If MLS wants to make a place for itself among the world’s top leagues -- and why shouldn’t it? -- then it will have to start paying a lot more attention to the players that it signs.
I’m not talking about the designated players. They are a separate matter altogether. I mean the other signings, mostly foreign, the ones who make up the essential supporting cast for the DPs.
So far, in this off-season period, the league has gone out of its way -- and I mean way out of its way -- to show the soccer world that it simply hasn’t a clue when it comes to signing players who are going to add luster to the league.
First of all, there’s this plain, inescapable fact. When top leagues in Europe go searching for foreign talent, for young players, for future stars ... where do they look? Or where do they not look? The first place that the people who run the Italian or Spanish or French, or even the German, leagues do not look, is England.
Why would that be? Need you ask? Simply because England is not seen to be a producer of good players. At the moment, there are precisely NO English players at all in those four leagues.
MLS apparently knows better. It appoints Brit coaches. Even after the disastrous shambles that Mo Johnston conjured up in Toronto (almost entirely the result of his signing mediocre Brit players), the Colorado Rapids decided on the Brit Gary Smith. OK, Smith has reached the top -- his Rapids are the MLS champions. Heavens help us. Does MLS want to create and excite new fans? Or is it quite happy to have its champion team playing rustic Brit soccer, with even those very players themselves admitting that what they do “may not be pretty”?
I doubt whether MLS is too happy about the Rapids, but one thing is clear -- it doesn’t care too much, watching complacently as, in Portland, they’ve appointed another Brit -- the Scot John Spencer -- as coach of the reborn Timbers.
Well, OK, give the guy time - but that is no longer necessary. We know with total certainty, that the first move of any Brit coach will be a complete confirmation of the very provinciality that makes them so unsatisfactory. Off they go to the UK to sign obscure, and invariably, not very good players.
Johnston did that, both at the MetroStars and in Toronto, and screwed up big time. Spencer has started in exactly the same way, signing English defender Kerrea Gilbert, from Arsenal. Spencer says that Gilbert is “a typical Arsenal fullback who likes to attack for 90 minutes” which seems a strange way of praising a player who is supposed to be a defender. Not mentioned either by Spencer, or in the Timbers press release, is that Gilbert is a player with an evident attitude problem, a player who was last year convicted of a drunk-and-disorderly offense.
Very nice. But no worse than Hans Backe’s move at the Red Bulls in signing another Brit, Luke Rodgers. A player with a 3rd and 4th division background, and another guy who has been in trouble with coaches and with the law.
This is not encouraging. Such signings are, basically, indefensible. It is not as though other players are not available -- players who are at least as good, and who come without badly tarnished backgrounds. But for Spencer and Backe, what makes Gilbert and Rodgers attractive prospects is that they are easy signings. Both Backe and Spencer have Brit contacts, and that’s all there is to it. Looking further afield to other countries takes time and persistence.
One can only hope that Gilbert and Rodgers will have more success at lighting up MLS than their celebrated compatriot David Beckham, whose impact on the field so far (and we’ve had four years of him now) has been negligible.
There is further evidence that MLS coaches prefer the easy route and will prefer to sign European blandness than to take the effort -- and, yes, the risk -- of looking for more exotic talent.
We have Sigi Schmid in Seattle signing a Swede, Erik Friberg, and we have Backe trying to sign a Norwegian, Jan Gunnar Solli. The news on Friberg is this: Friberg himself says “I work hard,” while Schmid says Friberg brings “an honest work rate.” So that’s all right then, plenty of running. Schmid adds that Friberg will “add flair” -- well, possibly, though not many Swedes get signed for that talent. And it’s probably safe to say that no Norwegian player has ever been accused of burdening his game with flair.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber is on record as saying that, if the USA was awarded the 2022 World Cup, MLS would by then be one of the world’s top leagues. The USA did not get the cup, but there’s no reason at all why Garber should abandon his aim. It is, clearly, an achievable target.
A good first step would be to upgrade the performance of MLS teams against Mexican club sides. The record in the Superliga is not good -- despite the fact that all of the games are played in the USA.
So one looks at this ill-assorted bunch of obscure European signings and one wonders -- are these guys going to help? Either in making MLS competitive with the Mexicans, or in elevating MLS up to the level of the world’s top leagues?