International players make MLS, U.S. Soccer better

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Anibal Godoy of the San Jose Earthquakes and the Panamanian national team, one of the many great internationals to feature in MLS.

Over the past thirty days U.S. Soccer has gone through possibly its darkest period. Here is just a few of the rather depressing news stories that have happened over the past 30 days:

  • U.S. Men’s National Team fails to qualify for the 2018 World Cup
  • NASL, U.S. Soccer involved in litigation over Division 2 sanctioning
  • FIFA corruption trials begin in New York City
  • USSF President Sunil Gulati does his best Kevin Bacon Animal House impersonation while his job is being contested by seven other candidates
  • San Francisco Deltas, the 2017 NASL Soccer Bowl Champions, get placed into Rayo OKC limbo
  • Columbus Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt gets caught red-handed for trying to move the club to Austin under spurious circumstances (all while the city of San Antonio, still a contender for MLS expansion is supposed to sit and play nice)

Any one of these situations might require a 2,000 word column with several different nifty anecdotes. Hell, an entire book could be written on the many, many reasons why the USMNT failed to qualify for Russia 2018. But no we are going to focus our thoughts on Bruce Arena and his shall we say curious comments about international players and U.S. club soccer.

There is a bit of a myth when it comes to American soccer that needs to be dispelled: that American clubs across all divisions are only interested in developing American players. They are interested in developing the best players. Period. This is not some new-fangled way for the U.S. to get one up on the rest of the world like the backwards time clock or running penalty kicks. Even in Germany where perhaps the ties between clubs and country are the strongest club teams are more interested in developing players irregardless of national association. That is the way football works. Sorry, Bruce.

But Bruce’s comments point to something that is far more disconcerting: a fundamental lack of understanding of soccer in the region. After months of wretched play and tons of hand-wringing those that have significant sway still have a mindset of thirty years ago. The level of play in CONCACAF has changed, Major League Soccer has changed, but U.S. Soccer has not. U.S. Soccer is still overlooking the importance and value that having quality international players in their top division can have on their own domestic players. That naivete might not be the primary reason for why our senior National Team will be staying home next summer, but it certainly explains how a negative mindset can impact form.

What’s interesting is that this sort of overlooking of the entire CONCACAF World Cup qualification process is a smaller trait that we also thought that we were beyond: our naivete about the game. Thirty years ago it might have been a bit more acceptable for all of us in the soccer community to not have a strong grasp of T and T and the goings on in CONCACAF. Matches were not as widely available, the internet was still in its infancy, and major newspapers/radio/TV regarded soccer as being on par with kite flying and bass fishing (oh wait, that is still probably true). But in 2017 this should not have been the case. From the players to the coaches to USSF to journalists to the supporters as a country we showed our naivete when it came to this World Cup qualification cycle and to the teams and players that would be playing in it. Considering that the USMNT barely eeked out a win against the Soca Warriors in Denver alarm bells should have been ringing that the final match-day in CONCACAF would be a difficult experience. But we didn’t and so here we are.

That there are those who still undervalue the competition in CONCACAF in 2017 is a bit baffling. That one of our greatest managers seems to believe that less international players will mean a stronger U.S. National Team is foolish. Any player or coach in the United States should welcome a player from abroad that comes in and is hungry and willing to fight for their position. Competition will only make this league and this country.

A quick sidebar: these issues might sound like they are limited to the USMNT. They are not. Those that believe the women’s side will continue to dominate the rest of the world like they did in the 1990s are grossly undervaluing the progress that the powers in Europe have made over the last 10-15 years. The USWNT  may still be the odds on favorite to win the 2019 Women’s World Cup. But the rest of the world is improving and it would be very unwise to overlook the likes of England, France, Germany, and Spain and their development apparatuses when it comes to football. Even the additional opportunities provided by the National Women’s Soccer League will help countries in CONCACAF improve their game.  A big lightbulb seemed to have turn on in the rest of the world sometime in the last ten years that if they invested in women’s football that it might help their bottom dollar. Imagine that!

Long gone are the days where players from Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, Trinidad and Tobago just ply their trade in their home countries and are part-time players. While there are those that will give MLS shit for its perceived inability to develop players (another point of naivete within the U.S. Soccer community) it has certainly helped other members of CONCACAF. So too has the expansion of USL and the lower divisions. These players are coming from other countries and using the system to enhance their careers and earn a better living for their families. That these players are playing in this country and doing well should be a sign that not all is rotten in American soccer. What it should tell us though, and what Arena’s comments show us, is that American soccer still has some growing up to do.

 

So rather than taking Mr. Arena’s cue and looking inwards here’s what yours truly is going to do as a reporter and editor of this fine publication: we are going to make it our policy to continue to cover international matches and tournaments here in the United States. True story: my two favorite experiences as a reporter have been a World Cup tune-up in 2014 between Honduras and Turkey and the 2014 Copa Centroamericana.

Getting the chance to cover sides that get little to no coverage was a dream experience for me because I got to learn more about the players, coaches, and styles of our region. Many of the players that I had chance to watch during those matches have also come into Major League Soccer and also the various levels of U.S. Soccer. I learned more about this region covering the Copa at RFK Stadium than I did at any USMNT match. I should also note that I speak no Spanish.  If soccer is the universal language then it shouldn’t matter if the games we watch in person or on television are in a foreign language. We should be able to enjoy, learn, and grow as a country not just from players and coaches within our own borders, but from outside of it as well. If Arena doesn’t want a league and a structure that promotes players based on skill and not on nationality he is more than welcome to start his own league. But in the meantime yours truly will take a club structure that

 

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