One of the big themes on the United States' World Cup roster is youth. Manager Jurgen Klinsmann selected eight players aged 25 or younger to head to Brazil to compete in Group G against Ghana, Portugal and Germany.
By choosing to bring this many young stars down to South America with him, Klinsmann has made a statement regarding player development in the American system.
Three players who have gone through the system themselves are Michael Bradley, Graham Zusi and Omar Gonzalez.
All three players are fully aware of the contributions Major League Soccer has made to their careers and how it affected each of them in a different manner.
Bradley, 26, played for the New York-New Jersey MetroStars from 2004 to 2005 before leaving for Europe, where he played in the Netherlands, Germany, England and Italy before moving back to MLS with Toronto FC in January.
"You see now that MLS has such an influence on every national team roster. You have guys that are able to play week in and week out here at a high level and push themselves, challenge themselves and be ready when called on to play at a high level for the national team," Bradley said.
Zusi, 27, worked his way up through the collegiate ranks and is a member of a team, Sporting Kansas City, that has developed quite a few players over the years.
Over the last few years, most MLS teams have affiliated themselves with teams in the lower divisions of American soccer to send players out on loan to develop. That system has benefited Zusi and his teammates in 2014, as Dom Dwyer has scored 11 goals a year after being loaned out to Orlando City.
"We're building something at such a fast rate, faster than any league has developed ever that I can think of," Zusi said. "Even since I've been in the league, I've seen enormous steps that MLS has taken to become one of the best leagues in the world, and it's really an exciting time for soccer in this country."
For Gonzalez, 25, player development is key to the next generation of American players who one day might have a chance at winning a World Cup.
"I think that's the most important thing for the growth of this league and U.S. Soccer, for being true competitors on the world stage. I think we have to grow our young players," Gonzalez said.
One player in particular, DeAndre Yedlin, has gained plenty of attention from the MLS faithful since he will become the first homegrown player to compete in a World Cup.
"That's such a cool story when you bring up DeAndre. You see the homegrown players, the local guys, the young players making great impacts in our leagues, it proves that we can develop players here," Zusi said.
Yedlin is just the latest member of the national team to have earned his stripes through the domestic league, as 15 of the 23 players headed to Brazil are either playing in MLS right now or have used MLS as a springboard to play in Europe.
"Now that the national team is built up with more and more MLS players, that's the way the game keeps on growing, the number of fans keeps on growing. That's the only way this league will continue to grow, and it's the way it needs to work," Gonzalez said.
Despite the added influence of developing players through MLS academies, the choice still belongs to the player in how he wants to grow as a footballer.
"It's so important for anybody when you talk about trying to challenge yourself to be better, and it's important to play with the best and challenge yourself on a bigger scale," Bradley said. "If that's your dream, go for it. The ability in life to have dreams and set goals and do anything you can to reach them, that's what it's all about.
"The Gatorade Unreal Around the World contest gives kids a chance to compete for that chance to be able to spend time at some of the biggest clubs in the world."
"I'm not here to tell anyone what path they can take. They'll realize that on their own," Zusi said. "Mine happened to be the college path. Others might go the academy path, but they certainly don't need to get frustrated that it isn't happening right away. You can take time just like me."
With so much time spent on developing the talent in the States over the last five to 10 years, it wouldn't surprise anyone if the American team in 2018 or 2022 is full of domestic-based players.
"Pretty soon you will see the national team full of stars playing in MLS," Gonzalez said.
Bradley, Zusi and Gonzalez were speaking on behalf of the Gatorade "Unreal Around the World" event. Gatorade's "Unreal Around the World" contest encourages amateur football players across the globe to demonstrate how their training and hard work translates to unreal performance on the pitch. Five winners will receive a two-week, once-in-a-lifetime global football experience at some of the world's most iconic clubs, including FC Barcelona, AC Milan, Liverpool, Arsenal, Boca Juniors and the Brazilian Football Confederation.
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.
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