Let me start by stating that I have the utmost respect for Major League Soccer and its commissioner, Don Garber.
I have extremely fond memories of covering the now-defunct Miami Fusion and have enjoyed watching the growth of the league. I marvel every time I see the Seattle Sounders’ crowd and think it would be terrific for the soccer-crazed fans of South Florida to get an MLS team if David Beckham and Miami politicians can ever agree on a stadium site — the latest word is there will be some sort of announcement by year’s end.
Garber has done a remarkable job building the league, getting soccer-specific stadiums built and finding a place for a U.S. brand of professional soccer on a crowded American sports landscape.
But his recent harsh criticism of U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann seems out of line, and now ESPN FC is reporting that there is “growing frustration” among some MLS owners over the advice Klinsmann and his staff are giving young players on the youth national team and MLS academy teams.
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According to the report, Seattle Sounders minority owner Adrian Hanauer, Philadelphia Union CEO and Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz and several other sources are upset that Klinsmann and his staff are advising some of those up-and-coming players to sign with European clubs, if they can, rather than stay in MLS.
“We are investing millions of dollars in youth development,” Hanauer said. “It’s hard enough to compete with foreign teams who are trying to poach players in the U.S. and Canada. I’m certainly not happy if our federation and its representatives are in any way pushing our players to sign with a foreign club and bypassing our professional environment.”
Klinsmann’s response: “You have to look at every situation individually and help the player to determine what is best for himself. There are a lot of parts to the picture, things like the player’s ability, what his support structure is like, his past experiences, and his mentality and goals. Some kids would benefit from the environment in Europe, while others are best-suited to continue their growth in MLS. There’s no one right answer that applies to all players, and each player’s circumstances change over time.”
It’s hard to argue with Klinsmann. His job is to make the national team as good as it can be, to elevate the level of the elite players in our country, and it makes perfect sense that the way to do that is to have as many of those players as possible playing in the most elite leagues in the world — which happen to be in Europe right now.
It is the same exact issue faced by the national coach and domestic leagues in Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Korea, Nigeria and Sweden.
The best players in those countries almost all play professionally in Spain, England, Italy and Germany. Neymar doesn’t play in Brazil. Lionel Messi doesn’t play in Argentina. They play in Spain. Falcao doesn’t play in Colombia. He plays in England.
And yet, league officials in those countries are not belly-aching, suggesting that those players have an obligation to make a living on home soil because that would promote their domestic leagues. Or that the national coaches of those countries should be pushing players to stay home.
So, why are MLS bigwigs offended when Klinsmann so much as suggests that perhaps top American players would get better daily competition playing overseas?
Klinsmann was not hired to promote MLS. He has gone out of his way to say over the years that MLS is growing and how good that is for American soccer, and how that will help grow the pool of players for future U.S. World Cup teams. But for now, if we are being honest, the top leagues with the top players are not here.
If MLS owners are upset that they are spending millions to develop players in academies and then losing them to Europe, they should do what clubs do around the world — sign those kids to contracts at a younger age so they are committed to stay, or if a foreign club wants them that club would have to compensate the MLS club.
That notion goes against our college soccer system, which is another debate and a conversation for another day.
American teens and their parents set their sights on college scholarships, and that is a wonderful thing because most players will never play pro, so a diploma is a wiser option.
But if a young player is so good that an MLS and European team would fight over him, perhaps the MLS team should sign that kid to a contract.
But as long as our young players are free to choose where to play, they should go where it is best for their development. For some, that is MLS. For others, it’s Europe. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
English Premier League: Chelsea (29), Southampton (25), Manchester City (21), West Ham and Swansea (18).
French Ligue 1: Marseille (28), PSG (27), Lyon (26), Bordeaux (24), Nantes (23).
Serie A: Juventus (28), Roma (25), Napoli (21), Sampdoria (20), Lazio (19).
Bundesliga: Bayern Munich (27), Wolfsburg (23), Monchengladbach (20), Hannover (19), Hoffenheim and Bayer Leverkusen (17).
La Liga: Real Madrid (27), Barcelona (25), Valencia (24), Atletico Madrid and Sevilla (23).
On the tube
Sunday: Belgium vs. Wales (noon, ESPN Deportes); Israel vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina (2:45 p.m., ESPN Deportes).