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The Perils of the MLS Skill Gap
by Paul Gardner, April 3rd, 2008 6:45AM

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Just what the Los Angeles Galaxy needed: Carlos Ruiz out of action for four or more weeks. His injury, courtesy of a primitive tackle from Colorado rookie Ciaran O'Brien, should ring some pretty noisy alarm bells for MLS and for MLS referees.

It might also flash a deja vu sign to those with long memories -- though I don't see too many such people at MLS. Let me remind them, then, by taking the immense pleasure of quoting myself: "Some of the world's top players are members of the league ... Ironically, they are the ones creating the problem. For their arrival has given the league a dangerously unbalanced shape. Highly skilled world-class players make up the top end of the league's skill spectrum. At the bottom end there are, alas, far too many who are, to put it charitably, under-talented."

That was written 32 years ago about the old NASL. I was pointing out the league's skill gap, and the dangers created by the presence of skilled and not-nearly-so-skilled players on the same field. A volatile mixture.

Nothing has changed. MLS must now face up to the same problem as it seeks to upgrade the caliber of its play. It can quite easily, with a greater infusion of cash, bring in higher-level foreign players. But where is it going to find better American players?

The college players are already inadequate, and will get more so, comparatively speaking, as the quality of the foreigners improves. Very few of the top college players -- if any -- are ready to claim an immediate first team place in MLS. To push them quickly into an arena they are not ready for is asking for trouble. And trouble is exactly what Ruiz got on Saturday. I know nothing of O'Brien's college playing record -- but I do remember his father Fran as an impishly skilled midfielder, always a pleasure to watch. So the genes are there for Ciaran. But the maturity is obviously not. Within a couple of minutes of entering the game he had launched himself into a violent sliding tackle on Greg Vanney -- a tackle that referee Abiodun Okulaja should surely have yellow-carded, but chose not to. Then came the tackle that did the damage to Ruiz.

Two absurdly wild tackles that, for all I know, may be quite uncharacteristic of O'Brien's normal play. But they definitely were characteristic of a young player who is determined to make an impression. The easiest and quickest way to do that, to make the coach take notice, is by strenuous physical effort. Enough said.

The real villain here is not O'Brien, nor any of the other college hopefuls. It is the college game itself, which is quite incapable -- dangerously so -- of preparing players for the pro game. To make things clear: introducing young players, frequently teenagers, into pro soccer is a regular worldwide occurrence. But in other countries the boys get on to the first team after years of contact with the pro game. They are invariably members of a pro club and have been hanging around with older pros for years, scrimmaging with them, watching their games, talking with them, and generally playing a game that bears a close resemblance to the senior game.

Things are very different for the college players, who are part of a form of age-group soccer which is played at a level well below that of the pros -- which, in fact, lacks the entire atmosphere of the pro game.

The college player, being anything but stupid, will quickly recognize that his chances of immediate success in MLS are likely to depend heavily on physical effort and aggressiveness. Desirable qualities for sure, but ones that, coupled with immaturity, spell trouble.

The situation is not going to change. MLS knows -- hell, everyone knows -- that an alternative system of player development must be found. Maybe the MLS academies will be it, but any results from that setup are still years away.

In the meantime, the MLS skill gap will remain, and probably worsen. Defusing the dangers inherent in that tricky situation is a problem both for MLS coaches and referees. The coaches have to instill a quick maturity to replace the inexperience. The referees have to sense the dangerous side of immaturity and snuff it out before damage is done.



0 comments
  1. Manuel Trejo-von Angst
    commented on: April 4, 2008 at 6:01 p.m.
    well said. triple the salary cap and add 2 more foreign player slots. problem alleviated. I don't think having fewer American born players is going to keep people away from the park. Look at MLB. Most teams are 70% foreign. Let the league run like that until the academies can catch up an start producing American talent. As you said, the college game is a joke (it uses a countdown clock for Christ's sake) and should have no place in getting talent into MLS anymore. Do away with the draft.


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