honduras reduced its chances to qualify for the 2014 World Cup by 8.9 percent (per ESPN’s Paul Carr). But don’t blame Jurgen Klinsmann should it fail to qualify—blame MLS.
In only 17 years, MLS succeeded in developing the American player and the American game. But now its impact can be felt throughout the entire region.
Honduras, Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica have a stable of MLS talent at its disposal. All four pose a serious threat to the United States.
The league has provided Caribbean and Central American players with the opportunity to develop in an environment that offers better resources and greater financial stability than their local counterparts.
Who Poses the Greater Threat to the USMNT?
The result: Better play and tougher competition in the Hexagonal.
That result is at the root of the USMNT's problem.
Parity has been created in a region once dominated by the U.S. and Mexico.
More than a third of Honduras’ starting XI call MLS home: Victor Bernárdez (San Jose Earthquakes), Oscar Boniek García (Houston Dynamo), Mario Martínez (Seattle Sounders) and Jerry Bengtson (New England Revolution).
That’s not including Carlo Costly and Roger Espinoza. Both left MLS in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
Compare that to the 2010 World Cup team that only had one if its members in MLS.
So on a day that saw nine European-based players start for the USMNT, it was the foreign MLS talent that shined brightest.
When Boniek Garcia set up Bengtson’s game-winning goal in the 79th minute, that was two MLS players digging a knife into the hearts of American soccer fans everywhere.
Ironically enough, this isn’t the first time the U.S. lost to a team loaded with MLS talent.
Four MLS players started for Jamaica in its first ever defeat of the USMNT back in September. Two more were subbed on later in the match.
The victory provided the Reggae Boyz with a pivotal three points that allowed them to advance to the Hexagonal for the first time since the 2002 cycle.
An historic scoreless draw against Mexico Wednesday night justified Jamaica’s arrival.
Three MLS players—Jermaine Taylor (Houston Dynamo), Ryan Johnson (Portland Timbers) and Donovan Ricketts (Portland Timbers)—started for Jamaica in a half-empty Estadio Azteca.
The influence of MLS talent is not plentiful for Panama or Costa Rica, but it is impactful.
Led by Blas Perez (FC Dallas), Panama is attempting to qualify for its first ever World Cup. A nation better known for its love of boxing and baseball is on the cusp of a historic achievement.
Panamanian head coach Julio Dely Valdés sees MLS as an opportunity to intensify a movement by Los Canaleros.
“I’ve seen plenty of MLS games, the level is really getting better and Panamanian players who go there have a real chance to improve their games. Without a doubt, automatically it makes our national team better. Anytime a player goes to play in a league that’s stronger than our local league, it makes the team better and makes my job as a trainer easier.”
Costa Rica is better known for its European-club players like Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell. But it was Álvaro Saborío who gave La Sele life in Wednesday’s 2-2 draw with Panama.
After trailing 2-0 late in the first half, his emphatic header in the 39th minute was timely. But his assist on Ruiz's late equalizer was pivotal to Costa Rica’s escape from Panama City.
Saborío has developed his form with Real Salt Lake for the last three seasons, scoring 40 goals with nine assists.
His presence will be felt when Costa Rica visit Dick's Sporting Goods Park on March 22.
American soccer fans should not expect this to be a fading trend—not with MLS developing a reputation as a “feeder league.”
Future Central American and Caribbean players have to look no further than Andy Najar to recognize the opportunities MLS can present them with.
At only 19, Najar provides other aspiring footballers with a blueprint to make a successful transfer to greener pastures. Future CONCACAF talent will attempt to mirror his success, only strengthening their national team in the process.
Like Valdés said, anytime a player goes to play in a league that’s stronger than their local counterpart, it only makes their national team that much more formidable.
Now, by no means does this imply that the U.S. will fail to qualify for the first time since 1986.
The USMNT still has a 52.9 percent chance of qualifying according to the ESPN Soccer Power Index.
Worst-case scenario: That’s enough for fourth place in the Hexagonal and an intercontinental playoff against a lowly New Zealand side (ranked 91st in the world according to FIFA).
But don’t expect the USMNT to steam roll its way into the World Cup like it has in years past.
Following a loss, there is an innate tendency to center the attention on what the USMNT has done wrong. It's time some attention is paid to what other countries in the CONCACAF have done right.
The U.S. didn't lose to Honduras because it lacked the talent. It lost because its competition no longer does, either.
There are no minnows in the Hexagonal. The competition has caught up.
You can thank MLS.
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