MLS offers proving ground for CONCACAF nations ahead of the World Cup
The importance of MLS to the success or failure of the US national team commenced right around the time the league started back in 1996. The fates of club and country naturally intertwined to create a home for established campaigners and an incubator for potential candidates. The interdependency made perfect sense, even if the influence of the league in the national team program waxed and waned depending on external circumstances.
It took a bit longer for MLS to establish its influence across the CONCACAF region, though. The league turned to Caribbean and Central America – the likes of Ronald Cerritos, Mauricio Cienfuegos, Raul Diaz Arce and Andy Williams, for instance – from its outset. The impact of those stars aided the league’s development, but it did relatively little for the national teams themselves. World Cup representatives from the region often plucked one or two players from MLS and selected the rest from domestic or overseas leagues.
The constantly improving standard in MLS altered that calculus over the past few years. It shows on the eve of this World Cup. US coach Jürgen Klinsmann could comprise half of his squad from the domestic ranks, a significant reversal from the decline in recent quadrennial travel parties. Costa Rica and Honduras will not take such an expansive approach for practical reasons, but both countries plan to rely on MLS to contribute to the roster-building process.
Honduras revealed the extent of its investment by naming four MLS players in the 23-man squad released on Monday. Jerry Bengtson(New England), Victor Bernárdez (San Jose), Marvin Chávez (Colorado) and Boniek Garcia (Houston) all feature on Luis Fernando Suárez’s list for the World Cup. D.C. United academy product Andy Najar (Anderlecht), former Sporting Kansas City stalwart Roger Espínoza (Wigan Athletic) and ex-MLS players Carlo Costly (Real Espana) and Mario Martinez (Real Espana) landed spots, too.
Although short-timers Costly and Martinez passed through the league quickly, the other six players – more than a quarter of the group, in fact – boast substantive ties to the league. Bengtson, Bernárdez, Chávez and Boniek Garcia even used their MLS clubs as the foundation for their preparations for this World Cup, though Bengtson and Chávez are not regular starters for their sides. It is a marked contrast from the one MLS player – Espínoza – named in the squad for South Africa four years ago.
Costa Rica will increase its MLS representation from its last appearance in 2006, too. Former boss Alexandre Guimaraes chose DouglasSequeira as the lone American-based player eight years ago, but current manager Jorge Luis Pinto will comfortably exceed that number when he names his roster. He included Waylon Francis (Columbus), Giancarlo González (Columbus), Roy Miller (New York) and Álvaro Saborío (Real Salt Lake) in his squad to face Paraguay on March 5. Only Francis represents something of a doubt to land in the squad. Former Chivas USA and LA Galaxy defender Michael Umaña will make the team. Jairo Arrieta (Columbus) and injured winger Rodney Wallace (Portland) also warrant consideration from time to time as well.
The increased MLS presence in those squads stems from improvements on and off the field and the changing situations in those domestic leagues. American and Canadian clubs pay higher wages than they once did and supply a more exacting challenge from week-to-week given the rising standard of play. Those forward steps – combined with the reduced expenditures at top clubs in Central America – recommend the league as a viable alternative to playing at home. It is no longer a destination of last resort. It is instead a plausible career choice for players heading for Europe, looking for a fresh challenge or returning to North America.
By emerging as a regional hub, MLS bolsters its own ranks and shoulders some of the responsibility. The league now serves as a vital component in the overall success of CONCACAF in the short- and long-term. It shows in the composition of three of the four sides poised to represent this part of the world. And the continued development on all fronts bodes well for both clubs and countries as CONCACAF seeks to wield more influence on the global stage next month and in the years ahead.