For both American players and American soccer in general, the conventional wisdom is that legitimacy lies in Europe.
For years MLS has brought in ageing European stars — guys like David Beckham and Thierry Henry. Those signings are designed to boost interest and sell tickets. But they are also a function of a general desire by owners and executives to be taken seriously as a league.
At the same time as the country’s domestic league has gained respectability through an infusion of foreign talent, the flow of young American players has gone in the opposite direction.
The majority of young, talented American players eventually move to Europe to try to play in the world’s best leagues. “Playing in Europe” has become a shorthand for quality when it comes to talking about American players.
So how do we explain the return America’s two best players to MLS?
At age 26, Michael Bradley left second-place Roma and signed a contract with Toronto FC this week. He’ll reportedly make around $US6.5 million — six-times his salary in Italy. His move comes a few months after Clint Dempsey left Tottenham for the Seattle Sounders.
Bradley’s agent told Goal.com, “There were many offers, also from Serie A, by clubs like Verona and Bologna, but Micheal chose to return [to MLS] after 10 years in Europe. It was a bitter choice, but made with the heart. Roma wanted him to stay, to leave for Toronto was his choice.”
He’s not an ageing American returning home after a long career in Europe, like Brian McBride. He’s not a young talent who flamed out after a brief spell overseas, like Landon Donovan.
He’s a world-class player who has proven himself at one of the biggest teams in one of the biggest leagues in Europe. And he’s about to enter his best years.
It’s a great move for Bradley on a personal level. He’s getting paid much, much more money. He gets to live close to home. He doesn’t have to deal with expectations or the media or the threat of losing his job because a new signing comes in.
There’s a point at which abstract concepts like “proving yourself” are less important than money and lifestyle. Bradley has reached that point.
It’s also great for MLS. To grow as a league, it needs world-class players in their primes — something they’ve struggled to find in the past.
But is it great for the national team?
The world’s best soccer nations have both a thriving domestic league and a large number of players playing in Europe’s top clubs.
Right now, there’s a shortage of U.S. players at top clubs.
Only two Americans played in the Champions League in 2013-14. Only three American outfield players are currently playing in the English Premier League.
MLS players might make up more than half of the United States men’s national team squad that takes the field against Ghana in next year’s World Cup opener.
It’s not that these players lack quality. But for the USMNT to become a top-8 team in the world rather than a top-15 team, it needs a large pool of players with week-in, week-out experience against the best in the world.
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