US Collapses: Is MLS to Blame?

Freddy Adu did not develop well in MLS

We’re constantly hammered with one side of the coin including Sunday at the conclusion of the US-Netherlands match on NBC by Marcelo Balboa: we hear constantly that Major League Soccer is responsible for the US being more competitive in major international tournaments. This theory is so often repeated it has become gospel for many fans of the beautiful game in this country. But is this theory in fact accurate or does their exist another perhaps less pleasant reality? Today I am going to present the other side of this debate, the one which never gets aired in the United States.

Watching Stuart Holden’s repeated mistakes at the end of the US-Netherlands match reminded me how poorly MLS prepares players for major international matches. The giveaways by an otherwise brilliant Sacha Kljestan and the lack of clock management by the US side in general both against Japan and Holland to me showed that unlike the young players in the J-League and the Erevidese, players in MLS never face the kind of intensity and urgency that you face in big international matches. Even the best MLS’ coaches like Dom Kinnear and Steve Nicol cannot simulate situations for their players like the end of both games because they do not exist in Major League Soccer.

Major League Soccer is on one hand very under rated and on another hand highly over rated. From a standpoint of individual players who make up the squads, MLS is under appreciated on the world stage. MLS has several sides that could, based on their players compete in top league in Europe: not compete to win the league but certainly compete to avoid relegation. Contrary to what is bandied about on some other websites, MLS has a few teams that I certainly believe would avoid relegation in the English Premier League. But on another hand MLS is over rated. I watch a lot of football, including during the summer matches from various leagues in Latin America. In every single league I watch, the game is played with more passion and urgency than MLS. This includes so called inferior leagues from the CONCACAF region. In addition, in MLS I see far more bad giveaways late in matches than in any other league I watch. MLS’ managers do not emphasize possession and ball control as much as they should and when those players form the core of your national team you end up with disasters like Sunday’s match. MLS teams and matches do feature more individual flair and skill than just about every Latin American league save Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, however.

Now we also must historically look at the US program to properly debate this subject. A revisionism has developed that the United States was not successful before the advent of MLS. This is patently false. The best result arguably ever for a US squad in a major competition was the semifinal run at Copa America 1995, when none of the US players were in MLS (which began play the following year) and all of them were fighting for playing time in Europe or Mexico. The United States continued to compete well on the international stage but as the players who made the core of that 1995 Copa team drifted back home to MLS, their competitiveness was robbed and we were rewarded with the infamous 1998 World Cup in France.

Fast forward to 2002. Half the core of the US National Team has left MLS and headed to destinations such as Germany and Holland to pursue their club careers. US Soccer has founded a national academy in Bradenton, FL whose first graduating class helped take the United States to the semifinals of the 1999 U-17 World Cup. The best player from that inaugural class, Landon Donovan helped lead the US to the semifinals of the 2000 Olympic Football tournament in Sydney and then became the best young player at World Cup 2002. In that World Cup, the United States made the quarterfinals. MLS got much of the credit as it always does when the US plays well, but what followed the next few years demonstrates why MLS perhaps cannot be trusted with America’s best young talents.

One by one top talents emerged from the Bradenton Academy and signed with MLS: Santino Quaranta, Eddie Johnson, Justin Mapp, Freddy Adu, Danny Szetela, Eddie Gaven, Mike Magee, Chad Marshall, Tim Ward and Quavas Kirk among others. Of the above list none, and I repeat none have reached their full potential sitting in MLS. The cases of Gaven, Quaranta, Marshall and Mapp are particularly frustrating as each of these players seemed to posses so much talent playing for US U-17 teams only to develop bad tendencies and have their game essentially neutered once arriving in MLS. Gaven for instance went from being a dangerous attacking midfielder whose on the ball skill was outstanding for a 17 year old to being hardly serviceable by the time he was 20. He’s bounced back this season but the damage has been done it appears to his game. Chances are Gaven will never be the player we expected him to be. Quaratana as as been well documented has had other off the pitch problems, but no question exists that his potential was largely unrealized in MLS, except for a brief stint when Peter Nowak coached DC United. Chad Marshall entered MLS in 2004 as a lock for the US National Team and helped lead Columbus to a great year. He displayed the same tendencies in MLS that he did with the US U-17 and U-20 teams for which he excelled. Yet much like Gaven and Quaranta as time went on his skills seemed untapped and his game grew unfocused and stale. Now he is simply an average and injury prone MLS player. Justin Mapp is too a serviceable MLS left sided player. But at the U-17 level and coming out of Bradenton he appeared to be on a level higher than DaMarcus Beasley or Bobby Convey was at the same age. Mapp has developed, but not as quickly as many hoped or into the player most hoped. He is now on the fringes of the US player pool. The cases of players Danny Szetela who had played only 18 minutes in MLS during the 2007 seasons before impressing foreign scouts at the 2007 U-20 World Cup and Freddy Adu whose game never really improved in his three plus MLS seasons have also been well documented. The fact that Adu rapidly improved as a player while playing sparingly for less than a season in Portugal after failing to develop at all in MLS while playing regularly speaks volumes as to MLS’ ineffectiveness in developing certain star players. The 2006 World Cup debacle for the US with arguably the most talented side the US had ever taken to a major competition spoke volumes as to how the lack of intensity and player development in MLS had undermined the competitiveness of the US program.

While we keep patting ourselves on the back for the perceived good work of Major League Soccer, nobody seems to want to explain why the United States gets progressively less competitive at every age level of FIFA Competitions. Why is the US usually among the best teams in the world at the U-17 and U-20 levels going back to the mid 1990s, yet less competitive at the U-23 level and hardly competitive on the world stage at the full international level?

What is the solution to this malaise? MLS isn’t going to become more competitive overnight since the passion of the fans and the intensity of rivalries doesn’t exists in this league on the level it does in leagues with admittedly inferior talent. MLS unlike those leagues can never simulate the passion nor the intensity of international football at the highest level. It’s frustrating because the current group of American players competiting in the Olympics could be the third most talented squad in the competition behind Brazil and Argentina. But they have the negative tendencies that they learn at the club level drilled into them which is why they are notoriously slow starters and haven’t played a complete match yet in the tournament. The performances are getting better because the more time they spend with Peter Nowak and Lubos Kubik two accomplished internationals who know what these sorts of competitions are about, their individual brilliance and confidence begins to emerge. But weening international talents completely off of bad habits and negative tendencies learned in MLS is almost impossible. Until MLS becomes more committed to the American player and puts more faith in the American player rather than importing washed up foreign players to replace young American ones, the United States will never reach its full potential as a football playing nation. At a time when the talent level in the United States is reaching its highest level ever, Major League Soccer has a role to play in this growth. But MLS seems committed to a different course entirely, so do not be surprised if the frustrating results for the United States continue.

This entry was posted in Major League Soccer, MLS Talk, U-20 Team, U-23 Team, US National Team. Bookmark the permalink.

About Kartik Krishnaiyer

A lifelong lover of soccer, the beautiful game, he served from January 2010 until May 2013 as the Director of Communications and Public Relations for the North American Soccer League (NASL). Raised on the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the old NASL, Krishnaiyer previously hosted the American Soccer Show on the Champions Soccer Radio Network, the Major League Soccer Talk podcast and the EPL Talk Podcast. His soccer writing has been featured by several media outlets including The Guardian and The Telegraph. He is the author of the book Blue With Envy about Manchester City FC.
View all posts by Kartik Krishnaiyer →

14 Responses to US Collapses: Is MLS to Blame?

  1. Armand says:

    The title of this piece is totally sensationalized and I considered not reading past the first two paragraphs.

    As I read on however, the premise of your piece began to make more and more sense. Why do so many American footballers struggle between ages 18 and 23 especially when they sign in MLS?

    Truthfully you’ve made some good points although the Adu argument should be dropped from your case: his was an exceptional case and he is not in any way comparable with any of the other players listed. The four other examples you give are very frustrating. I for one think Eddie Gaven would have been a star in another league……as you mention at 16 he was pretty darn good and really is not any better now than he was then.

    The problem with this piece is you focus initially on MLS competitiveness. That is debatable but that is an argument you probably lose. But when you get into the parts about players leaving Bradenton and the Academy setup at a certain technical level and never improving, that is your case and a strong indictment of MLS: not for its lack of competitiveness as you claim but for its lack of tactical and technical management.

    I strongly urge you to refine your initial argument and go with the youth development piece: that was very strong indeed.

  2. Melly1013 says:

    Very good points! Interesting read.

  3. Soccer Guru says:

    This is among the best articles you’ve posted in a while.

    You deserve kudos for pointing out what is obvious to many but so few want to admit!

  4. John Harris says:

    The question is not whether MLS is hurting the national team. It is not. The question is whether the league is not helping the national program as much as it should. On that count your piece is accurate and certainly MLS brining in new franchises at a rapid clip and signing too many mediocre or washed up foreign players is not helping things.

    Both sides in this debate are wrong. Right now MLS is irrelevant to the discussion. They could be helpful but they are not.

  5. schwerve says:

    US collapses? reality check, the US is currently in first place in the toughest group in the olympics, they let up a bad goal at the end of a tough game, it happens, stop making every little success and failure out to be more than they are, it makes american soccer enthusiasts look juvenile and insecure.

  6. Flash says:

    Our players have a losing mentality. They are never taught how to close out games or to play to win. Draws are acceptable results. Holland and England are treated as if they are Brazil or Germany. This is our mentality and that is why we continue to fail.

    But is this really the fault of MLS?

    The responsibility for this lies squarely with the USSF whom you always seem reluctant to blame. I’m not sure if you have some sort of monetary deal with the federation but you like to blame CONCACAF, MLS, the officials, etc for our continued failures. We fail because our federation doesn’t take chances and while everything you say in your piece is true consider that the guys leaving Bradenton perhaps did not get the tactical and technical training there to be successful. Have you ever considered that?

  7. eplnfl says:

    I can not subscribe to the sky is falling tone of the post. As pointed out above the US has the best chance to win the group after two matches. Has anyone seen Mexico, England, or France in China lately? No!

    Would you make the statement against the EPL that it doesn’t prepare it’s players for international events. And a certain little tournament like Euro 08, did England miss it with the so called Golden Generation! When the best of the NBA lost in Athens in 2004, did anyone call for David Stern to step down since he clearly dishonored his country? Not a chance.

    I fully expect the USA to win it’s group and the thanks goes to the development of players by US Soccer and the MLS. While the US is still behind on superstar development, if they can actually be developed, we have a depth of quality players that keep getting better and better on the international scene when we make a commitment to win. Also, a great coaching job has turned the US into a physical team that won’t be pushed around!

  8. USA Fan says:

    Honestly this is a piece that has long needed to be written. It’s not a sky is falling blog as the above commenter described but more of a let us look at facts piece.

    I do dispute some of the facts in here though. For example blaming the 1998 World Cup showing on MLS is a little weak as is the claim that MLS players value possession less than in any other league, but it is very reasonable to blame 2003 and beyond on MLS, and performances like the one in stoppage time the other day can easily be chalked up to MLS as is the reason we still have to depend on a 36 year old to score goals for us. MLS has become a complete failure of a developmental league. That is fine for a league trying to compete with the world’s best but not fine for a league whose quality of play still makes it largely unwatchable and whose survival is almost 100% predicated on a strong national team.

    The last poster fails to realize a key distinction. In England, club football is long established and youth academies are abound. The point of this post (or at least I think the point of it) is to demonstrate how players leave the USSF Academy to sign a professional contract and somehow they almost all lose their way as pros. The Premier League believe it or not has a much higher success rate in developing potential England prospects who are identified as teenagers than MLS does with prospects identified for the young age as prospective US National Team players. Besides, comparing the MLS to the EPL is silly. Why do you not compare MLS to the leagues of Holland, France, Italy or Germany where they do not miss on nearly so many young national team prospects? In addition, MLS has been setup as a developmental league or at least was at one time, but now seems to be much less interested in the fate of the US team and more interested in grabbing cash and the scam that is Superliga showed us once and for all. If that tournament is back next season you have all the evidence you need to see that MLS is in fact not even a proper football league or acting federation but in reality nothing more than a two bit match promotion entity or third party like run around the South American continent.

    The writer mentions Eddie Gaven. He is the poster child for this whole thing. MLS manager have no idea how to take young kids who have come from the academy and to integrate what they have learned tactically into a team.

    Defenders of MLS will point to players like Dempsey and Guzan as players who did not come through the USSF Academy and were sold on to European clubs. I honestly as someone who follow the youth scene can produce even more names than the writer produced of kids who were compotent U-17s internationals who then fell off the face of the earth thanks to mistakes made at MLS Clubs.

    The simple remedy the writer here misses. More and more Bradenton graduates need to go to Europe even if it is to leagues in Scandinavia or Eastern Europe and avoid MLS outright. That is what I advocate.

  9. schwerve says:

    usa fan,

    i think there’s a mistake in your logic regarding the mls. the mls up to this point HAS NOT been a developmental league. its current existence has been primarily been to develop the sport as a professional destination rather than youth development organization. only upon the success of the sport as a professional league can we even begin to think of it as a youth development league. we’ve only just reached that point as clubs have just begun to search for home grown and put resources into development. the US is too large and too athletically competitive to effectively identify talent without an entrenched club youth system. to try and proclaim the mls as a failure of a development league when it hasn’t even attempted that model shows complete ignorance of the structure of the professional sport in this league.

  10. Berlin says:

    Solid piece Kartik. It definitely highlights the lack focus on development that any young league should have. While I agree that it’s hard to see great young players flame out on the pro level. Let’s not forget that this happens in all sports. The NBA and NFL have 10 times the interest in this country and yet how many great high school and college players collapse along the way. To some degree it’s the nature of sports. In addition, I think it would be unreasonable to believe that we would consistently qualify for the World Cup without the MLS building interest and talent domestically. Although it can be argued that the US was improving anyway, the fact remains that we’ve qualified for three consecutive WC finals since the advent of the MLS and only three EVER before then.

  11. KZ says:

    A solid piece of writing and excellent points.

    But honestly, is not some of this on the USSF?

    I am tired of the USSF and MLS being at cross purposes.

    Nike vs Adidas

    scheduling issues

    MLS uses SUM to promote Mexico matches on the same day as US matches.

    more foreign players

    all of this is a problem but what you do not mention is that the ussf has done little if anything to reign in MLS. So they have helped create the problem by sheer indifference.

  12. Flash says:

    While this piece is slanted and one sided it is a great rebuttal to those like Balboa and Whine-halda who are arrogant enough to advocate the opposite point of view with utter disregard to some facts.

    The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

  13. bandeeto says:

    This is an interesting piece, however I believe the major inspiration for it (USA vs. Ned: final 10 min) has a different culprit.

    Teams MUST practice closing out a game. They must have a solid strategy, and practice enough to have confidence in executing it. Yes, I believe many MLS based players do not train for this on a regular basis… leading to several bad habits.

    On the flip side, these habits are no more ingrained into them that playing overly defensive, or not playing the ball through the midfield, or not playing a technical style. Not that these are all true for every MLS player, but they are all supposed bad habits that MLS players are commonly acused of having. Against Ned, these bad habits did not prevent them from playing a technical, through the midfield even, attacking style of soccer for large portions of the match.

    They practiced these things, had a solid game plan (where have I heard this before?), and so were able to execute.

    At the end of the match Nowak wasn’t cursing MLS because HIS team couldn’t execute. The players weren’t lamenting, “If ONLY i didn’t play in MLS!”

    Lastly, If MLS is so detrimental for a player, then why could they execute a game plan for the first 80 min, but not the last 10 min? This whole argument doens’t add up, in this instance at least.

  14. Ric says:

    While it’d be fun to go through the entire article, let me just say a few things…

    1) Did you consider that the players that go from Bradenton to MLS just aren’t good enough to latch onto a European team, or think it’d be more worthwhile to stay here than go to some low division in Europe? You can’t tell me there weren’t scouts at the youth tournaments players like EJ, Mapp, Magee, et al were at, and that they weren’t picked up could speak to their levels at that point (Magee, for example, came to MLS after he couldn’t latch on to Ajax or other Euro squads).

    2) The 2006 World Cup “spoke volumes as to how the lack of intensity and player development in MLS had undermined the competitiveness of the US program”? Really? Did Kasey Keller learn to punch a ball upfield to the opposition because of MLS? Did Claudio Reyna get stripped of the ball because he didn’t learn anything better while playing in MLS? If I recall, only like 3 starters for each game were MLS players at the time, and I don’t think we’d begrudge guys like Donovan, Dempsey, and Jimmy Conrad their spots on that squad.

    3) Interesting that you say Freddy Adu didn’t develop at all in MLS and became a better player once he went to Europe. I guess that hattrick he dropped on Poland and him and Jozy (another MLS based player) working well to beat Brazil don’t count for anything. Further, it’s interesting you say he didn’t develop while in MLS, even though for his DC United years he was coached by Peter Nowak, the same guy you say is an “accomplished international who know[s] what these sorts of competitions are about”. Nowak’s a good coach that knows how to develop players (you mention Quaranta with this one), but had no effect whatsoever with Adu?

    Is MLS perfect? Of course not. But this end vision you have of MLS teams to soon consist almost entirely of American players is still simply fantasy and the attempts you make to paint MLS as the main problem for US Soccer’s woes is also fantasy.

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