Can MLS Develop USMNT Players Capable of Making a Deep World Cup Run?

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Can MLS Develop USMNT Players Capable of Making a Deep World Cup Run?
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As exciting as the 2014 World Cup was for United States's national team fans, the harsh reality is that the team advanced no further than it did in 2010. Even more depressingly, the team's 2-1 loss to Belgium in the round of 16 in 2014 was eerily similar to the 1-0 loss the team suffered at the hands of Brazil 20 years ago at the exact same stage in the tournament.

There are, of course, exceptions. In 2014, the team advanced out of the "group of death" and was a Chris Wondolowski finish away from a quarterfinal appearance. But "what ifs" don't count for much in football and some have asked why the U.S. hasn't progressed further.

As attention now transitions to the next World Cup cycle, there has been a renewed focus on the team's next batch of young prospects and how they can be developed to help the U.S. make a deep World Cup run and compete with the giants of the game.

Among U.S. fans, there's a fervent debate about whether these young players are better served heading abroad, or whether their development can be trusted to Major League Soccer.

Looking at the U.S.'s 2014 roster, one can't draw any definitive conclusions.

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While the U.S. was widely criticized for its lack of an attack in Brazil, its leading goal scorer, Clint Dempsey, both started his career in MLS and has played in the league since last fall. Furthermore, three of the U.S.'s four assists in the tournament were produced by MLS players (Graham Zusi had two and Michael Bradley had one).

Many blamed Bradley's lack of sharpness in the tournament on the fact that he's been with MLS since January but simultaneously failed to recognize that the league is also home to Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Kyle Beckerman and DeAndre Yedlin—who all played well and who are all MLS lifers.

It's also interesting to note that while Bradley's sharpness was allegedly hurt by MLS, Dempsey, who has been back in the league longer than Bradley, suffered no such apparent drop in form.

When it came to defensive frailties for the U.S., both goals in the match against Portugal can arguably be attributed to mistakes by Geoff Cameron—who has been a starter for two years in the English Premier League.

It's also difficult to trace success back to one's play domestically or abroad because so many U.S. players have a mixed pedigree. Dempsey was an MLS star before departing for London, where for many years he led an overachieving Fulham squad. Bradley began in MLS before moving to Europe, where he saw success—ironically as an attacking midfielder—at Heerenveen, before spending three seasons in the Bundesliga and two and half years in Serie A.

Tim Howard and DaMarcus Beasley, who both had excellent tournaments, also got their start in MLS and were among the league's top players, not youth prospects, when they moved abroad.

Of the U.S.'s players who have been exclusively foreign based, it got its best performances from Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones. But neither of those players are attackers.

Hassan Ammar/Associated Press

Furthermore, none of the U.S.'s Europe-based attacking players were major contributors. Aron Johannsson, who scored 26 goals in all competitions last season in the Netherlands, got a shot against Ghana but produced little. And head coach Jurgen Klinsmann didn't trust Mix Diskerud to play a single minute in the tournament, despite the U.S.'s sometimes desperate lack of possession.

Julian Green didn't get into a game until the U.S. was behind by two goals in extra time in its fourth match and Terrence Boyd, despite scoring 20 goals in Europe last season, didn't even make the final 23-man roster.

Klinsmann has repeatedly spoken about the importance of Americans playing overseas and its apparent superiority to MLS, but when the rubber hit the road, he often trusted MLS players over their European counterparts when the team was in Brazil.

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Perhaps the most straightforward comparison that can be made between MLS and Europe-based players is the one between Alejandro Bedoya and Zusi. Both grew up in the United States, played collegiate soccer here and went pro in 2009. However, Zusi stayed home in MLS and Bedoya went overseas.

They also both play on the wing and are starters for the USMNT.

Since last summer's Gold Cup, Bedoya, who plays for Nantes in France's Ligue 1, has played in 14 matches for the U.S. and started 13 times. In that span, he hasn't scored and has only provided one assist.

Zusi, on the other hand, who plays for MLS' Sporting Kansas City, has played in 13 matches for the U.S. in that span and started 10 of those games. In Zusi's matches, he has scored twice and provided three assists.

While Zusi's play in the World Cup cannot be considered spectacular, his comparison with Bedoya also proves that moving overseas is not necessarily as advantageous as many think.

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Many Americans drawn to Europe have also suffered serious setbacks to their careers. Maurice Edu's year and a half with Stoke, in which he played a grand total of 10 minutes, likely killed off any chance he had of making the World Cup team. 

Similarly, the careers of American internationals Brek Shea, Eric Lichaj, Tim Ream, Jonathan Spector, Oguchi Onyewu, Clarence Goodson and Michael Parkhurst all hit relative standstills in Europe. Of course, with MLS' salary restrictions, they also all probably made much more money than they ever would have made at home.

Even looking at this year's World Cup results, one can wonder whether it's time to end the fascination with playing in Europe. Of the big four leagues (EPL, Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A), only Germany's national team made it out of the group stage. Italy, England and Spain all went home early, as did No. 4-ranked Portugal.

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At the same time, all of those teams have "world-class" players and the U.S. doesn't. The closest it has ever come has been Landon Donovan, but Donovan emerged on the scene in the late '90s and has been playing in MLS for 15 years. The question must be asked, "why hasn't MLS produced another Landon Donovan?"

For years in the U.S., youth coaches were either foreigners or fathers who likely played football in high school. But the first generation of American-born coaches who played the game at a competitive level now comprises the bulk of its youth system. And with that, there have been both incremental and titanic changes in the development of American players—many of which are just beginning to pay off and will require further patience.

The next generation of American players is a mix of MLS- and Europe-based starlets and represents the largest group of prospects the USMNT pool has ever had. Of this group, most have played their entire careers in either MLS or Europe. Whoever makes the U.S. national team in 2018 and how the team does in that World Cup will go a long way toward answering the question.

 

Follow me on Twitter @JohnDHalloran

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