Two weeks ago, when ESPN commentator Taylor Twellman announced via Twitter that Michael Bradley was close to a deal bringing him back to Major League Soccer, United States men’s soccer team fans and pundits, alike, were shocked.
Why would Bradley, playing regularly for one of the biggest clubs in the world—a club that was in pole position for a Champions League place no less—move back to MLS, especially in a World Cup year?
Michael Bradley move from Italy to ambitious Toronto surprising in World Cup year - but sign of MLS growing pulling power.— Ian Darke (@IanDarke) January 8, 2014
Bradley’s personal motivations aside—and there are a reported 6.5 million of them—the big question for USMNT fans was how this move would affect the team’s World Cup chances this summer in Brazil.
In the short-term, the move will likely have little effect on the USMNT. After all, Bradley is already a class player, and MLS’ growing quality is comparable to many mid-size European leagues.
In the long term, however, Bradley’s move to MLS should be good not only for the league itself, but also the future of the USMNT.
Difficulties of Going Overseas
Going to Europe has always been the gold standard for American footballers. However, as many Americans have found out, the grass is not always greener on the other side of the pond. Landon Donovan tried Germany on three separate occasions and none of them worked out. In his stints with Bayer Leverkusen, the first of which was when he was only 17 years old, Donovan struggled with the language barrier and the differences in culture.
Moving abroad can be an enriching experience—especially for Americans who tend to have a myopic worldview—and study abroad programs have become a regular part of most college curricula in the U.S. However, that experience is not for everyone, nor are most teenage footballers ready for it (it is commonly done in the junior or senior year in American college programs). When adding in the fact that American players moving abroad are also being asked to compete in a professional footballing environment, the challenges can be overwhelming.
Bradley's signing is yet another statement from MLS that the league is serious about improving its quality. And as the quality of MLS improves, so does the environment for developing young American talent.
MLS Needs to Be the U.S.’s Development System
While Michael Bradley’s development was done largely overseas, it was not always done on an upward path. Bradley played with five clubs in eight years, couldn’t find a game in a half-season loan to Aston Villa, struggled for minutes with Borussia Monchengladbach in the middle of a relegation fight and had to rebuild his career at Chievo Verona, a club most Americans had never heard of before Bradley’s move there.
Landon Donovan, the greatest player the U.S. has ever produced, spent his formative years in Major League Soccer, getting regular playing time. Many other American players can, and have, benefited from such an experience. And as the caliber of play in MLS continues to grow, the internal competition in MLS will continue to produce better players for the USMNT.
One of the greatest complaints about the U.S. development system is that it’s “upside down.” That is, in America, you must have money to play for the best clubs—as opposed to the rest of the world where the clubs pay the players. This system creates a scenario where the poorest classes, where many of the world’s greatest players have come from, are shut out.
However, that is beginning to change. Many MLS clubs now fund the cost of participation in their academies. Not only does this allow for more equal participation in the club system, it allows players at a young age to live at home as they develop.
MLS clubs also have a serious incentive to make this model work as MLS’ Homegrown Player Rule now allows clubs to sign their players directly into their first teams without those players having to enter the MLS SuperDraft.
Shane O’Neill, Bill Hamid, Jose Villarreal, Diego Fagundez and DeAndre Yedlin are all home-grown players. And all but Fagundez (who is becoming a naturalized citizen) have already represented the U.S. national team at either the youth or senior level.
The total value of the Michael Bradley deal is believed to be between $40-50 million. On the back of the Clint Dempsey deal last year and major investments in the academy system, MLS is showing that it is serious about building the league at both the top and bottom.
A Signal to Future Generations
The Bradley signing is also another signal to future generations of American players that MLS is a viable option not only financially, but also a pathway to USMNT success. In addition to bringing Bradley and Dempsey home, over the past year, Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez and Graham Zusi all signed contract extensions with MLS, rather than move overseas. All had interest from abroad, but all came to believe that staying home was better for their careers. All three are likely to be starters for the U.S. this summer in Brazil.
Besler, Gonzalez and Zusi are not the only U.S. players who have benefited from MLS. As The New York Times reporter Brian Sciaretta noted last week, over half of the USMNT’s current player pool has MLS experience.
Between WC qualifying & 2013 Gold Cup, #usmnt used 42 players. Of those 42, 19 now in MLS (inc Edu). Another 10 have MLS experience— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) January 14, 2014
While Bradley was certainly not a “failure” in Europe, many other U.S. players have found salvation in MLS after rough stints overseas and helped their USMNT prospects in the process. Eddie Johnson is a prime example of this. The recent return of Michael Parkhurst to MLS and the current negotiations to bring Maurice Edu home are indications that others also see MLS as a viable path back into the USMNT fold. At home, these players are more likely to get regular playing time, something that is far more likely to help their development than sitting on a bench in Europe.
An Uneven Process
While gains have been made and will likely to continue to be made, MLS is not an end-all for every U.S. player. Geoff Cameron, Brad Guzan and Tim Howard are all English Premier League regulars and Clint Dempsey was beloved at Fulham. Steve Cherundolo is affectionately called the “Mayor of Hannover” due to his 15 years at the club, and Stuart Holden was doing very well at Bolton in the EPL before his well-publicized injuries. Carlos Bocanegra was a regular at five different European clubs before coming home last year. Sacha Kljestan and Oguchi Onyewu have put together solid careers in mid-tier European leagues, and many Americans have found a comfortable home south of the border in Liga MX.
The Bradley signing is just another step in the process of bringing MLS to a higher level, which in turn should bring the USMNT to a higher level. But serious questions do remain. The U.S. still needs to figure out how to get the most out of its collegiate system and needs to continue improving its coaching ranks.
Finally, how do American players determine whether or not a move to Europe is right for them? When it works out, regular playing time in a top-four league gives USMNT players valuable experience and raises the profile of American soccer. At the same time, the American soccer landscape is littered with so many European “failures” that it has become obvious a move abroad is not for everyone.
The path forward is an uneven one, but Michael Bradley’s return to MLS is good for the league. And what is good for MLS is good for the USMNT’s long-term future.
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