Far Post Footy

A United Front

This article first appeared on Thesefootballtimes.net on May 23, 2014

Foreign-Born National Stars

And A United Front

Previously featured on the Guardian Sport Network, Jon Townsend looks at the problems of foreign-born players dominating the USMNT World Cup roster and solutions.

By Jon Townsend | 23 May 2014

Fronting, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is defined as: to act as a front or cover for someone or something wishing to conceal something. In the context of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) and its effort to improve the national team program, it sure is concealing something.

America is country that prides itself on being a cultural and sporting melting pot and the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) is the embodiment of that concept with a number of foreign-born players filling its roster spots in the 30-man training camp prior to the World Cup. These players are: Terrance Boyd, John Brooks, Timmy Chandler, Fabien Johnson, Jermaine Jones, and Julian Green (pictured), all of whom were raised predominately in Germany by at least one German parent. The other prominent figures are Mix Diskerud, who was raised in Norway but is eligible for the US because his mother is American, and Aron Jóhannsson, who was born in the United States and moved to Iceland when he was just three years old.

Although highlighting these players seems exclusionary, it is anything but. The pipeline of German-American players comes as no surprise with a German coach in Jürgen Klinsmann, who for all intents and purposes, has done his due diligence and identified the most talented, eligible players to best represent the United States in Brazil at the World Cup. Some were born and raised in America and others were simply born in America. And therein is the obvious point; the scouting system for US Soccer is either not equipped or able to scour the vast nation looking for potential talent deemed worth investing massive amounts of time and resources in to make the USMNT competitive.

On the footballing front, a tournament like the World Cup is about competition. Win and progress, or lose and go home. Jürgen himself measures success on wins and losses in competitive environments – which is why he was less than thrilled when his captain, Clint Dempsey, and Michael Bradley, both returned to Major League Soccer instead of remaining in Europe. But the United States isn’t the only country to pull from a resource of familial ties in an effort to strengthen its national side… Germany does this to great effect too.

But there’s more at play than relying on players who ply their trade abroad and who happen to be American by either birth or relation. The stark realization isn’t new to many domestic and loyal supporters and critics of American football. For a nation of over 300 million citizens with hundreds of thousands of youth players participating in football and with Major League Soccer continuing to expand rapidly, America has yet to produce a player that can be considered ‘world class’.

Subjectively, many can argue that goalkeeper Tim Howard has proven to be very consistent and dominant in the Premier League. Perhaps many would argue that Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey are exceptional players who have proven themselves in Europe before returning home to play in Major League Soccer. But, with all due respect, they aren’t world class.

As the build-up to the World Cup reaches fever pitch, American media has highlighted a number of player profiles in both an all-access television documentary, ‘Inside: US Soccer’s March to Brazil’ and through a multitude of articles highlighting topics related to the national team. One such topic of discussion has been the emergence of Michael Bradley as a stalwart of the US midfield and a player whose tenacity and work rate embody the grit and determination of American soccer.

Michael Bradley’s route to professional soccer was anything but conventional or typical and is extremely unlikely to be reproduced by any other American players. Bradley’s journey was no doubt expedited and overseen by his father and former national team coach, Bob Bradley, who also coached three Major League Soccer teams in Chicago Fire, MetroStars, and Chivas USA.

Bob Bradley drafted Michael as the thirty-sixth overall pick in the 2004 MLS SuperDraft. Michael played in MLS for a year and was then sold to SC Heerenveen where he gained invaluable experience in a league stressing technical development. Bradley, however, has gained ample experience in his career abroad subsequently playing for Borussia Mönchengladbach, a brief and unsuccessful loan spell at Aston Villa, before successful stints at Chievo, and to a lesser extent, Roma, before ultimately returning to MLS by securing a big-money move to Toronto FC.

The misconception that many major American journalists are guilty of typifying is the suggestion that Michael Bradley’s development and route to the USMNT is “the standard” for all American players. In fact, that could not be farther from the truth, which is evidenced by Jürgen Klinsmann’s proclivity to bolster the squad with the foreign American players.

Much has also been made of the Julian Green saga, which to many fans, has taken attention away from the real issue – and it’s not Julian Green, but rather the lack of exposure and scouting success for American players born and raised domestically. Julian Green’s decision to play for the United States guarantees him a chance to excel with a program that won’t chew him up and spit him out like Die Mannschaft could do with impunity.

Just last month, many ardent national team supporters and American football-talking heads suggested that another player, Gedion Zelalem, might declare he’d play for the USA. Zelalem’s story isn’t that atypical in the current American soccer system, which places more emphasis on integration than it does on development. The Berlin-born midfielder of Ethiopian descent came to the United States when he was nine-years-old where he played for about six years until being spotted by Arsenal scouts in the famed youth tournament, Dallas Cup.

There are many unresolved questions surrounding his eligibility to become a U.S. citizen under the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 whereby he would be allowed to gain citizenship since his father held permanent U.S. residency and intended to apply for U.S. citizenship, but the biggest question might be how MLS team scouts didn’t pounce on Zelalem when they had the chance – and an Arsenal scout did.

The glaring point is although America has developed talented players in previous generations and iterations of the World Cup, some of whom are members of the current national team scheduled to compete in Brazil, the USSF is still glossing over a major issue that has consistently plagued the national program. The best American players of often find themselves in relegation-embattled teams or in the second-tiers of European leagues. And most of them leave MLS for these environments simply because they seek more a bigger challenge, more pay, and greater competition. Surely, Major League Soccer must play a factor in this arena of football in America.

It can be said that there may be more foreign-born and raised players on this iteration of the national team than any other since Major League Soccer’s inception. The glass half full perspective is that MLS has improved US soccer such that non-resident Americans want to play for the US. The glass half empty perspective is that MLS has worsened the quality of US soccer or found itself in a state of stagnation such that the USMNT needs those players. An even more cynical view is that those players are simply deemed surplus to requirements to the German system, for example, and thus opt to play for the United States as a fallback and almost guaranteed opportunity to have an international career and play in a World Cup. No fault can be placed on these players; their decisions are their own and are no doubt very difficult on a personal and professional level. They chose to represent a nation they have ties to and that’s what international football is all about.

In its 18-year existence, Major League Soccer has been run in a single-entity, closed system to ensure strict investment practices will yield fiscal sustainability. On the business side of things, it works, but on the footballing side, perhaps the closed system has opened the door to stagnation. The USSF and MLS are definitely intertwined entities, but what about the remaining tiers of American soccer?

What of the North American Soccer League which plays a split-season schedule and is considered by many to be below MLS but above USL-Pro, the third tier of the American soccer pyramid? Would promotion and relegation help stress development? In Major League Soccer, no two teams can compete for a player’s signature, the draft allocation system, and the forgiving playoff structure where more teams essentially get a shot at the title, ensure parity in MLS. The result is also the abysmal record of MLS teams in the CONCACAF Champions League. Such a poor showing in a regional league highlights the disparity of MLS scheduling and its level of play compared to regional teams operating in open systems without salary cap restrictions.

The debate is growing in the United States with many dedicated MLS fans who are part of the Old Guard who have watched the league since 1996 and have since grown tired of the closed system and lack of genuine attention toward development until MLS’ revival post-2007. Their views clash with the enthusiastic view of the new MLS fan. Both sides vehemently defend their principles. In many respects, from the outside looking in, it’s The Eurosnobs/Elitist Football fans versus MLS Fanboys – and the rift between the two is growing.

Every MLS team has an academy aimed at promoting and fostering talent within the league instead of constantly importing players beyond their prime coming in from abroad for a swansong season.

While it may be too soon to judge the newest MLS clubs on their contributions to the USMNT, the fact remains that many fans of Major League Soccer along with the MLS Executive Board, would like to retain the league’s best players and not be considered a selling league. But that’s part of the issue; the league owns the players, not the clubs, which means clubs aren’t rewarded for development. In other countries, the clubs develop the players and reap any financial benefits of the sale of that player, which is very profitable and a normal business practice in Europe and South America.

Another point of contention involves the salary cap with a set number of teams with a set number of roster spots opportunities are few and far between for up-and-coming young players. The rationale seems to hinge itself upon the notion that the influx of foreign talent keeps the quality of the league increasing while implementing stronger academies, in hopes that the youngsters will step up in quality and continue to strengthen the league itself. Perhaps, but there is no system of checks and balances (no promotion or relegation) and a huge problem persists: what if the academies don’t do their job and develop players?

Additionally, many academies, including those affiliated with MLS and the U.S. Soccer Development Academy operate on a pay-to-play basis, which is a stratifying filtration system that cancels out a whole populous of players who can’t afford the ever-increasing exorbitant league fees. The league and clubs are making money, but are they producing players who are good enough to compete at the international level? So far, the answer is no. For every player that’s discovered overseas and fast-tracked to the national team only highlights the lack of talented players coming through domestic academies that should feature in a strong national team program.

Another question is the whether the U.S. Soccer Development Academy places emphasis on winning over development. When the U.S. places emphasis on technique over athleticism and development over winning, its football will improve dramatically. Until that happens, its unlikely up-and-coming academy products will develop with the technical ability to integrate and succeed at the professional level.

A solution, and there could be many, would have MLS mandate that at least twelve players on the 30-man roster must be developed by a U.S. Soccer Development Academy team and another four players must be developed by the club itself to ensure development is properly overseen and stressed. The USSF has the authority to implement such a rule and has the authority to enact sanctions on the league if it doesn’t comply. But, MLS is a business first, and it does what it needs to do to try to improve the quality of the product on the pitch, which is the bread and butter in every other footballing country.

Is an open system the answer or is American soccer headed toward a split with NASL and other leagues going one way and MLS the other? Only time will tell. As with many countries, the onus is up to the Federation itself and US Soccer must ensure the domestic leagues (not just MLS, but NASL and USL-Pro) comply and continue to develop players for the betterment of not only the national team, but for the sport itself throughout every level in America.

Does the United States have a world class player within its borders? In all likelihood, it doesn’t even matter until US Soccer, MLS, and the U.S. Soccer Development Academy step up to the plate, scout more thoroughly, and stress development over winning at the youth levels.

 

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