World Cup Will Offer Insight on Progress of MLS

John D. Halloran@JohnDHalloranContributor IIMarch 21, 2014

Seattle Sounders' Clint Dempsey, top, and Toronto FC's Michael Bradley, bottom, watch the ball during an MLS soccer match, Saturday, March 15, 2014, in Seattle. Both players are on the U.S. men's national team. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

When Michael Bradley decided to return to Major League Soccer this winter, many fans decried the move, worried about how it would affect the United States men’s national team’s chances in the World Cup.

After all, Bradley was playing for a storied European side, AS Roma, and while he wasn’t starting week in and week out, he did play in almost every game for the Italian club.

A move back to MLS, fans reasoned, would kill his sharpness and, as the U.S.’s best player, doom the U.S. to a poor finish in Brazil.

And this week, as three MLS teams crashed out of the CONCACAF Champions League to three Liga MX sides, fans had largely the same reaction.

On the other side of the argument are those who have watched the U.S. squad struggle in its last three matches in Europe and claim the poor results were because the team’s top MLS players were not there.

But this summer in Brazil, barring injuries to its key MLS-based players, the league’s players will have an opportunity to prove that they can (or can’t) play with the best players in the world. This will be especially true of the USMNT as six MLS-based Americans (Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Michael Bradley, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Graham Zusi) will be likely starters for the U.S. in the World Cup.

Considering the U.S.’s group-stage opponents in Ghana, Portugal and Germany, it would be unfair to judge MLS based entirely on wins and losses for the USMNT. But that being said, it will be more than fair to judge the league based on the individual performances of its MLS-based players.

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If the Ghanaians, Portuguese and Germans destroy Gonzalez and Belser in the center of the U.S. back line—as many are predicting they will—it will prove that the league has not made much progress. If, on the other hand, Gonzalez and Besler can put forth solid 90-minute efforts against some of the best attacking talent in the world in Brazil—even if the U.S. ultimately loses the game—it will prove that the league is growing into a competitor on the world stage.

The same will be true for Bradley, Donovan, Dempsey and Zusi. If the U.S. midfield is overrun, it will only confirm European beliefs that MLS is little better than a retirement league. On the other hand, if they can control the middle of the field for spells against those sides and, particularly, if they can break down Germany’s defense with any sort of regularity, it will prove that MLS does have some comparable attacking talent.

Over the past year, Besler, Gonzalez and Zusi all had offers to go to Europe, but all chose to re-sign with MLS and stay at home. Some believe they made the choice to stay home because they couldn’t hack it in Europe and took the easy way out. Others believe it is proof that those players see the league as a competitive alternative (in terms of both quality of play and pay) to mid-size European leagues.

For the more experienced players like Donovan, Dempsey and Bradley, some argue that they came home to MLS because they “failed” in Europe. Of course, to argue that point of view one has to ignore Donovan’s successful loan spells at Everton, Dempsey’s years of success at Fulham and Bradley’s good years at Roma, Chievo, Borussia Monchengladbach and Heerenveen, but, nevertheless, some still choose to try and make the argument.

No one claims that MLS is on the same par with the English Premier League, the Bundesliga, Serie A or La Liga, but solid performances from the USMNT’s MLS contingent can help convince the rest of the world that MLS is on par with leagues like the English Championship, the Eredivisie, the Primiera Liga, the Russian Premier League or the Jupiler League.

And while many Europeans still cling to the idea that MLS is a retirement home for players past their sell-by dates, the league has slowly gained more respect at home. The 2014 World Cup is a chance for MLS players to now prove it to the rest of the world.

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