Two years ago, at the halfway point between the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, England’s Premier League had one of its most exciting denouements ever, with the title changing hands from Manchester United to Manchester City in a dramatic two-goal swing in injury time on the final day of the season. As the action unfolded, ESPN, the US network covering the game, screened an advert for the match that would be following this extraordinary climax to the English league — an early season MLS clash between Philadelphia Union and New York Red Bulls.
It prompted one wag on Twitter to claim: “that’s like following the Rumble in the Jungle with Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots.”
It was not an atypical reaction. While interest in soccer has been growing steadily in the USA in recent years, the viewer stats that tend to get cited as proof of the sport’s arrival have tended to be for soccer as a whole (European leagues, international games, etc), or for the surge that accompanies World Cups. The figures for MLS alone have been respectable but less persuasive, as it competes not just against the other major US sports, but more established worldwide soccer leagues, for attention and, crucially, credibility.
Yet in the immediate wake of the USA’s World Cup campaign, MLS executives are bullish that the country may have reached if not a tipping point in interest in the league, at least a critical mass of US international players in the league – a development that suggests that for the first time the fortunes of the national team and the fortunes of MLS might be becoming truly aligned. That may help deliver the audiences MLS seeks, and maybe eventually redefine what constitutes a successful US soccer career.
Previous World Cup aftermaths might have been characterized by an MLS hope that some sort of magical transference would take place among soccer fans from the national team to MLS.
Despite high-water marks of interest around World Cup time, which have further risen during this tournament with the mass viewing parties, social media and online viewing records, and a doubling of the English-language TV ratings from the 2006 World Cup, until now that transference of interest has not yet taken place on any noteworthy scale, partly perhaps because until now the Venn diagram intersection between MLS players and the US national team had been very small.
In 2010, only four MLS players were in the 23-man squad for South Africa. But in the 2014 game against eventual champions Germany, seven of the starting lineup for the USA played in MLS. And when Fabian Johnson went down injured the number briefly rose to eight, when the young Seattle Sounders player DeAndre Yedlin came on to the field.
On the one hand it reflects the long-term integrated development goals of Jürgen Klinsmann, in his dual role as head coach of the US men’s team and technical director for US soccer. But it also involves a shift in the priorities of the league, as it pursues a policy of bringing its stars back home, amid the same sort of fanfare until recently reserved for late-career European imports like Thierry Henry or Robbie Keane.
After Clint Dempsey, one of the few players on the US squad to have played for a top European team, left Tottenham to sign for Seattle Sounders last summer, there was a mini-flood of players returning to MLS from Europe in the subsequent MLS off-season. Michael Bradley was the highest-profile example, but the likes of Clarence Goodson, Michael Parkhurst and Maurice Edu elected to make their bids for a World Cup place in MLS, rather than risk not getting minutes with European sides. Players such as Graham Zusi and Omar Gonzalez signed new deals with their MLS teams that tied their futures to the league.
Klinsmann’s reaction to these developments was fascinating. On the one hand his sense of personal standards appeared to be affronted. Having continually exhorted his players to test themselves at the highest level (one of his favorite words is “benchmark”), the sight of his leading outfield players, Dempsey and Bradley, dropping out of top European leagues appeared to be a disappointment.
But on the technical development side, Klinsmann had been gradually adjusting to one of the reality that, for better or worse, his overhaul of US player development from the youth system onward would be tied to the developmental rate of MLS. Klinsmann began to trust MLS players in key positions – often first identifying them in the January team camps that tend to be dominated by MLS players in pre-season mode.
Throughout qualifying, and again by the end of the World Cup, Klinsmann’s starting center-back pairing was Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, players who have spent their entire career in MLS. Ditto Kyle Beckerman, who performed a crucial role in the group stages sweeping in front of them. Dempsey and Bradley were there too of course, but it was the presence of, and apparent trust in, those lesser-known players, as well as his trust in youth, whatever league it came from, that was one of the hallmarks of Klinsmann’s team.
Now those players are returning to their teams and MLS are attempting to leverage every ounce of interest in them they can, as are their commercial partners.
There’s opportunism in that of course, but the presence of these players is also part of a long-term strategy for the league. MLS has a long-standing goal to be seen as one of the top ten leagues in the world by 2022 (the year the USA had hoped to host what is currently the Qatar World Cup), and their commissioner Don Garber recently told this writer that the main focus of the next phase for the league is about developing the level of competition on the field.
At a strategic level the MLS attempt to lure back and retain USMNT players is an example of the kind of joined-up thinking Klinsmann has been so keen to emphasize in overhauling the youth coaching system, where he has been trying to identify clear paths for young players to develop.
The MLS reserve teams and developmental partnerships with the lower USL Pro league are part of this process, as is the growing academy system that may one day outflank the college draft, as MLS grows ever more integrated into a global soccer system where players typically play first-team soccer way younger than the average American soccer graduate.
That’s where players like Yedlin are fascinating. A product of the Seattle Sounders academy system, Yedlin is an American player of his time. As a “homegrown” player he gave his team salary cap relief, and earned an All Star spot in his first full season last year. He followed that up with a series of impressive substitute appearances in Brazil that caught the eye of more than a few European clubs – Roma, who saw him up close as opponents in that All-Star game, have been mentioned repeatedly, as have slightly more fanciful connections to Bayern Munich and Liverpool.
What’s interesting is that players such as Yedlin, or Besler, who also has a number of options on the table, are playing at a moment where there’s a genuine choice to be made.
A call from a European team, however lowly, used to be seen as the only way a US player could truly advance his career. Yedlin, young enough to have grown up with the league always there, and supporting the Sounders, has seen that playing for his hometown team has not been a barrier to playing on the national team, while Besler is likely to be offered a significantly improved designated player contract with the current MLS champions, Sporting KC, and the chance to have the team built round him.
Speaking this week, Besler claimed: "Of course, [Klinsmann] wants his players to go over and try and make it and develop and eventually play for an Arsenal or a Manchester United … [but] I'm not just going to go over there just because it's Europe and just because it's a lot of money, and Jürgen has told me that. He understands that Kansas City is a very, very good club and it's a very good situation and I've developed just fine over here. I would say he hasn't put any pressure on me."
Of course the desire to test yourself in the top leagues, and earn a commensurate salary, is still a big lure for players, but it also represents no guarantee of national team selection. The young defender Tim Ream was Bolton Wanderers’ player of the year this season and didn’t even make the provisional World Cup roster; Brek Shea and Juan Agudelo are on European sojourns that currently appear more like exile than the next level.
Even relative European successes such as Bradley and Dempsey have a slightly bruised quality about them when they talk about their experiences in Europe, with Bradley insisting that coaches will be naturally biased towards, say, an Argentine player in a certain position, regardless of how much better a US player might be.
Klinsmann, to his credit, favored no single tendency in his World Cup selections. His German-based players came up big (John Brooks got a winning goal, Julian Green scored within minutes of his introduction, Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones were arguably the USA’s best outfield players), but so too did his MLS defensive triangle of Besler, Gonzalez and Beckerman. And it’s that agnosticism about player origins that will make the next World Cup cycle so fascinating.
In the aftermath of the World Cup final, Bastian Schweinsteiger, whose performance had done much to land Germany the trophy after serial near misses, referenced “the beginning of this team” and its origins in the overhaul by Jürgen Klinsmann. Klinsmann’s root-and-branch reform of German soccer has been the subject of some revisionism since he took the Germany job in 2004, but its decade-long arc reached its zenith in a World Cup win and the success of the Bundesliga, whose ties to the German team, on everything from fitness assessment to youth development and systems of play, were streamlined in that period.
There is a fair argument that if Klinsmann is to succeed with his USA project, even with much more modest outcomes than Germany, a successful and well-supported MLS will be a crucial part of the process. It has a way to go – as fast as high-profile US players come in, rapid expansion arguably dilutes the talent pool – but if US fans want to watch their team go beyond the round of 16 in 2018, they may be asked to dream global, watch local, in the meantime.