By: Rescinded Red
The road to Brazil has created a perfect storm for Major League Soccer. United States Men National Team hopefuls are scrambling back to the top-flight domestic league with the promise of a pay raise and guaranteed playing time. And MLS in the last year of a national TV deal; is desperate to piggyback off the projected ratings bump from the first World Cup in their time zone in 20 years.
It is a clear win-win for everyone involved. Players, clubs, league, and fans will look at the 2014 season with fond memories as peaking in quality and popularity just before the league steps into many unknowns.
Unknown is the future of the complex and vexing single entity system with salary caps, Designating Players, and no free agency. We have questions about which national broadcaster will win the TV rights, and whether they can provide a worthy platform. What are the effects of the inevitable watering down of talent with the addition of two clubs? One club with a handful of MLS talent though no stars and the other with the cash and coach to attract the stars but no visible talent-generating infrastructure. And, for the players returning, unknowns for how an easily foreseeable disastrous World Cup campaign can leave them marooned stateside.
The Brazil or Bust motto is in the mind of all the players with or without a legitimate expectation for a call up. Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra, and Clarence Goodson all arrived during the mid-point of last season, seeking an opportunity for one last big pay day while fighting to make their final World Cup. The rumored Jermaine Jones transfer is another possible arrival, though the nature of the league’s salary cap and its undervaluing of holding midfielders will provide him with a less lucrative opportunity. As of today (1/13/14) word is out that defender Michael Parkhurst has returned to the league as well.
Those facing true risk and uncertainty are the players in their prime that choose to remain in MLS one more season or returning for the security spot in a starting XI at the expense of future growth. The community must reckon with a multitude of factors while it goes through the Kübler-Ross stages of grief upon hearing of Michael Bradley’s return. The truth is Bradley’s time at AS Roma was likely finished with the arrival of Belgian Radja Nainggolan. Roma was his 5th top flight European club since leaving the MetroStars at the age of 18 in 2005. Aside from the reported $6.5 million annual salary, the move to Toronto FC offers him the long term sustainability he failed to obtain overseas.
What Bradley and other near prime USMNT players are sacrificing in a return, Mix Diskerud rumored to be part of this group, is finding a new level not obtainable with most MLS clubs. In Bradley’s case the unproven and so far underwhelming work of Ryan Nelson at Toronto FC is a giant red flag. Of course, this is not true with all MLS coaches. LA Galaxy’s Omar Gonzalez and Sporting Kansas City’s Graham Zusi and Matt Besler under Bruce Arena and Peter Vermes, respectively, still have an opportunity for professional development. The question is how many MLS coaches are capable of that, especially when grooming a top tier player?
Bradley at 26 years old has room to grow. Maintaining sharpness, fitness, and honing existing skills with a likely expanding role at TFC is not a concern. Missing now is a world class coaching staff that would bring a new level to his game. No longer, will Bradley, a coach’s son, be in the epicenter of high-level tactically thinking and innovations that is required in Champions League caliber clubs. A coach can drag out a player’s best. Example is next level growth of Victor Moses under Roberto Martinez at Wigan (although not a CL club). Both of Liverpool’s forwards, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, are unquestionable better under Brendan Rodgers. Better coaching brings out the best in top talent; Bradley’s growth will be limited with his team at TFC.
The best technical player of his generation leveling off due to inadequate coaching is what brings the most fear and frustration, albeit a rational fear. The coaching within the United States and Canada will eventually rise as the countries digest more soccer, but likely not for years, if not decades. The return or the presence of any developing national team players with top-flight talent brings out mixed emotions. That’s why Jürgen Klinsmann’s policy should be to push young players aboard.
Selfishly what USMNT supporters want is a flag bearer in a foreign land. A World Cup championship is nowhere in the sight of rational supporters. Yet, there remain stages and steps supporters look to as hope for the future. Michael Bradley was the most recent vessel to reach the next stage, a member on a Champions League level starting XI. That goal is compartmentalized from the aspirations we have for domestic leagues. Somehow, one top tier talent in his prime can make a country respectable, but surely not an entire league.
Toronto FC provided the big time signing after years failure. Tim Leiweke made good on his promise and MLS as a whole is better for it. There will be a rush to judge the validation of the league based on the results of the World Cup. It should not; the executives are buying the talent or investing in development. Unavoidably players and the league are tied to Brazil, boom or bust.
This weeks Throw-In:
- Has the MLS ever dealt with a more exciting transfer window? The league likely lost its Golden Boot winner to its biggest rival league. Toronto FC throws out huge cash for Jermain Defoe, plus the transfer of Bradley expected this week. Welcome to the world of big transaction soccer/football.
- Was the Hunt Family the greatest employers in the league or what? Oscar Parejo steps down from a young and talented Colorado Rapids club for FC Dallas. Would you select a core of Fernandez, Blas, Michel and Acosta over Powers, Klute, Irwin, Brown, and O’Neill to win a Cup in the next 5 seasons?