Stage Is Set at MLS Cup for USMNT Stars to Give Inspiring Performances

Joe TanseyFeatured ColumnistDecember 9, 2016

FILE - In this Sept. 17, 2016, file photo, Seattle Sounders forward Jordan Morris, right, celebrates after he scored a goal against the Vancouver Whitecaps during an MLS soccer match in Seattle. Morris heads into his first postseason as the Sounders' team leader with 12 goals and a role that has evolved over the course of his rookie year. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

Three of the names on the marquee for Saturday's MLS Cup Final at BMO Field in Toronto are members of the United States men's national team.

Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Jordan Morris will be on full display when Toronto FC host the Seattle Sounders in the championship contest. 

Over the last week, Toronto midfielder Bradley in particular has handed out plenty of praise for Morris, who scored 12 goals in his rookie season and netted the game-winning goal for Seattle in the Western Conference Final. 

The USMNT captain complimented Morris on dealing with the ton of pressure he's faced in 2016, per Fox Sports' Julie Stewart-Binks: 

Morris went from fringe player to starter in an instant when Obafemi Martins was sold late in the offseason and has stepped into an even bigger role since Clint Dempsey was ruled out for the season with an irregular heartbeat. 

The production out of the MLS Rookie of the Year is a big step forward for the league as a whole as it tries to attract the best American players to remain at home among a growing number of outstanding foreigners. 

However, there are a few trends that suggest foreign players are becoming the foundation of rosters league-wide and that some homegrown players are being squeezed out of the equation and forced to find clubs elsewhere. 

Only eight Americans were among the active designated players in MLS this season. There were just six before Tim Howard and Alejandro Bedoya joined during the summer transfer window. 

The top 10 scorers in the Golden Boot race all represent foreign nations. Morris, Chris Pontius and Chris Wondolowski were the top Americans in the competitions with 12 goals each, which was good enough for an 11th-place tie. 

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

The addition of Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) in the last year has made it easier for MLS clubs on tight budgets to go out and acquire big names from other parts of the globe. 

Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl reported this week that the league will provide another significant boost to the TAM funds in the coming weeks, with an $8.8 million increase in funding coming for 2017.

As Wahl reported, that is an extra $400,000-to-$1.2 million for each club to spend, depending on how much TAM the club spent in 2016. 

The acquisition of Bedoya by the Philadelphia Union was one of the only uses of TAM on an American player in 2016. Most teams improved their quality by bringing in players like Ola Kamara in Columbus and Jelle Van Damme in Los Angeles, both of whom instantly made impacts on their respective teams. 

Bedoya's signing was a rare exception to how MLS clubs spend TAM and their DP slots.
Bedoya's signing was a rare exception to how MLS clubs spend TAM and their DP slots.John Raoux/Associated Press

With few teams willing to develop prospects in MLS from the start, TAM has become a valuable asset in order to add a key player or two who will take a club over the hump from bottom feeder to playoff contender, or from playoff team qualifier to MLS Cup contender. 

With few Americans in the talent pool at home or abroad worthy of earning big money in MLS because of their quality on the pitch, clubs have turned to South America or Europe for exciting playmakers and rock-solid defenders. The infusion of American talent into a roster usually comes at a cheaper price, with the majority of the players being signed for less when they're young.

All you have to do is look at expansion side Atlanta United for a perfect example of how most teams mold their rosters. 

Atlanta went out and spent big money on Miguel Almiron, Kenwyne Jones and Hector Villalba while adding young Americans Brandon Vazquez and Andrew Carleton. 

Steps are being made in the development of American players. The New York Red Bulls, FC Dallas and the LA Galaxy are good examples. 

The Red Bulls worked homegrown players Connor Lade, Sean Davis and Alex Muyl into the starting lineup this season, while the Galaxy employed Daniel Steres, Gyasi Zardes and a cast of reserves that came out of their academy.

Zardes is one of the league's homegrown success stories.
Zardes is one of the league's homegrown success stories.Shaun Clark/Getty Images

FC Dallas are the gold standard of player development in MLS, as they've brought along Matt Hedges, Walker Zimmerman and Kellyn Acosta as stars of the league and have plenty on the way, but the time for them to shine won't come for another couple of years. 

The same can be said for the countless young players earning valuable playing time in the USL, which will soon be the second-division league in the United States after the contraction and potential collapse of the NASL. 

There's no doubt progress is being made at the lower levels, with all of the clubs in MLS having some type of affiliation with a club in USL, whether it be through a direct feeder club or an independent affiliate like the ones in baseball's minor league system. 

But for the time being, there are a select few Americans in charge of proudly waving the flag for domestic players. 

Toronto forward Altidore and Bradley were a part of a movement started by Dempsey that saw plenty of big names return from Europe and boost the quality of the league. 

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 30:  Jozy Altidore #17 of Toronto FC celebrates a goal during the first half of the MLS Eastern Conference Final, Leg 2 game against Montreal Impact at BMO Field on November 30, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Vaughn Ri
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

That goal has been achieved, as the trio have put their clubs in a spot to contend for the MLS Cup year after year. Dempsey's move from Tottenham Hotspur to Seattle also influenced Sporting Kansas City's Matt Besler and Graham Zusi to stay at home and achieve success domestically under designated-player contracts. 

The current crop of American stars took a risk a few years ago, as they rejoined MLS to the chagrin of then-USMNT boss Jurgen Klinsmann, but now the pressure is on the next generation to create a homegrown superstar whom MLS can promote more than anyone who has played in the league. 

Morris has the potential to be just that. The Stanford University product opted to stay at home in Seattle after interest from Werder Bremen in the offseason. Morris has reaped the rewards up top for the Sounders, as he's shown no fear leading the line with Dempsey out of the picture. 

CARSON, CA - SEPTEMBER 25: Jordan Morris #13 of Seattle Sounders lines up a shot during Los Angeles Galaxy's MLS match against Seattle Sounders at the StubHub Center on September 25, 2016 in Carson, California.  The Seattle Sounders won the match 4-2. (Ph
Shaun Clark/Getty Images

The 22-year-old may not match the hype of 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund star Christian Pulisic, but his success in MLS is as important as Pulisic's achievements in Europe. 

For years we've known that the path to success in Europe works. Countless Americans in the last two generations have gone overseas to enjoy long playing careers, and some, like Earnie Stewart and Steve Cherundolo, rose through the ranks of the technical staff as well after retiring. 

Now it's time for MLS to create the same success at home. The pieces are in place for the league's 20 current clubs and two expansion sides in 2017 to grow young players through their academy systems and eventually see them star for the first team. 

Fending off European interest will always be a challenge for MLS sides. There will always be players who want to make the move overseas, and MLS will undoubtedly lose out on a few studs to bigger clubs. But if the league finds a way to limit its losses in that department, more players like Morris will be on the marquee for future MLS Cups. 

A victory has already been achieved at home by having Bradley, Altidore and Morris accompany Sebastian Giovinco and Nicolas Lodeiro on the marquee for Saturday's championship match, and it helps the league immensely that it can promote USMNT stars playing its biggest game. 

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 30:  Michael Bradley #4 of Toronto FC battles for the ball with Marco Donadel #33 of Montreal Impact during the first half of the MLS Eastern Conference Final, Leg 2 game at BMO Field on November 30, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

An even bigger step will occur if one of the three turn in an incredible performance in a match set to have all eyes on it. 

All it takes is one inspiring performance by a USMNT star to motivate a young crop of Americans to play in MLS and win the league's biggest prizes. The same thing is already taking place in Canada, as Toronto and Montreal played a thrilling Eastern Conference Final that further developed their rivalry and brought the sport to the forefront of the nation. 

The stage is set for Bradley, Altidore or Morris to thrive in the MLS Cup, and after a tumultuous 2016 for the USMNT in which Klinsmann was sacked and disappointing results were delivered, an MVP-caliber performance from one of the three on Saturday night would be exactly what the doctored ordered for the growth of the game at home. 

           

Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter; @JTansey90