It’s a phenomenon that runs counter to its time. It’s confounding, really. The United States men’s national team is, if you strip the facts from nostalgia and melancholy, deeper than it has ever been. More players are thriving in Europe, for bigger and better clubs than at any other era of American soccer. There is real competition for positions, between players all worthy of being there. This is all rather new.
Yet in this new age of plentiful depth, the United States could also count more World Cup starters sourced from Major League Soccer than ever. Certainly, our domestic league has improved, but a chasm between Europe’s top leagues gapes ever more. So what does this strange effect say more about? Our league? Or our national team?
There have been four World Cups since Major League Soccer kicked off in 1996. In 1998, Steve Sampson’s France-bound United States roster of 22 counted 16 MLS players. Cumulatively, they made 21 starts over three games, for an average of seven per game. Four years later, Bruce Arena brought 11 MLSers to South Korea and Japan. In their five-game run to the quarterfinals, the domestically-based Americans made 26 starts, or 5.2 per game. Arena took the same number to Germany in 2006, but they made just eight starts in three games this time around — 2.66 per game. Finally, in 2010, Bob Bradley had just four MLS players with him in South Africa, who made nine starts in four games, for an average of 2.55 each game.
An unmistakable trend, in other words, of the national team relying on Major League Soccer less and less. But just as the American talent reserves stationed in Europe are deeper than ever and the program is healthier than it has been in years under Jurgen Klinsmann, the trend promises to swing violently in the other direction.
Four MLSers are very probable starters in Brazil next summer. Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders) is the captain and a lock for a pivotal role. Landon Donovan (Los Angeles Galaxy) seems very much re-established into the team’s core after a year-long absence, having once faded from the picture because of motivational issues, a sabbatical and the time it took to reassert himself at international level. Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City) and Omar Gonzalez (Galaxy) have grown into the undisputed starting center back pairing this year.
Four more players are likely candidates to start at least once. Eddie Johnson (Sounders) can either play up front by himself, in a supporting role or out wide. And while he isn’t an automatic starter, he has made 15 appearances for the United States this year, more than any other man. Graham Zusi (Sporting) was the starting right winger for five of eight World Cup qualifiers this year. Right back Brad Evans (Sounders) stepped in capably while Steve Cherundolo was injured and Timmy Chandler hemmed and hawed about whether he’d like to play for the US or not, and could well retain the job. Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), meanwhile, may be unconvincing to many and unspectacular to all, but he is a Klinsmann staple, regularly stepping in as the holding midfielder when either Michael Bradley or Jermaine Jones are unavailable.
That makes eight MLS-based players who could make a start, while Clarence Goodson and Nick Rimando are probable backups at center back and in goal off the bench.
The reasons for this are various and sundry. Dempsey and Donovan chose to play in MLS for personal reasons, eschewing opportunities to play in Europe’s best leagues. Besler, Gonzalez and Zusi were wisely retained by the league and its new policy of clinging on to the best young American talent. Eddie Johnson was, frankly, a failure in Europe and returned in 2012. Beckerman, meanwhile, is an MLS stalwart who simply never seems to have been the beneficiary of much interest from Europe.
The question remains, however, whether this development is a good one for the national team or not. While it’s inarguably good for the league, signaling its swelling credibility and relevance, there are few national teams that can get away with a certain domestic insularity among their key players. Most of the defining players on Germany and Italy play domestically and that works well enough for them. The same is largely true of Spain, even if talent now increasingly flows to England. And the English count no players abroad, but they are mired in a marked downturn in their talent production. The point is: only countries with the strongest of domestic leagues get away with having the bulk of their bedrock players plying their trade back home. Failing to foster such an elite environment, your best talent has to seek out the highest level for your country to thrive internationally.
Is failing to adhere to this universal rule a luxury the US can afford? Certainly, Klinsmann has pushed his players hard to aspire to bigger clubs. And it’s hard to quantify how much better off the national team might have been had Dempsey chosen to remain in the Premier League this summer, rather than come home. Nor, for that matter, is there any telling if Donovan would have been a better player — and perhaps even more instrumental to the USA, if that’s possible — had he spent more than his handful of brief stints abroad.
Consequently, the US campaign in Brazil will act as a referendum of sorts on MLS as well. And should the Americans fall short of expectations — to survive the group stage, if not more — pinpointing the principal defect could be straightforward.