The MLS Home Guard Returns and Prepares for the World Cup

Andy KontyCorrespondent IIMarch 26, 2014

Seattle Sounders' Clint Dempsey, right, tries to hold off Toronto FC's Michael Bradley, left, in the second half of an MLS soccer match on Saturday, March 15, 2014, in Seattle. Toronto won 2-1. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

If any sports writer had written a year ago, "Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley will lead their Major League Soccer teams into the 2014 season," it would not have been long before that poor fool was looking for work after suffering the indignity of a public mocking—for good reason.

Yet, here we are, the start of the 2014 season, and not only are Dempsey and Bradley leading their MLS teams onto the field, but they already faced off in a rugged game that saw Dempsey receive a two-game suspension for taking a swipe at an opponent's most sensitive region in a fit of pique.  

There is no debate that it was an earth-splitting coup for Major League Soccer. But, there will be no end to the debate about whether or not Dempsey's and Bradley's moves to MLS are "good for Bradley/Dempsey" or "good for the US Men's National Team." 

With 12 weeks to go before the FIFA World Cup Final, USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann finds himself with half of his player pool competing in MLS, including 40 percent of his team's "spine."

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
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In the first World Cup (1998) after MLS came into existence, 16 of the 22 players on the USMNT roster played for MLS clubs. In the next two World Cups, 11 of the 23 players were from the Home Guard. In the last World Cup, only four of the 23 roster spots came from MLS.

There is a good chance that the Home Guard will account for more than half of the 2014 World Cup roster. The downward trend in MLS players contributing to the emergence of U.S. international soccer is clearly coming to an end.

This is due, in no small part, to the rising level of play in Major League Soccer. Yes, we all know that the CONCACAF Champions League remains a blemish when assessing the quality of MLS play, but too many factors not related to talent play into that black mark on MLS' record.  

Gus Ruelas/Associated Press

Major League Soccer continues to attract international talent. Young players from Africa and Latin America now comprise a heavy proportion of MLS rosters. Older, or shall we say "experienced," players from Europe continue to make MLS their last hurrah. This combination of young, technical talent and experienced, tactical acumen not only raises the level of play in MLS, but it also improves the technical and tactical abilities of American MLS players.

Another, more obvious reason why so many Nats are playing in MLS is that the league is finally loosening the purse strings and paying real money to attract star players. The league's weak overall salary cap still limits the depth of MLS rosters, but the level of the top MLS talent has never been higher.

Many will not see much advantage in these two factors in terms of how they affect the Nats' chances in Brazil. There is, however, one advantage that MLS players will have over their European counterparts in the heat and humidity of the Amazon lowlands—MLS players will be in mid-season form while European players will have a full, brutal season's worth of minutes and maimings on their tired bodies.

Another advantage, that may seem trivial but will actually magnify the effects on worn-out players, is the travel distances in Brazil. Much has already been made of the distances that the USMNT has to travel in group play this summer. But consider this, the Americans make a pair of 1700-mile trips in the first round, while Bradley and Toronto FC traveled 2066 miles just to play Dempsey and his Seattle Sounders

Long trips are second nature to MLS players. When was the last time Christiano Ronaldo traveled 2000 miles for a league game? The answer in La Liga, where the furthest possible travel distance for Real Madrid is the 313-mile odyssey to Barcelona, is never. The longest trips Ronaldo's Real Madrid made in the 2013-2014 season were in the UEFA Champions League: a 1700-mile trek to Istanbul, Turkey to play Galatasaray; 1289 to Copenhagen, Denmark; and 923 miles to Gelsenkirchen to play Schalke.

Colin E. Braley/Associated Press

Meanwhile the Seattle Sounders, with USMNT players Clint Dempsey and Brad Evans, will make three longer trips—Montreal, 2284 miles; Dallas, 1679 miles; and Boston, 2487 miles—in just seven weeks before the start of the World Cup.

Finally, consider the June weather conditions in Brazil. The Nats face Portugal at 6 p.m. local time in Manaus with an average temperature of 83 degrees and 80 percent humidity. This is very similar to the June weather in Kansas City, home to potential USMNT starters Graham Zusi and Matt Besler, with 85 degree average temperatures and 60 percent humidity (h/t www.weatherspark.com).

The bottom line is that the Home Guard has a travel advantage over the European players in the World Cup and they will be in mid-season form as opposed to end-of-season wrecks. If anything, the size of the Home Guard may prove to be just the edge the U.S. needs to advance from their group and make some noise in Brazil this summer.

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