I have watched about 15 minutes of MLS soccer in my entire life. I have watched about 15 million minutes of European soccer.
As Americans, we enjoy watching the best athletes in any given sport compete on the biggest stages possible. We love seeing Albert Pujols hit the 450-foot homer, Peyton Manning floating in the perfect pass. In soccer lingo, that would be equivalent to watching Cristiano Ronaldo whipping in the perfect free kick or Lionel Messi using his magic feet to fly by five defenders before scoring.
Believe it or not, when it comes to soccer, the best players do not reside in the United States. And Americans do not grace the list of the best players in the world either.
A debate has risen regarding Major League Soccer and its position as one of the more inferior leagues in the developed world. While the United States has done an excellent job of developing players (by their standards), its professional league has not grown at the same rate.
Over the past decade, many of the best Americans have gone to Europe in an attempt to establish themselves as household names. While Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey have done very well in their stints in the English Premier League, an American has yet to reach that list of elite, world class players. It's bound to happen eventually, as the amount of progress made over the past 20 years in American soccer infrastructure has been outstanding.
The question now remains, should these players stay in the United States to help grow the league and influence the national system as a whole? Or, should they choose to test the waters of the elite soccer leagues, finding out how good they really are?
Here are seven reasons why US soccer players should ply their trades in a foreign land if given the opportunity.
In terms of a global context, the MLS does not have a great deal of exposure. Despite ESPN's occasional dabbling with the league and constant advertising, fans across the world simply to not watch this product. The reasons for this are pretty clear, and we probably will be touching on them for a majority of the slideshow.
Despite people's varying opinions about the MLS itself, the simple fact remains that their best players are not receiving as much publicity and notoriety as they could if they decided to head to the European leagues. This added exposure would lead to more opportunities, in terms of advertising and business deals.
Many more people now know about Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey now that they have left the United States. Many young talented Americans could follow in their footsteps should they choose to flee to Europe.
Playing with superior soccer players will only raise the game of the Americans, and they will be much better off in the long run. Although Donovan had a difficult spell the first time he went to Europe (as a 17-year-old with Bayer Leverkusen), he learned a great deal about the work ethic and dedication it takes to become a good soccer player.
Upon his return to Europe some years later, he stormed onto the scene at Everton and won praise from pundits across the continent. Now, many of the top teams in Europe are after the 29-year-old veteran. Donovan is much better off and has now become the flagship for American soccer. Players like Jozy Altidore and Maurice Edu have followed in Donovan's footsteps, with varying amounts of success.
Imagine if a young talent like Juan Agudelo went to the big leagues. The growth he would experience would be tremendous.
This is one of the more important and obvious reasons why a good American soccer player should decide to play in one of the major leagues. In every other sport, the best players play in the best leagues, regardless of where that may be.
Baseball players flock from Latin America and Asia, basketball players from Europe and Africa and hockey players from every place that ends in "ia" all come to the United States to perfect their craft and play with the best from around the world.
No matter what the sport is (this is obviously clearer in salary cap leagues), when athletes outgrow the particular club they play for, they move on to a bigger club. This occurs all the time in Europe; rarely is talent homegrown on any major squad.
Teams buy and sell players that match their ambitions like pie slices in their stock portfolio. If American players had the ability to perform on a stage in Europe, why stay in the subpar MLS? As Ron Burgundy would put it, "that's just dummmmmb."
A major part of playing on the biggest stage in world football is performing in front of super-sized stadiums and ever-passionate fans. European soccer fans are devoted to their teams like no other, often to a fault. We often hear the phrase about players been driving on, despite pure exhaustion, just by the roar of a passionate crowd.
Soccer stadiums are some of the most magnificent structures in sports today. Whether it be the Nou Camp or Old Trafford, each pitch has a distinctive feel and atmosphere that is hard to put into words. Even the stadiums over average teams, like Stoke, Fiorentina or Getafe all have their particular charms that make them unique.
Compare this to the MLS, whose fields comprise mostly of NFL stadiums that have the hash marks and the sideline paint still showing. Training facilities are state of the art complexes in Europe, with all the best amenities the best have come to expect.
These are some of the many perks an American player would enjoy if he chose to spend a few seasons in a European league.
Most MLS players reside from Central and South America and usually come from the lower echelon of leagues in those areas. Because the product isn't very good, along with the general apathy towards soccer by most Americans, attendance is one of MLS's biggest issues. Since the inception of the league, teams have tried to bring older, established European stars in order to sell tickets (the WCW method) and bring interest towards their product.
David Beckham is the biggest example of this, but aside from a few extra jersey sales and Nike commercials, people have not really changed their attitude toward soccer in this country. In order for the MLS to be taken seriously, the average player has to improve. For this to happen, the best players that come through the league have to go abroad to show what the MLS is made of. Over time, when people see how many good players have come through the collective system, interest will perk and fans will begin to show up at arenas.
Individually, players could use the same advice. Men like Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey have seen their reputations skyrocket as a result of playing in the English leagues. Both league and player benefit from choosing such a path.
At the end of the day, money is what makes the world goes around. In soccer, this is no different.
Most fans understand the rise of the English Premier League as the top league in the world is a direct result of the enormous TV deal that each club equally receives each year (thanks Sky), to the tune of around $100 million per year per team. Additionally, the Champions League has become another major money maker for the top teams across Europe in the never ending race to the finish line.
Because of these major windfalls, these leagues have been able to buy up most of the best players in the world. And as a result, many leagues across Europe have been forced to up the ante and spend the cash to attract the players necessary to win trophies and stay on top. The players have benefited immensely from this chain of events and have seen the amount of money they take in grown exponentially.
Here is an outline of how much Premier League player makes. As you notice, this compares pretty similarly to what some of the top athletes in the United States make. On the other hand, here is an article analzying MLS players salary from 2009. Although it is two years old, it shows the gulf between what the average player makes compared to his European counterpart.
This, combined with the weakening value of the dollar, has made the prospect of moving to Europe very appealing for MLS talent.
The US Men's team has done an amazing job of progressing over the past two decades. Once the laughing stock of the world, the Stars and Strips have proved to be stiff competition to many of the soccer powers. They managed to reach the World Cup quarterfinal in 2002 and the final of the Confederations Cup in 2009.
Playing in CONCACAF has provided the US with a series of warmups and an easy road to every major tournament, but once they have got there, they have become a tough out. A lot of the credit goes to the excellent coaching infrastructure and management, but the men on the field have played a major role in all the improvements.
One of the major causes of this new-found success lies in the migration of their best players to Europe. When it comes time to lead their country into battle against the world's best, they have proven they deserve to be on the field with just about anybody. Playing against Europeans on a weekly basis has certainly been the difference.