I have a healthy love for America, many English folk will happily slag off the good old ‘U.S of A’ saying that the people are annoying, probably obese and that they are rubbish at football. Not me, I have lived, played and coached in America, enjoyed the lifestyle whilst I witnessed some very talented young footballers – kids that would easily walk in to academy sides over here. Other than this leaving me wondering why I didn’t snap that talent up, become a child agent and try to flog them to the highest European bidder, it makes me believe that in around 10-15 years time, the MLS could be quite an exciting place to be.
The league has made steady improvements over the past few years, with one of the key factors being the recruitment of some of Europe’s biggest names in order to raise the quality and reputation of the league in the States, whilst give the league familiarity with Europe and also raising the MLS’ exposure worldwide. We have seen Thierry Henry, David Beckham and Robbie Keane playing starring roles stateside, as some of the Premier League’s former top players turn out for good teams, whilst enjoying a lifestyle that is million miles away from a wet Tuesday night playing Rochdale in the cup!
In general America does sport well; everything is optimised from producing players to the fans experience at games. Football is a relatively new sport and the MLS is a new league which, in terms of quality, is a long way off the Premier League, La Liga or the Bundesliga, but it is getting there and certainly isn’t anywhere as bad as other start-up’s like Australia’s A-League.
What American’s do well is the basics; facilities are top-notch even at youth level, coaching techniques are good, youth-development underpins everything they do, they have sponsors etc involved from the ‘get-go’ and what they do best is build brands and market the bejesus out of them to make sports popular. They have already shown England how to make football into a business by creating a brand that can be exported around the world. They also know that the best way to raise the levels of interest in football in America is by success. How will they do this? By having a successful national team, because in America, everyone loves a winner! They understand that the quickest way to do this is to export your best players around the world whilst the MLS is still in its infancy.
For as long as I have been a football fan (pretty much as a foetus) I have remembered American players in England. My first encounters were Tony Meola at Watford and John Harkes at Sheffield Wednesday. Since then I have watched American players start to filter in to English football and also European football, as the quality of the player’s America produces has improved immensely.
Americans are good at marketing themselves; at one time America managed to have world football believing that Freddie Adu was USA’s answer to Wayne Rooney after he made his MLS debut as a 14-year-old. Europe’s top sides were almost fighting over Adu before they realised he wasn’t actually that good – but the American sports marketing machine had done its job.
We again find that same machine in full-working order as the latest MLS players have started an invasion on Europe. New USA national team boss Jurgen Klinsmann holds the key to European football as he is more than happy to recommend some of his up-and-coming USA players to Europe’s top sides. Klinsmann has already done Arsenal a ‘favour’ by recommending US winger Brek Shea to the North London side where he has been on trial. Another player currently on trial is Tim Ream who is training with Roy Hodgson’s West Brom after earlier rumours had also linked him with Arsenal.
They are just some of the first of a new generation of US players we will see getting experience in Europe. Whether Shea and Ream sign is another matter, but it is great experience, exposure and sends a signal that players in the USA can reach the high echelons of European football. Other names to watch out for are centre-back George John who nearly went to Blackburn in August, young 19-year-old forward Juan Agudelo who plays with Henry at New York Red Bulls, defender Gale Agbossoumonde, who is currently on loan at Eintracht Frankfurt from the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and forward Teal Banbury who has already had a trial at Stoke this time last year.
Some of the US youngest talents are already playing in Europe, but are at clubs where they can get game time. Speed-merchant Josh Gatt and fellow American Sean Cunningham both play for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Molde, Solskjaer has recommended both to Manchester United already. The US national team has massively raised its profile and players with dual nationality are starting to switch allegiance to the States. Exciting Norwegian midfielder Mikkel Diskerud has opted to play for the US national team. He soon could be joined by young French striker Rudy Gestede who is currently at Cardiff and has represented France at youth level, but would jump at the opportunity to play for America as he qualifies to play through his granddad’s heritage.
The majority of the US national team players already play at many of Europe’s clubs, with only a few in the domestic leagues, mainly young players who are up-and-coming. This gives the MLS a platform to showcase older European players to attract public interest in US football, whilst becoming a breeding ground for the country’s top young talent, a perfect mix of appeal and opportunity. ‘Generation Adidas’ is the Clairefontaine of US football and has had graduates such as Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan and Tim Howard as the project goes from strength to strength.
Loan moves in the MLS close season are a great opportunity for players like Beckham and Donovan to prove they can still compete at the highest levels of European football, demonstrating the quality in the MLS, whilst raising the exposure of the MLS throughout Europe. Such deals are again being mooted as Donovan is linked with a move back to Everton and Beckham to PSG. Young players can also gain European experience during this time, which will raise their profile in Europe, give them vital European experience and allow them to take this experience back to the MLS.
The MLS has done well to come as far as it has. They continue to work from a model that seems to suit everyone; young players get their opportunity in the MLS before being shipped out to Europe if good enough. Teams are becoming supplemented with top players reaching their latter years as the MLS recreates some of the better bits of the NASL before it. The top guys at the MLS know that having a continued link with Europe’s top leagues brings credibility and opportunity to the MLS and its players whilst the league still develops. All that seems to be left is for America to stop using the word S*ccer!