In the United States men’s national team's recent World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica and Mexico, a funny thing happened. For the first time in recent memory, certainly the first time in the Jurgen Klinsmann era, every single player on the field for the United States was, or had been, a Major League Soccer player.
MLS still holds a controversial place in the hearts and minds of many USMNT fans. While everyone knows that the league is growing and getting better, there is still a lingering feeling among many U.S. fans that the league is somehow not doing its job of producing players capable of catapulting the USMNT to the next level of international play.
Certainly, MLS still has yet to organically produce its own superstar, and most young Americans still believe a move to Europe is the best way to further their career—if and when such a move becomes available.
Yet, the league is starting to get to that tipping point, where it will be able to hold onto its young stars and perhaps even attract young stars from Europe.
One of the biggest factors in the growth and improvement of the league over the past few years has been the increasing growth of the league’s international flavor.
Two weeks ago, MLS released a map of the league’s players that were born outside of the United States. It included 213 players from 61 different countries.
While some might think that such a large number of international players is hurting the league because these players are taking roster spots that might otherwise go to American (or Canadian) players, they are wrong.
The addition of these players is helping improve the level of competition in the league, consequently forcing American players to raise the level of their game. It is no longer like the days of the NASL, where teams have to look for places on the field to hide their American players.
American players must now compete with this larger pool of talent for roster spots, for playing time and in games against other MLS teams with international talent. There is little doubt that USMNT players like Graham Zusi and Eddie Johnson are better off having to play against international defenders like Alessandro Nesta, Victor Bernardez and Arne Friedrich week in and week out.
Similarly, USMNT defenders like Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler are better off having to face international strikers like Thierry Henry, Fabian Espindola, Marco Di Vaio, Claudio Bieler, Robbie Keane and Alvaro Saborio.
At the youth level, with many of U.S. Soccer’s academies sponsored by MLS teams, American youngsters are forced to compete against an ever-improving talent pool to make it to the professional level.
Lack of competition breeds complacency. The improvement of the league forces development.
American players are also getting a better environment to showcase their skills with quality international players surrounding them. A quick survey of the league gives many examples of this.
There is no doubt that Benny Feilhaber is in a better position to showcase his playmaking skills with a forward like Argentine Claudio Bieler. Will Bruin is more likely to showcase his finishing skills with a skilled winger like Honduran Oscar Boniek Garcia providing service from the wings. Anyone with the L.A. Galaxy has been better off the past few seasons playing with world-class players like David Beckham and Robbie Keane. Last season, Chicago Fire center-back Austin Berry benefitted from being partnered with former German international Arne Friedrich.
Additionally, as the league improves, more players will want to play here, both internationally and domestically. The fanbase will continue to grow and impact the next generation of fans and players. Youngsters get to see and experience a higher-quality game. As the play gets better, more and more international players will also want to come to America to play. This then creates a cycle where the league continues to improve year in and year out.
Domestically, as USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann continues to show faith in MLS players, the motivation for top American players to stay or come home also improves. One must wonder—if Oguchi Onyewu or Carlos Bocanegra had been playing MLS for the past season or two, wouldn’t their international careers be in better shape? Currently, both men struggle to get regular games abroad, but they would surely both be top center-backs in MLS.
It is also only a matter of time until MLS begins to keep its best homegrown players. And as the league improves, the likelihood of that happening continues to grow.
The current debate about whether or not the L.A. Galaxy will sign USMNT defender Omar Gonzalez as a designated player to prevent him moving to Europe is a great example of this. This winter's flirtation between the Portland Timbers and U.S. youngster Mix Diskerud is another good example.
Such a big international pool also creates an international flavor similar to that which Americans would experience playing abroad. American players can also learn about the game from the different perspectives of their international teammates.
Such a large pool of Central American and Caribbean players also allows USMNT players to see CONCACAF competition week in and week out and get a feel for each potential opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. MLS players are well aware of the abilities of players like Guatemalan Carlos Ruiz, Costa Rican Alvaro Saborio and Hondurans Jerry Bengtson and Boniek Garcia. Such awareness only helps the USMNT in World Cup qualifying and Gold Cup play.
Overall, the benefits of the international flavor of MLS far outweigh any potential negatives. International players improve the quality of soccer in the league, the American players in the league and, consequently, the United States men’s national team.
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