When the United States took the field against Germany for the final Group G game in the 2014 World Cup, seven of their 11 players were from America’s domestic league, Major League Soccer (MLS). For years American soccer fans have asked how MLS talent stacks up against the rest of the world, and it’s difficult to know. They rarely get the chance to directly slug it out, but so far in this World Cup tournament, they’ve represented the league well. And Coach Jurgen Klinsmann deserves credit for blending the European and domestic players together. In short, it’s not obvious who is who.
When Jozy Altidore went down with an injured hamstring, the Americans made a formation adjustment and started Graham Zusi in the next game. That’s an English Premier League player (Sunderland) replaced by an MLS player (Kansas City). Similarly, against Germany, Klinsmann started Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo) in place of Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes, France) and Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy) in place of Geoff Cameron (Stoke City, England).
It could be that the European-based players were fatigued after long seasons (the European soccer season runs essentially from August through April, while MLS goes March through whenever a team is eliminated from playoffs in the fall). It could be that the European-based players were worn down from travel and harsh weather conditions in Brazil. But the MLS players keep saying that playing in this World Cup, at least in terms of travel and weather, hasn’t been that different from flying from Seattle to Houston on a hot day in July. The MLS-based players may just be uniquely prepared for these tournament conditions.
But could that ultimately hurt the league?
In the run-up to the World Cup, MLS gained a lot of attention by bringing Team USA heroes like Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley home from Europe. But if the team continues to do well and gain international attention, will American stars stay at home, or might they be lured by foreign teams with big checkbooks looking for previously unmined talent?
Historically, there’s been something of an anti-American bias among European clubs (shocking, I know), which makes those who have maintained long careers there, like Tim Howard, all the more impressive. There’s a story about Geoff Cameron being called for a foul early in his career for Stoke. He asked the referee, “Are you kidding me?” And as the story goes, upon hearing his American accent, the referee gave him a yellow card and said, “Welcome to the Premier League.”
But with the influence of Klinsmann and the attention garnered from escaping the Group of Death, could that start to change? Could American fans catch soccer fever just in time for the players they’ve grown to love to go play somewhere else? It is possible to make millions playing in MLS, just ask Landon Donovan or any other “designated player” in the league. But, unlike in Europe, MLS has a salary cap. For now at least, the biggest paydays will remain in Europe. As the United States continues to grow as a soccer nation, it will become an increasingly difficult balance, wanting the best development for our players and the best development for our league at the same time.