By Paul Gardner
Bruce Arena, I'm delighted to announce, has returned to being Bruce Arena. After a season in which his Galaxy gave us game after game of very dull, very un-Arena-ish games, he has now had his say -- a very invigorating, straight-talking, totally Arena-ish say -- on a topic that has long cried out for such a comment.
This business of MLS players -- usually young MLS players -- spending the offseason “training with” European teams. Something that is always positioned to make it sound like a triumph for the player involved, a major step up for his career. After all, training with Arsenal ... wow!
Well no, definitely not wow! “It’s not what it’s built up to be, believe me,” says Arena, “This thing, training with a foreign club . . . they don’t really care about that player. The big clubs are in competition three times a week, so he’s training with the reserve team or the academy team. For the most, part it’s OK, but it really doesn’t move anyone further along, to be honest with you.”
Which comes pretty close to saying that the whole rigmarole is a waste of time. At best, it can be seen simply as a way of keeping fit, and you have to wonder why it’s necessary to travel to Europe to do that.
From the young player’s point of view, of course, there is the excitement of spending a few weeks at a world-famous European club, the feeling that he has suddenly moved up in the soccer world, coupled with the satisfaction that he was considered good enough to have this honor bestowed on him.
Pretty good for the ego, I guess, but if there’s been an example of an MLS youngster training in Europe and then returning to MLS as a massively improved player, I must have missed it. Obviously, Arena feels the same, with his comment that such short training stints don’t “move anyone further along.”
These are not loan deals -- the players involved in them cannot play for the European team, they are limited to the training sessions and intra-squad scrimmages.
An odd business, then, in which neither side -- not the player and his MLS club, nor the European club -- gets anything much out of it. But that is not quite true. There is another aspect to these deals, one that Arena didn’t mention, though he must be well aware of it. That the young players are not merely training with the European club, but that they are on trial.
Which brings us to the extraordinary situation where MLS is quite openly allowing -- nay, encouraging -- its brightest young players to wander off to Europe and, so to speak, showcase their talents to prospective buyers.
Considering that MLS is not exactly overflowing with brilliant young players -- especially young American players -- this is an absurdly self-defeating activity.
I don’t know of any other league in the world that deliberately sends its best young players, the ones it needs to hang on to, into exactly the sort of situations where they are likely to be picked off by richer clubs.
That European clubs are now busy scouting for young players in the USA is widely known. This can be seen as proof of the growing strength of the American game, and this seems to be the way that MLS Commissioner Don Garber treats it. If he really believes that, someone should tell him that he is deluding himself.
The attitude of national team boss Jurgen Klinsmann doesn’t help either. Klinsmann seems to have an obsession with fitness, which is unfortunate for a national team coach, who spends so little time with his players. He is evidently not satisfied with the level of fitness prevailing among MLS clubs -- although he has not actually made that accusation -- and is strongly in favor of the league’s national team players spending the offseason with European clubs.
To have its players noticed -- even coveted -- by European teams may make MLS feel good about itself, but in fact it is a dangerous trend, one that will not help MLS to grow. Consider the recent case of teenager Marc Pelosi, the captain of the USA team at this year’s Under-17 World Cup in Mexico -- already signed by Liverpool. No MLS for Pelosi, then -- and his quick departure for Europe highlights the problem. I doubt whether there’s any way (other than the obvious, and not practical, method of offering them big-money contracts) to prevent youngsters leaving for Europe.
That is bad enough. But to be actively involved in encouraging the defection of its own players -- which is certainly one way of interpreting the “training in Europe” scenario -- has all the attributes of a death wish. Especially so, given that -- as Arena has told us -- the benefits to be derived from a few weeks spent with a famous European club are hard to discern.