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My Two Cents

My Two Cents

January 19, 2016
MLS and the great player development myth

By Will Smith
Special to

Way back in 1994, the United States hosted the World Cup and, with a team largely comprised of college players, made it to the round of sixteen.

The feeling when Major League Soccer started play two years later was that player development would improve and the U.S. would soon be a legitimate contender at the event. In 2014, 20 years after the 1994 World Cup and eighteen years after MLS began, the U.S. made it to ... drumroll please ... the round of sixteen.

Clearly, the men’s national Team (USMNT) has not improved on the international stage. In fact, one could argue that, despite the growth of MLS, the national team situation is worse.

In 1994, coach Bora Milutnovic was able to cull together a respectable team. These days, coach Jurgen Klinsmann has to scour the globe to find European players whose fathers were U.S. servicemen stationed overseas in order to field a passable team. This is clearly not what was envisioned back in the heady days of 1994-1996 when the U.S/ was bullishly predicting it would be a World Cup contender by 2010. Does anyone remember Carlos Queiroz, his mustache and Project 2010?

So what wrong?

To put it simply, MLS has failed to develop players of importance for the USMNT whose talents are recognizable on the international stage.

In fact, I can only think of two players who could be recognized as such: goalkeeper Tim Howard and forward Brian McBride, both of whom, by the way, made their MLS debut in the first three years of the league. So, since 1998, player development via MLS has been a wasteland. Don’t even try to talk to me about players like Clint Dempsey (who was adequate in England, but not spectacular), Michael Bradley (who couldn’t hold down a starting spot in Europe and came home for the cash), Jozy Altidore (who, frankly, was abysmal failure in England) or Landon Donovan (who rushed home for the warm California sun rather than fight for a starting position in Europe).

If this is the best the U.S. can produce, we may turn to stone when we see the worst!

For all of MLS’s recent commercial successes, its player development record is horrendous and Commissioner Don Garber, along with U.S. soccer officials, need to be held accountable. There are several reasons for these failures:

1) The college draft is a dinosaur – Players come out of college with bad habits and they are too old to shake them. MLS was too slow to get into the academy business.

2) The MLS reserve clause – Why should any young player sign with an MLS team for little money, little playing time and limited freedom of movement. Better to try your luck in Europe or go to the North American Soccer League for a year a la Haji Wright, get some time under your belt and then go to Europe.

3) In its desire to promote a commercially viable, well attended product (which is understandable as MLS IS a business), MLS sides would rather field aging Europeans than young players that could develop. One need not look any further than the fiasco that was the 2015 NYC FC squad for evidence of that.

4) MLS clearly sees the lower divisions as follows: “Be a minor league, in the traditional American sense, or we will crush you!!! Bwaaa-haa-haa-haaa!!!” Instead of working with lower division teams to develop the game and thus the USMNT, MLS moves into minor league markets to squeeze teams out of business or force team relocation. While this is good for MLS as a business, it is terrible for U.S. Soccer as a sport. It should, logically, also be the basis for an anti-trust lawsuit.

The USMNT is not nearly at the level it should be after 20 years of MLS. The league and its commissioner should be ashamed. This is the United States and we can do better than this.
"The opinions reflected in the My Two Cents columns do not express the views of the editors or management of BigAppleSoccer. com"
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