MLS BECOMES A TEENAGER

March 22, 2008 |

Looking at the counter on teams’ websites, the 2008 MLS season kicks off in 7 days with DC United opening their season against a much-improved KC Wizards team on the road. According to Real Salt Lake GM, Garth Lagerwey, the Wiz made probably the shrewdest pick ups this off-season and will a team akin to the 2000 MLS Cup winning squad.
Regardless, perennial powerhouses United will more than likely be touted as one of this year’s favorites after amassing another impressive line up even with the trading of playmaker Christian Gomez to the Colorado Rapids. His spot and his number were handed over to World Cup veteran and fellow Argentinean Marcelo “the Doll” Gallardo.
United recently advanced to the CONCACAF semi-finals one the back of a 5-0 home drubbing of Jamaican Harbour View FC. By all accounts it was not the silky smooth performance from a team that has set the MLS standard for silky smooth performances. But 5 goals are 5 goals and a semi-final appearance, again, is a semi-final appearance.

March 29th’s match up offers an interesting insight into the MLS as it grows into manhood. With opposing rosters showcasing 12 South and Central American players (Wizards 5 and United 7), more and more MLS squads are bolstering their line ups with our ball booting brethren south of the border.
Broadening southern trade routes has its obvious pluses. The futbol culture in the lower Americas is already well established and produces some phenomenal (and inexpensive) talent sometimes overlooked by the European powerhouses.
The Latino support base is one of the strongest in the league and the continuing rotation of recognizable players is good business practice by owners keen on keeping the turnstiles ticking over.
United has long mined South and Central America for its talent – and usually with great success. Whether or not these are boardroom decisions is irrelevant, because the business of sport aside, the business of winning Rothenberg Trophies has been aided in large by these foreign players. In fact, the first two MLS Cup MVP’s both hail from Bolivia (Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno). In the 12-year history of this young league, 7 MVP titles belong to foreign-born players and 5 to US players.
Should this increase in foreign players raise any fears about US-born players being marginalized in the pro ranks, as seems to be the issue d’ jour in England? English football, and more specifically the FA, is making great strides to nurture English youth. The fear is that the high volume of foreign players is diluting the strength of an English international pool that has failed to win anything of any worth since the 1966 World Cup.
But this shouldn’t apply to a country the size of the US who can draw from a vast and diverse talent pool that is beginning to produce some high caliber players who ply their trade in some of Europe’s biggest teams.
The trend of acquiring big name, recognizable foreign players shouldn’t be an indicator of things to come. It is based on the current model of the successes enjoyed by other established leagues in the international arena. I can remember a pre-Premiership league where teams were predominated by domestic players with the occasional Scots or Welshman thrown in for good measure. But globalization is an unstoppable force.
Also the MLS is careful to maintain economic parity in this league by limiting run away spending – the type of spending that riddles the EPL and La Liga. This places checks on teams eager to look outside of the US. As of now though, they are checks that are being stretched.
The more cynical amongst us would point to the “Beckham Rule” as an obvious attempt to infuse instantaneous credibility to one of the more marginalized US sports. But adding exotic spices can only make a bland dish better – and tastier to the consumer. As wise as the League has proven to this point, they will be wary of over spicing.
I don’t foresee a domestic league that starts to take on the characteristics of the Premiership. This is a league that is growing and succeeding, and as it continues to do so, it will eventually start to co-opt talent from the massive domestic athletic base that the US enjoys in all its sports.
And unlike some other leagues, xenophobia doesn’t seem to be a problem. If the MLB is an accurate indicator, there doesn’t seem to be an issue with foreign talent and especially when they help with the silverware.
This season will be an interesting one to follow. The Designated Player Rule has had time to settle in and there has been a good crop of Generation Adidas kids picked up. It promises to be a good mix of experience and youth.
Forza United!

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