Having MLS Stars Go to Europe is Great for US Soccer … and Good for the MLS

clint fulham

As Landon Donovan settles into the Everton, Michael Bradley becomes even more a fixture at the Bundesliga, and Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark leave the US and take big career risks to fight for a position on European teams, many American fans are bemoaning the fate of the MLS. What if all our stars go to Europe? What if the MLS becomes just a developmental league for European teams?

It may be counter-intuitive, and perhaps a little heretical, but soccer in America, and MLS in particular, can thrive as an exporter of quality domestic talent.

As I have said before, there are plenty of great soccer nations that export all their quality players and yet command a fervent following from their fans. Nearly every great Dutch player plays outside of Holland, and that does not make the Ajax fans walk around bemoaning the state of their league. The majority of the Argentina national team plays in Europe, and the River vs. Boca Super Classico in Buenos Aires makes the Galaxy/Chivas Superclassico look like a garden party. And of course, there is not a single member of the Brazil starting XI who plays for a Brazilian club team (with the possible exception of the newly outcast Robinho), but there are still over 400 teams in the Brazilian Football Confederation.

For the casual US soccer fan, they need to know MLS is not some rinky-dink outfit full of future high-school soccer coaches and European geriatrics. Nothing affirms the quality of our domestic league like watching our players be able to compete in the best leagues of Europe. As Donovan, Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Tim Howard move from MLS, lock down starting XI positions and square off on a weekly basis against the best talents in the world, casual fans begin to accept the product put out by MLS as worthy of their attention and support.

The more talent we export, or more precisely, the more MLS talent is craved in Europe, the more esteem MLS will garner among US fans. As US players head off to Europe, US soccer fans are affirmed in their decision to follow the teams that can create that type of quality. As the US fans learn, through the experiences of our US players, about the culture and atmosphere of European soccer teams, they will want to replicate that atmosphere here with our domestic league.

Most importantly, the success of soccer in America has far more to do with the success of the US National Team than it does Major League Soccer. Do you want to see full MLS stadiums this summer and fall? If the US team has a decent run in South Africa, it will make a MLS ticket one of the hottest tickets in town. For the US to do well in South Africa, its best player must spend a lot of time in Europe playing against the best the world has to offer. I don’t think anyone seriously argues with that (if you do, I have the US/Honduras game from last month featuring a mostly MLS team on my Tivo to show you). Will Donovan, Clark and Holden be better players this summer after their European experiences? There is little doubt they will be.

Sometime in the coming years, the US will hopefully produce a truly world class outfield player – a player who may start in MLS, but will go on to play an important role for one of the great teams of Europe. The moment when some US player takes off their Kansas City Wizards or Columbus Crew uniform and puts on their Real Madrid or Manchester United kit will be one of the great moments in MLS history – the moment when the MLS will have truly arrived as a great league worthy of the casual sports fans’ attention.

44 Responses to Having MLS Stars Go to Europe is Great for US Soccer … and Good for the MLS

  1. Charles says:

    Eric, like reading your articles, even this one, and respect your opinion, but in my opinion you are 100% wrong.

    One, we are not Brazil with 5 world cups titles and a great chance for more to every four years. We are US, 15k at an MLS game whether the US finished last (’98) or did well for us (’02) or somewhere in between (’06).

    Two, the even the Sounders don’t come close to selling out a real stadium, but there were sellouts for Chelsea and Barca last year, they could have played three times in a row and they would have had sellouts. Americans do NOT support second best. Look at the threads on your own site here.

    Three, ask even a soccer fan where Bradley plays or how he is doing, if he/she isn’t posting on a site like this, they have NO idea. Zero. It is a joke to think they are going to follow American stars in Europe on illegal internet.

    “…the moment when the MLS will have truly arrived as a great league worthy of the casual sports fans’ attention.”
    We would be there if more people would go to the games and didn’t think like you do that it is NOT worthy now!

    Until the US has a home league that is worthy ( has fans and money ) of the talented athletes wanting to play soccer, your dream of having an American play for one of the big spending winning teams is laughable. It would just be a stroke of luck really.

    • Adam Edg says:

      I read and post on here all of the time and I could not tell you who Michael Bradley plays for. Until his dad became the coach and he suddenly popped up on the USMNT I had never even heard of him. I guess I know where most former MLS guys are playing in Europe, but so many move around so much that I lose track.
      The only thing I know for sure about MLS guys (and American players in general) moving to Europe is that too many go to Scandanavian leagues that are not much better than MLS but pay significantly more. That is a shame. Even our foreign talent leaves MLS for questionable leagues in Europe (Damani Ralph leaving the Fire for a nobody Russian club sprigns to mind) is bad for MLS.
      Sure when Donovan goes to Everton or Edu goes to Rangers, MLS can pat itself of on the back. Otherwise these moves make the MLS look like a joke league that has no desire to retain quality talent. Freddy and Eddie playing for a Greek nobody club is not progress…

  2. randy says:

    great read, great point(s).

  3. Bradley Richardson says:

    Great article. Dempsey and Donovan are more than bench warmers on their squads. I think that for every good player that moves from the MLS their are scores that skip the MLS and move on. I think that the MLS can be a better league once they aboloish the draft and start growing players from a much younger age. An eaxample is Wayne Rooney part of the Everton youth system now leading the EPL at the age 24. American players at the age of 24 have been in thr MLS for about a year and don’t have the quality because they have spent 4 years in a sub par competitive envioronment. Yes the MLS has become a developmental league for the world. Once they abolish the draft along with the idea that college is a good idea maybe they can become a better developmental league. Let’s do it big like they do in Europe.

    • Charles says:

      I would be interested in who, from the US, you think would have become Wayne Rooney if he hadn’t gone to college.

      • Nick says:

        We have 5 times as many people in the US as there are in the UK. If the US had a better youth system, who knows what Ike Opara, Zach Loyd, or some kid that wasn’t discovered could have become.

        • Charles says:

          Fair enough, but I firmly believe that you will not get the talent to play unless the league is talented here…in the US.
          Nor will you ever have the better youth system you covet.
          15k fans per game just doesn’t cut it, nor will it ever.

          Seems like kind of a pivotal moment, can we keep the national team members, not yet, but we have to be close.
          Donovan is here.
          Seattle could afford to keep them all, LA would sell out with that level of talent, Toronto with a bigger stadium probably could.

          Hopefully it won’t be too long before we can give up illegal internet streaming and watch top of the world soccer in person.

      • man99utd says:

        We’ll never know if we stick with a system that may work fine for American sports, which soccer isn’t. We need to approach soccer like tennis where they turn pro in their early teens. If not, we’ll never compete. As to the original thought, its sound. We have such a large country and youth soccer is so big in America we could flood the world if we tried a little harder. I realise soccer is a minority sport but it doesn’t have to remain so.

  4. wahleyed says:

    Agree on all — just one more quick point — the more MLS players move on to bigger leagues, the more young talent wants to come here to grow and get noticed. At this point in it history, there is no shame in the MLS growing players for the biggest leagues in the world.

    • Charles says:

      Sorry for piggybacking on your comment when you agree and I disagree, but you finally bring up one point I can agree on:

      IF players move from MLS to Europe it might bring in other hopefuls, maybe from T & T, like it happening right now.

  5. Ossington Mental YOuth says:

    Tim Howard wore a Man U jersey for one (or one half) season if im not wrong

    • Adam Edg says:

      You are right. He was their number one keeper for at least half a season. But we have a reputation for producing solid keepers. Probably because the rest of our sports are played with the hands…
      But I think the point Eric was going for was seeing a field player wearing one of the more legendary shirts (Man U, Real Madrid, etc) as a full time starter. I put AC Milan and Bayern Munich in that class though. They not have started at all, but Gooch is still with Milan and Donovan had a loan with Bayern last year.

  6. Eric Altshule says:

    Charles- I figured you would comment on this one. You are always passionate about retaining US players in MLS.

    Let me be more clear. I think that MLS games are worthy of my devotion and have had Galaxy season tickets since the Rose Bowl days, but I am a soccer geek. However, 95% of American sports fans are not, and MLS will have to be thought of as quality to get them to pay attention. Can MLS buy their way into quality? If you think MLS has the means or the cache to not only retain great US players but attract great foreign players in their prime, well, I don’t think that is realistic. If Clark or Holden can get a long-term contract with their new teams in Europe, they will probably earn $2-3 million per year. Can MLS afford to pay those guys that? Do Clark or Holden, based on their contribution on the field, really put $2-3 million worth of butts in the seats? Doubt it. Can they afford the $5-$15 million it would take to pair them with a top level European player who does not have half the name recognition as David Beckham? Not a chance. That is just the reality of the situation.

    So what is the alternative? You have a Reliant Stadium full of people who were willing to plunk down $75 to see Chelsea play a half-speed summer exhibition game because they assume that is quality. One way to get those potential fans to take the Dynamo somewhat seriously is to point out that ex-Dynamo Stuart Holden will be playing the full-speed Chelsea next month in London. The more players MLS can say that about, the more interesting and accepted the league can become.

    • Lars says:

      Eric, I think you missed the point of exporting players. You’re right, it’s good for MLS and the US…but not because it stokes interest overseas, it’s because it means more players are having higher quality coaching and training.

      If Donovan stays with Everton, that frees up capspace and a roster spot for players who otherwise not get to stay there.

      It means more players playing the game at higher levels…how could that not be a good thing?

    • short passes says:

      Dam!! I was following the thread of this discussion and had just composed my response when I came to your (Eric) comment. Man you stole my thunder but let me reiterate The problem is money first and then better competition. MLS cannot afford to retain all of these players at rates competitive with European teams. If we suddenly came into a lot of money, we might be able to keep the majority of them (Scandanavian players). At that point it would make sense to discuss the merits of playing against higher level competition, but for now that type of talk is a waste of time. My pet talking point is raising the overall skill level of US players and that has to start with coaching and the selection process in youth (ODP and club) and college programs.

      In youth coaching particularly, we concentrate way too much on shooting and ignore passing, trapping and interplay. I’m convinced that a big reason for this omission is that the coach is not the focal point of the practise when the majority of time is spent in small sided games —the coach gets to feeling he’s not in charge!!! I read a lot about how our players are not tactically accomplished and that our coaches need to be smart enough to teach that. Bunk!!!! Do you really think that the numerous Brazilian players learned their skills from coaches? They learned it by playing, playing, playing. Obviously we don’t have the culture where that playing will occur spontaneously. Therefore we need to use the very precious team practise time to simulate that environment and not waste it on “tactics”.

      Here’s where I usually get in trouble!! I firmly believe that we are deliberately “selecting out” many potentially skilled players by our penchant for the big player. Don’t anybody blow your top!!! If there is a 6′ player with the same skills as a 5′ 5″ player, you obviously pick the bigger player. However, too often I maintain, we are giving the bigger player the benefit of the doubt because he is expected to make up for his lack of skills through his height and strength. With this bias in place thoughout the selection process, by the time we get to the MLS we are shocked why we lack many skilled players. Yes, I KNOW Tab Ramos wasn’t big neither was Landon, Adu, etc. Hpwever, I am talking about the majority of our players and why they aren’t more skillful. Incidentally, it doesn’r take much of a jump to use this issue to PARTIALLY explain why there are so few Hispanic Americans at the highest levels.

  7. juan carlos corea says:

    good article!

  8. juan carlos corea says:

    what do you know about Michael Hoyos playing for Estudiantes of Argentina,can he play for the USNT.

  9. Kartik says:

    Americans can’t get it into their brain that we’re not the best at something. Believe me, once we win the World Cup, the casual fan will be “eh, now we’re the best at one more thing” and forget about it for 4 more years. I’d much rather be a country like The Netherlands, where other sports can survive, but have a highly competitive and entertaining national team, and a national league that is exciting with many people watching, knowing their stars will be gone in 3 years.

  10. Joey Clams says:

    Kartik: With all due respect, there’s always the door. Amsterdam’s percentage of foreign-born residents is almost as high as that of Miami. Go for it.

    • man99utd says:

      You didn’t address Kartik’s point. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be the best but you have to let others compete. Americans are the best at American sports because they don’t let the rest of the world compete on a regular basis. “World Series”, please… This isn’t meant to be critical just a fact. Soccer belongs to the world and as such the USMNT must compete in the world arena. If Americans would get behind their team maybe they would perform better. But as it stands, once the WC is over interest on a large scale will almost certainly die.

  11. Eric Altshule says:

    Joey – No need for that. Kartik’s point about the Dutch league is accurate. Their teams have a fervent following, and they export all their great players.

  12. WonsanUnited says:

    This is the question you have to ask Eurosnobs: If MLS is so terrible, why are so many former MLS players doing well in Europe and why is there a demand for MLS players in Europe?

  13. Kartik says:

    I’m not Kartik Krishnayer, just another passionate fan of the same name from Florida.

    Joey, am I wrong in saying the Dutch have a better soccer culture? I mean, I live in Florida, yet I know about the latest signing for Colorado Rapids. I love watching MLS, and get excited when young Americans perform in the league. Sure, I’d love to keep our stars here. But there are steps that need to be taken before that happens consistently. If you look at it, its all set up for MLS to become a major league in our lifetime. There are owners willing to invest (once they need too to compete). In fact, our owners are some of the richest. Even the best paid soccer players’ salaries are nothing compared the mediocre MLB players’. However, it is too early for any of that. Despite having attendances that are near the highest in the world for a domestic league, we have a low salary cap. Why would Stuart Holden stay here, when he could earns 10x more abroad? I’m an opposer of players leaving for mediocre MLS leagues, but they can earn more abroad. It’s the (lack of) money that takes our players abroad.

    • Charles says:

      Holden is not making $4 million is he ?
      I have wondered what the discrepency is and no one knows for sure.

      I doubt it is $4 million versus $400k

  14. Charles says:

    I am not saying MLS is there now,
    I am saying it is unfortunate they are not.
    Fans need to come out to solve that.

    IF Holden scores the winning goal in WCup, that is going to increase attendance in MLS ? NO. Kinnear, Brian Ching and other ex-Sounders winning MLS championships didn’t help Seattle Sounders USL interest/attendance one bit. Having Landon, Brian Ching etc. play the Sounders in the US Open Cup that helped interest/attendance.

    IF Landon scores the winning goal and you can watch him next week at your local stadium, THAT HELPS MLS.

    IF fans start showing up, we are not that far from keeping the Holdens and Clarks playing where we can watch them…and not on illegal internet streams.

  15. Jack in TX says:

    Eric, et. al.:

    Good points in your article and most of the comments posted. Parallel, albeit anecdotal, evidence to support your points can be found in the European basketball leagues. Their best players are exported to the North America, yet the domestic leagues continue to thrive and grow, while their national teams benefit as a whole and improve when these players return to lend their talents. The stiffer competition for Olympic gold bears this out.

    Granted there are fewer opportunities in N Amer as we are only one league, so the talent drain abroad may not be as great. But I feel the comparison is just. The European leagues are relatively new to the higher tiers and basketball’s surge in popularity overseas is relatively recent compared to the older, traditional sports of those nations (soccer, rugby, etc.).

    • Charles says:

      Nice post.

    • Charles says:

      One thing though, I just looked up the Argentina National Team, very successful if you don’t follow basketball, and only two players play in the NBA (that I know of, I am pretty sure I am right, but I quit following that piece of c— league when they moved the SuperSonics to OKC ).

      So maybe that proves MY point, we need to keep most of our national team members here.

      Maybe it proves we are ALL correct,
      it will be a glorious day when one or two of our players play for the Man U type teams ( again, Howard ),
      AND when MLS can afford to keep the majority of the “I will go play for any Euro teams for money, even if they are going to get relegated” players here.

  16. bookmakers says:

    Donovan has done such a great job, in the toughest league in the world…

  17. Jason says:

    Wanna know why there are not enough world class american footballers? Simple answer: Where is all the hype in the sports media? American football. Everywhere you go the casual sports talk in the stores, banks, and restaurants is on amerian football. Who talks about soccer. Nobody. So yeah all the good athletes here play that or basketball. I dont see that changing anytime soon.

    • Charles says:

      Except in one small corner that is so far removed from the rest of the US.

      Even the 9 year old BASKETBALL team I coach, wear more soccer gear to practice than football, basketball and baseball combined.

      The Revolution may be a team in New England, but it hopefully it has started in Seattle !

  18. Kartik says:

    the athlete argument has to stop. Have you seen Marvell Wynne recently? We simply are lacking in technical ability.

  19. Think says:

    Look, when our players move to Europe to play with the best AND get paid, they leave a spot open here in the MLS. Then, the next young futballer will get thier chance to move up. The cycle will repeat itself untill we have our USMNT starting XI playing successfully around the world making major league money. More fans will turn out in the US with success. We had a great showing in CONCACAF and we are getting better. I believe that all professional athletes want to play with the best to be the best. If it means that our stars go somewhere else to play so be it. I love it when I get to see our guys on the pitch at Old Trafford or Goodison Park or Craven Cottage(i will not appologize, i love the epl). Especially when they are coming up with fantastic saves from the licks of Steven Gerrard and Emmanuel Adebayor or scoring on Keepers like Petr Cech and Manuel Almunia.

  20. David says:

    Eric, you are dead on. A decade and a half ago, if you were a talented high school athlete, soccer just didn’t make much sense. Maybe a dozen Americans played at quality teams in the world! Your chances of going anywhere with it were slim to none. So kids went to other sports instead.

    MLS changed that. It meant that a couple hundred Americans could actually have a career in this sport. A decade in, more kids are sticking with it. The result is that better players are coming up and moving abroad. As more Americans succeed abroad, more foreign coaches start looking here for players. That means more players going, etc. Now a talented high school athlete knows that if they are good at soccer they have a chance at a big career in Europe. Even if that doesn’t work out, they still have a shot at being a pro here in MLS.

    As more kids stick with soccer (and one glance at the explosion of youth club soccer and you know it’s catching on), better players will emerge, fueling the cycle further. It’s a slow process, but you can see it progressing and speeding up now.

    That all works because we send our players abroad. If MLS hoards them here will it improve the level of play in the league? A little. But the cost will be the future of the sport in this country. But let them go and more and better will follow.

  21. SAl says:

    “It may be counter-intuitive, and perhaps a little heretical, but soccer in America, and MLS in particular, can thrive as an exporter of quality domestic talent”

    I disagree with this statement for the reason that, Americans are spoiled because we are used to seeing the best in the world in the other pro sports leagues and we won’t settle for 2nd best.
    MLS needs to get rid of single entity (hopefully the next CBA) and let thier clubs that choose to do so go after the top players.

  22. David says:

    Drop single entity and I doubt the league survives at this point. Three or four teams will attract the top talent. The rest will never be able to compete. And we still won’t be able to attract the top talent. I don’t care how much an MLS team offers Ronaldo, he wouldn’t leave Madrid to come here.

    Some degree of free agency would be good. I think on the podcast one suggestion was to allow teams to violate the salary cap if they pay a luxury tax that gets distributed towards the salary cap for all the other teams. I think that would work.

    But opening up player bidding won’t make the MLS the EPL. And as per my post above, I don’t even think that’s the right strategy. MLS should be the best live soccer in North America. It should be where America’s and Canada’s rising stars get their start. It doesn’t need to be the best soccer on tv.

  23. sal says:

    “I don’t care how much an MLS team offers Ronaldo, he wouldn’t leave Madrid to come here.”

    A lot of the big names would come over, Beckham opened the door for that but their not going to come for free money talks.

    “Nearly every great Dutch player plays outside of Holland, and that does not make the Ajax fans walk around bemoaning the state of their league”

    We are not like the Dutch nor should we strive to be. MLS has potential if done right it could be a top 3 league in the world in 15-20 years.

  24. jleau says:

    Eric – Great article!

    I think I fall somewhere between Eric and Charles. I think MLS will if successful will inevitabely be a feeder league to Europe. The center of basketball is the USA and the center for soccer is and will always be Europe. I think it is great for soccer in this country when a player like Dempsey or Bradely go on to play regularly in Europe. I want to see the best the US has play against the best in the world.

    However, too much good (but not great) talent leaves for second rate leagues in Europe. The MLS needs to find ways to hang on to talent like Feilhaber and others that play in Scandanavia or Adu in Greece or Kenny Cooper in the Championship. The domestic league needs to be strong and the young kids coming in need to be challenged by talented American veterans. Chris Rolfe heading to Norway for $400K a year is bad for the league.

    I don’t buy the old arguement that Americans won’t watch unless it’s the best of the best. It’s a elitest arguement and there is no real evidence that it’s true. College Football and Basketball are immensely successful and they are absolutely not the best of the best. The best hockey players in the world play in the NHL and almost nobody watching television in the US seems interested.

  25. David says:

    ” We are not like the Dutch nor should we strive to be. MLS has potential if done right it could be a top 3 league in the world in 15-20 years.”

    I think you’re dreaming.

    Beckham came here because his wife wanted to be in Hollywood. Once he realized just how dire the league was as compared to where he came from he wanted out.

    MLS is not a bad league. But it doesn’t have the money to compete for top world talent and even if it did they wouldn’t come here. But that’s okay. It doesn’t really need to strive for that goal. It is still the best soccer we can go see and it is a great place to go see new American talent. I don’t know about you, but I was truly excited when I got to see Adu and Altidore play live before they went abroad. That’s what MLS needs to build on. A few old pros like Beckham are fine. But that’s not the heart of this league. That’s not what it’s about.

  26. ajong prince says:

    i love football, and will like to play in a big club .i will like to have a sponsor that will help me get to the top.ajongprince@yahoo.fr

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