With the passage of Christmas, and a brand new calendar year ripe for the taking, many take the time to compile a list of desired improvements for their lives, promising to drop those pesky few pounds gained from holiday sweets or wake up early enough to get a jump on the day’s events in order to have more time to relax. Almost invariably, these personal vows fail, resulting in gyms losing the teeming masses somewhere around January 3rd, snooze buttons giving way to later alarms, and so on. Thus, in the same spirit, here are some resolutions for the American soccer fan for the bright new year of 2015.
1. The next wave of young national team prospects will not receive more hype than they are due.
Freddy Adu. Jonathon Spector. Juan Agudelo. Each of these names, and countless more, has been anointed the savior of American soccer by fans and experts alike. And, as with the vows of increased exercise, their passing is marked with nary a whimper, lost to the vagaries of fate and failed promise.
Unfortunately, with each passing year, or even series of friendlies, new names crop up as candidates for the foretold American superstar fans have been salivating over for years. Player after player is trotted out as the Messi or Ronaldo of the Stars and Stripes, only to never truly reach his hyped potential.
Or, more bitterly, collapsing spectacularly as a player after initial positive results and fading into the archives of what-might-have-been. In 2015, this overzealous attention will rest most often on one Gedion Zelalem, who quite recently received his American citizenship while lurking on the fringes of Arsenal’s first team. Oh, and all the while clocking in at the ripe old age of 17.
The hype meter for young Zelalem is already off the charts among fans who have witnessed his touch and passing acumen, with the first news of his citizenship briefly overwhelming the section of Twitter devoted to the United States’ Men’s National Team. With the Gold Cup looming this summer, as well as the U-20 World Cup, plenty of opportunities will arise for Zelalem to add to his legend, or prove to be yet another Adu. Patience, especially in this instance, will most certainly prove to be a virtue.
2. The influx of American players returning to play in MLS from overseas will not be overly vexing.
In 2014, several stalwarts from the American starting XI at the World Cup were brought back to the United States by an MLS hoping the moves would translate into an increase in fan interest in the domestic league after being held rapt by soccer’s marquee event. Jürgen Klinsmann, manager and gatekeeper of the national team, took serious issue with this trend and broadcast his feelings on the subject to the media.
Naturally, Don Garber, as commissioner of the league under attack from the American soccer czar, took issue with Klinsmann’s position. Thus, the Great Soccer Schism of 2014 sprang into being, pitting the head of the American national team against the head of the United States’ most prominent means of developing American soccer talent.
Amongst fans, the debate between the merits of staying in MLS versus pursuing overseas opportunities has raged for years in nearly the same manner. The only difference in this conflict was its visibility. Fortunately, the exodus from Europe of Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, and Clint Dempsey, while troubling on its face, is much more a bucking of the current trend than a reversal.
Each year, more American talent appears on foreign shores, populating rosters of European clubs and academies from the English Premier League to the Eredivisie, and all points in between. Certainly, the number of Americans with regular playing time in the Premier League has dropped dramatically recently. This occurrence, however, has more to do with the changing demographics of the national team than the talent of American players as a whole.
Names such as Gyau, Flores, and Hyndman, all mainstays in the plans of foreign clubs, represent the future of the national team. More names join them every day, representing the future of the American national team, even as its present returns home.
3. Friendly results will not be given undue weight before World Cup 2018 qualifying begins.
The debate over the significance of friendlies in the scheme of a national team’s success or failure has been, and continues to be, fierce, contentious, and mostly irrelevant. In the vast expanse of soccer history, the results of friendly matches do not warrant even a blip among casual or hardcore fans in their perception of the team they cheer for.
Juan Agudelo’s goal in the dying minutes of a match against South Africa in 2010 came at the hands of a wonderful pass off the foot of Mikkel Diskerud, yet few fans remember the 1-1 draw it resulted in. The match came in the wake of a 2010 World Cup that saw yet another painful ouster at the hands of Ghana, and is significant only in that marked the appearance of Agudelo, Diskerud and a young defender by the name of Gale Agbossoumonde on the national team radar. That final name perfectly embodies the usefulness and purpose of friendly matches in the international game.
They’re significant only as a means of identifying and evaluating future talent, useful as opportunities to inculcate a manager’s philosophy of play in his players (or experiment wildly with formations and tactics in the case of Klinsmann), and provide an indication of the level of success a team can expect going into a major international tournament. Unless they occur on the cusp of the World Cup or Copa America (the Gold Cup does not count as a major international competition), the United States’ performance in friendlies offers little more than a fun distraction for fans to pick apart and debate over while waiting for more significant matches to come along.
4. Each fan will have one, and only one, favorite MLS club.
This final resolution, though short and seemingly simple, is in fact a proper springboard into a deep dive of the larger issues plaguing MLS, and American soccer as a whole. Expansion into Orlando City, New York, Atlanta, and other possible future venues will serve to change American soccer forever. Every debate over the American incarnation of the beautiful game will stem from the upcoming changes to MLS, including the expiration of collective bargaining agreement.
And, in turn, how MLS engages its American fans will determine how the league fares as a whole moving forward. To this point, American soccer and MLS have been nearly synonymous. American fans, experts, and general observers have regarded MLS as an entity devoted to expanding the American talent pool as a whole, rather than as a legitimate league with a quality brand of soccer to promote to the world.
That is how Major League Soccer has operated as a sporting entity, and it remains in many of the moves that take place on a league and club level. Fear over the failures of the NASL during the 1970’s, as well as the example of the more popular American football, have led to an MLS devoted to the idea of league over club, national team over the league. MLS, despite having multiple owners with multiple billions of dollars in net worth, operates with a minimum player salary in 2014 of $36,504.00 annually.
Its highest paid player, Michael Bradley, made $6 million in 2014. On average, MLS players make approximately $212,000.00 annually. In the second tier of English soccer, players earn an average of $592,000.00 each year. In the Premier League, players on average earn approximately $3.6 million a year. Why the disparity? Interest.
The Premier League may arguably be overexposed in relation to the success of its players on the international stage, yet it still garners enough global interest to dwarf other leagues. MLS needs fan interest, in eyes and dollars, to become more competitive. Expansion will expose more people to the game; however it will take the devotion of these fans to truly make MLS a worthy place for professionals to ply their trade.
Like all resolutions, these are likely to be broken the next time that the national team takes the pitch, or as one’s professional team of choice succeeds or fails throughout the year. These thoughts, however, are useful guides in consuming matches, commentary, media, and the always enjoyable debates with fellow lovers of the beautiful game. If anything, take a friend to a bar, pub, or live match and show them what it’s like to be a part of the game even as an observer. Then resolutions like these can give way to arguments over the cubicle walls over why the referee missed a crucial handball (Frings!!!!), whether a goal scorer was offside, and the other wonderful minutiae that make following soccer such a joy. Happy New Year. May 2015 be a year of unparalleled success and the 4-3-3 finally be adopted by the senior team.