By Ridge Mahoney
U.S. national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has joined the chorus of those who believe MLS teams don’t play enough games. He’s not wrong, but he’s not right, either.
According to a former national team player, ex-head coach Bob Bradley occasionally rankled his MLS players by citing a dearth of what Bradley called “meaningful” games in the domestic league. Klinsmann is already following suit to some extent, and to his credit, shortly after taking the job he mentioned he needed to learn about the league and its players quickly.
What Klinsmann learned, apparently, is that not many of them measure up to his standards, at least not yet. Since he can’t wave a magic wand and dramatically upgrade the caliber of play, he’s brought up the notion that more is more.
But his logic is flawed: adding a few more games won’t further develop the elite players once they reach a certain stage, and as one case among many can be submitted that of Landon Donovan, who’s not what he was since returning from Everton a few months prior to the 2010 World Cup. For both club and country, he’s faded; not to any great extent, but most of his performances this season for the Galaxy and with the USA at the Gold Cup this past summer are a notch below.
If he were creeping up into the early 30s, age could be blamed. But he’s 29, supposedly the peak years of a player’s career, when the body is still relatively strong and the mind and psyche have been steeped in knowledge and experience. He could be a couple of years ahead of the normal age curve, or perhaps he’s laboring with the knocks and pains accrued during more than a decade of high-level competition, or he’s just not being challenged enough in league play.
In one sense, instilling a bit more competition within the squad by getting more players more time can marginally raise the intensity of play, and maybe its quality. But the technical and instinctual elements of Donovan’s game aren’t going to be enhanced by an extra derby day with Chivas USA, or an additional East Coast road trip to play Montreal. If Brek Shea hasn’t maxed out in MLS, he’s getting close. And he’s only 21. More MLS games per season can move him only so far. And as Tim Ream has shown, you can be young and pretty good in MLS, and a disaster for the USA.
As shocking as it will be for most fans and many journalists to hear it, but developing players for the U.S. national team is not a major objective for MLS. If that were the case, it would have plunged millions of dollars into its domestic scouting and player identification programs from Day 1. Instead, it has taken more than a decade for the league to implement academy and player development programs of any substance (though several teams, among them Chivas USA, D.C. United and the MetroStars got on board in their early years) and buried the Reserve Division before exhuming it this season.
If anything, MLS is doing as much as it can to find and cultivate foreign talent so its teams can win games, draw good crowds, and if not turn a profit, trim losses to a manageable level. Why else would the league permit eight international slots per team, plus green-card holders it must accommodate due to U.S. labor laws, and amend its Designated Player option so younger players – who arrive from other countries – don’t count for the full salary-budget charge?
MLS is not a charity, nor is it a benevolent social organization, nor is it a glorified academy for American players. It’s a business, a pro league, and what it does to grow and flourish is not necessarily what’s best for the U.S. national team programs. The MetroStars didn’t sell Jozy Altidore, then just 18, to Villarreal for $10 million because he’d outgrown MLS. The club sold him so it and the league could cash in.
Getting back to the topic of more games, be they in an expanded balanced schedule or a diet more rich in rivalry games as Commissioner Don Garber has indicated, what MLS teams really need is more games against non-MLS teams.
It tried to exploit the huge Mexican-American population by creating SuperLiga, but many times participants on both sides of the border fielded teams well below full strength, and rested their best. Again, those games certainly gave more fringe players additional playing opportunities but were of limited value to the big guns.
Right now, the only competitive channel is the Concacaf Champions League, and not all of the CCL participants present a stiff challenge to clubs from the major powers. Yet getting a point with a late goal in Guatemala City, as did Seattle in the fifth week of group play, is just the kind of experience that hones every player.
If anything, as Tauro FC’s 5-3 thrashing of FC Dallas earlier this month showed, additional games often translate to more travel, less rest and poor play.
Perhaps the real issue is the long offseason break, which Klinsmann also mentioned. Most coaches and players -- and team trainers – believe a break of four to six weeks allows sufficient rest, barring a major injury, to heal in time for the resumption of preseason training. Beyond that period, conditioning and muscle tone deteriorate, necessitating a longer process of building the body back up. Non-playoff teams are idle for three months (late October to late January) and cold-weather conditions on the East Coast and Midwest are formidable barriers to a longer playing window.
Making MLS games more “meaningful,” i.e., faster, tougher, harder, and thereby more competitive, is much more complex than simply playing more of them. And it will take a lot more time.