Today Graham Zusi and Matt Besler both announced that they were staying with Sporting Kansas City with new, long-term contracts. Six weeks ago not many people might have noticed, but that was before the World Cup poked the sleeping giant of American soccer fandom. Now, everyone has an opinion on how our home-based soccer players should handle their new-found notoriety.
Obviously, MLS wants to keep the US Men’s National Team players to add to the league’s star power. They don’t want to be known as a feeder system, or a place where washed up players go for one last paycheck. Maybe MLS stopped being “that” league a little while ago and we just haven’t realized it yet. After all, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley chose to come back (regardless of the criticism). But perhaps they could be forgiven, because at least they tried playing overseas, right?
Probably the biggest thing holding MLS back, at least in terms of American fan popularity, is context. Americans want to watch top level competition, but perhaps even above that, we want to watch something we understand, and I’m not talking about stats, rules or tactics. When we watch an NFL game, we know the general history of the teams, we know something about the players. We know jokes about Tony Romo and the health struggles of Peyton Manning. We have a filter through which to watch the game and get some meaning out of it, some level of satisfaction in a one-game or one-season story arc. MLS hasn’t really had that yet. It’s like joining Game of Thrones in season three and trying to figure out what’s going on.
Now millions of Americans have watched four World Cup games featuring several MLS-based players, laying an eggshell of a foundation for our understanding. We know that baby-faced Besler tweaked his hamstring just a few minutes after Jozy Altidore did, and he managed to play against some of the best players in the world anyway. We know that Zusi had two assists and looks like he belongs on the cover of a romance novel. We know DeAndre Yedlin came off the bench and surpassed expectations. We know Kyle Beckerman is simultaneously a laid back bro and a tough-nosed tackle monster. By watching these guys play in Brazil, we got a little orientation on how to watch MLS.
What’s in it for an American player staying at home? I’m new to MLS, so I don’t claim to have all the answers, but it seems MLS players have more opportunities to rest and recover between seasons. They play fewer games and therefore put fewer miles on their bodies, meaning they might have longer careers as a result.They could now get comparable pay with some key “destination” clubs. They might get more meaningful minutes, build more confidence. When Clint Dempsey was at Tottenham Hotspur, he spent a lot of time sitting on the bench; now in Seattle, he’s captain, plays full games and had a fantastic World Cup performance. And by the way, today Seattle Sounders and Tottenham played to a 3-3 draw. A friendly draw (and we’d never dare judge either team on a friendly performance), but still.
LeBron James decided to go home, to invest in Cleveland, and he’s been applauded for his decision. Landon Donovan invested his talents at home before it was cool. I don’t blame Zusi and Besler and all the rest for doing the same. Americans could fall in love with these players and this league, and they could lift each other up simultaneously. Americans like watching the best, but more than that, Americans like cheering for Americans. If we want to raise our national game, then we need our national guys to stay home.