A WHILE BACK, Major League Soccer’s website put together a short mash-up video asking the question, “When will MLS produce its own Messi?” The video itself, more paid promotional collateral soaked in corporate initiative-driven opinion than honest exploration, reiterated the common reasons and myths regarding the perpetual absence of an American player of world-class calibre.
While the Development Academy system is a necessary step to advance the game stateside, it is but one route to the upper echelon of the American game, and it was instituted more than a decade after MLS kicked off in 1996. The good part is MLS and the US Soccer Federation have both finally succumbed to the fact that one doesn’t build a house starting with the roof. The not-so-good part is the US Soccer Development Academy “demosphere” shows how many states and areas do not have academy teams. For players in these areas with no Development Academy, their choices are: move to area with an academy, stay the course and hope to be discovered, or fizzle out like so many promising young talents scattered across the nation like sticks in the wind have before.
But what made this question bold beyond belief, bold bordering on arrogance, was the assumption that leagues produce players. Leagues do not produce players, clubs and coaches produce players. Long before a player takes the pitch at the professional level, bright boots and pressed kit and all, credit is owed where it’s rightly due. Much like teachers, youth coaches are in the business of being overworked, underpaid, and undermined. Subsequently, they are also in the business of planting seeds; they’ll never have the opportunity to reap the fruits of their labour.
Soccer is no different. The game we see on television is the latest iteration of a million steps a player took along their developmental journey. So, who really produces players? At a joint UEFA/FIFA conference assessing and reviewing the technical analysis of the 2014 World Cup, Joachim Löw discussed the role of the modern coach: “Because of his expertise and philosophy, a coach needs to communicate with the players. I’ve learnt that over the years. The players today want explanations and arguments, they understand when they are criticized and a coach needs to explain why. In that sense, psychological and communication skills are important for a coach.”
Löw’s words echo what most already know. Players need justification. Parents need validation. How this information is disseminated is critical to its absorption. The World Cup-winning coach went on to say, “Youth coaches create world champions,” crediting the significant role of German football’s 14-year rise to the pinnacle of world football culminating in a World Cup victory, to youth coaches who bought into the overhaul and revamp of the German youth development model.
The German Football Association’s power is derived from the grassroots, youth, and provincial academy coaches cohesively re-evaluating what’s important regarding the progression of Germany’s, not just the Bundesliga’s, football. To assume a single entity, closed league like MLS can produce a single “world-class” player in a country with the resources, cultural hotbeds, infrastructure, and know-how of the United States suggests that any and all progress to such elevated status of a Lionel Messi is misguided. Most, if not all of the best players in Major League Soccer were developed elsewhere with the exception of DeAndre Yedlin, who is at Newcastle. From the best collegiate products (which yielded some of the league’s best American players to date) to the exorbitantly paid Designated Players and foreign imports, Major League Soccer has and will continue to benefit from the external development of its players.
Given the nefariousness of a term like “world-class”, it’s entirely plausible that the subjective nature of such a term shrouds it in ambiguity. Lionel Messi was introduced to the game with local club Grandoli FC, a club managed by parents in a rough and tumble working-class neighbourhood that provides training and league games for local children. From his neighbourhood club, Messi progressed to the youth academy at Newell’s Old Boys.
Without delving into what makes Messi a phenomenal player, it’s clear that even as an exceptional talent his route to greatness required him to leave home to be groomed and developed in Barcelona at La Masia. His brilliance was not developed by La Liga. It was developed by the Barça’s methodologies closely tied with those at Ajax. The multi-layered and multilateral coaching practices and rigorous attention to detail regarding his performance capabilities occurred for years within a club system, not a league.
Regarding player retention, Major League Soccer continues to see its best young players go abroad to development academies and teams in Europe. But the original question, although painted with a broad brush is good as such an inquiry brings salient questions to the forefront. Are MLS Academies competitive enough against regional opposition? In terms of recent MLS academy performances against Liga MX academy sides at an under-15 tournament, the results weren’t favourable for MLS, whose sides ended up with a 0-7-1 record. Notable results were Club Atlas thumping Toronto 10-1, Pachuca beating Houston 2-0, Chivas Guadalajara beating Chicago Fire 3-2, and Morelia drawing 1-1 with FC Dallas. While it’s not entirely prudent to assess the holistic state of MLS Academies from these results, it does help answer the true root of the original question: “When will MLS produce its own Lionel Messi?”
The answer is whenever Major League Soccer and its misleading marketing machine decide it has produced its own Lionel Messi because the reality is that Lionel Messi will not resemble the Lionel Messi. What standard will MLS with the help of MLS Digital Properties and Soccer United Marketing (SUM), the marketing arm of Major League Soccer, set for “its own Messi”? Will the “MLS Messi” be made to stay in the league for the duration of his career? Will he be allowed to have a say in what club, err, franchise, he’s allowed to play for? Must this “MLS Messi” be to MLS what David Beckham was to Adidas, Pepsi, and Italian underwear modelling initiatives? Will this “MLS Messi” be American? And ultimately, will this “MLS Messi” be anywhere near the standard quality required in the world’s top leagues if MLS is not one of those top leagues itself.
Framed this way, one can peel back the motivations of the original quandary. Does MLS ask such a question on behalf of the betterment of its brand? After all, in a closed league that controls each franchise rather than allowing club autonomy and governance, it’s clear business strategy and brand visibility trumps all else. With the league’s continued expansion, how will true footballing growth, the product on the pitch, be measured? Attendance figures, disproportional salary metrics, an amalgamating league-wide logo rebrand, and a flurry of questions revolving around the ambiguous and ever-frustrating amorphous MLS Rules and Regulations standards have given rise to another question.
Has the US Soccer Federation wedded the sport’s success to one league? It’s evident the success of national teams is partly dependent on the strength of its top-flight league (unlike MLS, most of those leagues compete in a system whereby poor performance over the span of a season can result in relegation). The other dependency of a national side’s success is where and at what level its core players ply their trade. As the sport in the United States continues to increase in popularity, it’s also clear much of this popularity is derived largely from foreign players, national teams, clubs, and leagues.
Whilst fans in the U.S. tend to watch MLS, many prefer to watch foreign leagues over MLS on the regular. American audiences still tune into European league coverage much more than they do MLS games. Future projections of increased television revenues and fund distribution and exposure for MLS are unlikely to pry fans away from top global leagues at the weekend. That conversion occurs when the level on the pitch in MLS trumps that in the world’s top leagues, which is unlikely to happen as long as the development of American players oscillates between “good enough” for MLS to “surplus to requirements” in European sides.
The best players in the world have mastered the basics. In the United States, generation after generation is applauded for trying the basics. The mentality of the American player isn’t yet at the level of resilience of players growing up abroad. The production of players starts with a simple observation: those who have to be forced off the pitch after training and those who can’t wait for the whistle to signal the end of training. In any sport, when players view their own success and progress as a means for survival, the result is players who enter the professional game equipped with a mentality that’s rare in the American soccer player.
A prime example of this mentally can be traced to Brek Shea’s interview published in Sports Illustrated. Shea, an MLS product himself and an MLS MVP finalist in 2011, transferred from FC Dallas to Stoke City in January 2013. His list of complaints to soccer in England included the grey weather, the seriousness of the game, the fact that soccer is more “like a 9 to 5 job”, the camaraderie he fondly missed in MLS along with the weekly team barbeques to name a few “issues” a player in the national team set-up and an MLS product cited.
When Shea frames life in MLS as more relaxed to that at a club like Stoke, it speaks of the cultural differences and vast gulf in mentality between MLS and a club like Stoke, let alone a club like Barcelona. While Shea’s apathy for the challenges life as a professional player in England doesn’t represent all Americans playing abroad, it is a troubling mentality for a player who’s paid to kick a ball.
While the “what if the best athletes played soccer” fable is unlikely to die off (it really needs to), the United States is unique in the sense that its athletes have an abundance of estuaries that other countries simply don’t have regarding sporting options. Firstly, in the American sporting sense, there’s a difference between a pure athlete with raw physical tools and abilities and a proficient soccer player. The demands of soccer lean on skill-sets and attributes that aren’t transferable from most American sports.
The “best athlete” argument is stale, so the real question is lodged in is soccer losing these athletes to other sports? In all likelihood, yes, but the remaining talent pool is arguably the biggest youth participation sport in the country. According to the U.S. Youth Soccer Organization, as of 2012 the US Youth Soccer Annual Registration of Players was 3,023,633 with a near equal gender breakdown of boys to girls aged 5-19.
A report published by the Wall Street Journal in January 2014 with source metrics from the SFIA/Physical Activity Council and Participation Topline Report found that approximately 6.2 million kids played organised soccer aged 6-18. League estimates for players aged 13-20 put estimations of player participation in the tens of thousands, so even with the vast inlets to other sports, the pool of soccer players is large enough to yield better players. Factor in the non-registered numbers and unreported figures and the number of participants in the sport swells dramatically. So, the issue isn’t a lack of participants, abundance of sporting choices, or lack of genetic attributes regarding the prototypical U.S. soccer player, so what excuse remains?
One of the most popular reasons proffered by Major League Soccer officials, employees and fans is the fact the league isn’t even 25 years old yet. Has Major League Soccer increased the exposure of the game in the United States? Yes. Is Major League Soccer the reason soccer is popular in the United States? No. The game has survived and even thrived in various stages and facets since late 19th-century immigration influxes solidified the United States as cultural melting pot.
The ebb and flow of the game’s popularity will continue to fluctuate regardless of any success at a World Cup or in MLS. The country simply has so many sporting outlets and the juggernaut of the NFL that out-competing advertising and television-friendly sports with stoppages and high scores is damn near impossible. That being said, the sustainability of Major League Soccer as a business entity is cohesive in both progression and ambiguity. However, soccer is no longer a sport that has to be “sold” to American fans and audiences. If anything, America is sold on its affinity for the world’s game played abroad over the domestic product.
The seemingly perpetual defeats to Liga MX sides in the CONCACAF Champions League give credence to the belief that MLS is far from producing a player remotely comparable to a Lionel Messi. With Orwellian control and influence over mainstream American soccer media and elaborate marketing campaigns that boldly take credit and ownership for anything remotely successful in American soccer, MLS must also attribute and attach itself to the shortcomings of the national state of the game.
Instead of Major League Soccer asking when it will produce its own Messi, perhaps it is better served asking why it would even attempt such a feat before producing players the calibre of Messi’s supporting cast at Barcelona. The question is coyly guised as a marketing ploy to incite debate and it just might convince people Major League Soccer is capable of producing such a world-class player. However, the fact remains that MLS has yet to produce a single world-class player, let alone anything near a Lionel Messi.
Successful leagues place as much value in development as they do marketing initiatives. Major League Soccer would be well-served to produce its own version of a James Milner before it dreams of producing its own Lionel Messi.
By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3