For every player who heads over to Europe from MLS and makes it, a la Carlos Bocanegra or Clint Dempsey, another dozen or so come back, some to great fanfare, some to barely a murmur.
Bobby Convey may yet transform San Jose from expansion hopeful to legit contender but so far he's been hardly a ripple, much less a splash. Landon Donovan's third German experiment is well-documented and again he faces the Sisyphean task of muscling Los Angeles into the playoffs with some help from older U.S. veterans who've gone over and back, Tony Sanneh and Eddie Lewis.
Brian McBride is banging them in for Chicago, Josh Wolff is getting a fair share of goals for Kansas City, and Clint Mathis is happy to be with Real Salt Lake, and vice versa.
The big names get the most notice, but many MLS teams have at least one young role player who tried his luck abroad. Some started out in MLS, others went overseas out of school to see what would happen.
D.C. United kept track of Andrew Jacobson's fate at French club Lorient, and grabbed him when he decided to come back. Steve Purdy forsook MLS for Germany, has played a few games for FC Dallas since returning, and FCD is hoping his return from injury will shore up its back line.
Kyle Davies stuck it out for a few years at Southampton before opting for MLS, and via a trade, has also landed in Dallas. The Rapids were very glad to sign 2007 pick Greg Dalby; he couldn't get a work permit in England and played briefly in Belgium before arriving last July.
Even a short stay in Europe instills a sense of pride and responsibility, since the game is an obsession as well as a business, and anyone who doesn't or can't take it seriously enough is quickly exposed. Way too many guys who take a shot and don't stick are labeled as failures or flops, when anybody who can cut it as a pro for a few seasons, anywhere, deserves credit.
They probably deserve a lot more money than they earn in MLS, too, but that's something for the MLS Players' Union to address when negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement get serious. The timing isn't great, since despite $70 million in expansion fees due from Vancouver and Portland, economic conditions have driven down attendances in most cities.
Houston took back Nate Jaqua for a few months when his stint in Austria ended last year and this season he's contributing to Seattle's success. Nat Borchers, one of many to try his luck in Scandanavia, may not be the most refined central defender in MLS yet he has certainly done the business for Real Salt Lake. Left back Wade Barrett, who spent two years in Denmark and Norway, helped the Dynamo win a pair of MLS championships and is the team captain.
The foreign experience is sometimes just that, an experience, an experiment, not necessarily the definitive career move. As great as it is to be steeped in a soccer culture, there's often the greatly added pressure as a foreign player expected to significantly improve the team.
In a way, it's fortunate that MLS retains such a stringent salary structure, since that encourages players to head overseas, and why not, if they can double or triple their salaries, even in a smaller European league, and get at least a whiff of the big time?
They come back more dedicated, more serious, more devoted to training hard every day to win and keep a starting spot, not just doing enough to get by, which, frankly, is the mood by which competition stagnates not only on the training field, but in games.
By opening up the vault to sign Designated Players and relaxing its restrictions on international players, MLS has increased opportunities for one segment of its work force. Now it needs fairer methods of obtaining and compensating its domestic players, since many of them are punished by being offered only minimum salaries if they were selected in the SuperDraft and instead signed overseas.
Should a player with overseas experience earn less than one-half of what a Generation Adidas player, who might be 17 or 18 and still doesn't need to shave and doesn't count against the salary cap anyway, is offered? That's messed up.