World Cup referendum ahead for MLS, USMNT

MLS has tempted US national team stars like Clint Dempsey back to the league over the past year.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Even if the writing had been on the wall, the shift was quick and counterintuitive. After years of declining influence on the United States men’s national team, Major League Soccer now employs its backbone.

The amount of World Cup playing time on the American team given to MLSers has systematically plummeted from 62.8 percent of all available minutes in 1998 to 18.5 percent in 2010. Current projections for the USA’s starting lineup at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, however, include seven MLS players. It could be more in the case of injury, suspension or poor form.

And for the first time in a decade or so, the corps of MLSers was notable in its absence in the dire loss to Ukraine on Wednesday. Jürgen Klinsmann fielded Seattle forward Clint Dempsey and a mishmash of European-based players – three or four of them regulars; the rest bench and fringe players – who achieved nothing other than to demonstrate that the MLS contingent is indispensable.

“Definitely when you don’t have your main group together, there’s always going to be a bit of a drop of quality,” Klinsmann said after the 2-0 defeat when asked if the absence of the MLSers influenced the performance. “That’s natural.”

United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann admitted his side missed its MLS contingent during the 2-0 defeat to Ukraine last week.

It’s unlikely that you would have caught Klinsmann’s predecessors Bob Bradley or Bruce Arena, in his second term at least, saying such a thing. But it makes sense now after a slew of Americans returned home after years in Europe and a few more decided to spurn overseas offers and stay.

The team’s three biggest stars and most technically proficient players, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan, all play in MLS. Three-quarters of the projected back line – Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and Brad Evans – ply their trade Stateside, too. Michael Parkhurst could start in the lone remaining berth at left back. Graham Zusi will likely start. And it’s not inconceivable that Klinsmann decides to field Eddie Johnson or Maurice Edu or Clarence Goodson or Kyle Beckerman. Especially after the fetid showings by the European-based alternatives in Cyprus.

That Dempsey left Tottenham Hotspur of the Premier League for Sounders FC and Bradley went to Toronto FC from AS Roma of Serie A concerns some people. They do not buy the league’s narrative of exponential growth and rapid development, pointing to a playing style that still prizes the physical over the technical.

If you agree with those people arguing that limited minutes in the world’s elite leagues trumps all-you-can-eat playing time at home and deem the emerging trend a problem, then consider it is one of Klinsmann’s own making. While he pushed his players to aspire and seek out the toughest challenges overseas, he also showed a willingness to source his team locally. The practice left foreign-based players comfortable in the knowledge that they could accept the increasingly competitive checks MLS was waving at them without it affecting their standing with the national team. Before he knew it, Klinsmann had sparked an exodus of Americans from Europe, running counter to his own intentions.

The shifting dynamic will make the upcoming World Cup a referendum of sorts on MLS, whether this is fair or not. Fair because it is now indeed a team that consists for the most part of MLS players, giving us a tool to measure the league against its competitors abroad. And unfair because the draw is brutal and the sample size of games far too small to draw any structurally sound conclusions.

MLS stars like Omar Gonzalez and Eddie Johnson propelled the US national team through World Cup qualifying, but they will come under severe scrutiny if the Americans fail to advance from the group stage.

There is a popular school of thought positing that if the USA doesn’t survive its deathly group of Germany, Portugal and Ghana, it will be blamed on MLS. And that if it does, it will be said to be in spite of it. Those conclusions would be in line with the self-loathing, apologist, think-small set that seems to dominate the American soccer scene. But the truth is that not everything is better in Europe anymore. Money has ruled this game ever since it professionalized at the dawn of the last century. A sizable injection of money can turn any team big-time overnight.

On a larger scale, the same can be achieved for an entire league. MLS’s stated goal of being one of the world’s premier leagues six years from now isn’t unrealistic, provided that the right kind of money is generated and spent. Consider that for its first 73 years, the old First Division, the precursor to the Premier League, had a strict £20-per-week wage limit per player, which wasn’t abolished until 1961. While MLS earnings may still be modest for most players and the salary budget tight, the league is also paying some of the best salaries in the world heading into just its 19th season.

By doing so, MLS will control the core of Team USA at this World Cup and herald a new age for the league. The only other time it had such a large stake in the World Cup was in 1998, two short years after the league’s founding, when most players were just happy to return home and play. This time around, it’s an achievement.

As such, we might agree collectively that any success should be credited to MLS, just as any blame would. Certainly, most of these players returned recently, but almost all of them had entered the professional game through MLS in the first place. The league should be lauded for its zeal to bring them back in their primes.

The ambition does raise the stakes, though. This American World Cup campaign will cast a large reflection on MLS in one way or another. But in the end, that the two are equated in any way is an accomplishment of note for American soccer, and one that we should reflect upon as the verdict is reached.