In the wake of Geoff Cameron's transfer from Houston Dynamo to Stoke City -- and here we should pause for a moment to celebrate yet another player moving from MLS to the big time -- there's been concern expressed that Stoke’s rather pedestrian system might stymie his progress.
Since taking over the U.S. national team a year ago, Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has stressed he wants all his players, and particularly the defenders, to be quicker and cleaner on the ball. By playing for a team on which the back line often thumps the ball upfield rather than passing it, so goes the theory, Cameron’s national-team prospects could be compromised.
Here we have another case of American soccer over-think, delving too deeply into nuances while ignoring the larger landscape. It’s the Premier League, stupid! Not that many Americans leaving MLS have commanded a relatively modest transfer fee of $2.5 million or more.
Of greater concern is that Stoke -- which finished 14th of 20 teams last season -- be relegated, as in the case of Bolton and U.S. defenderTim Ream, whose talents on the ball are going to be less relevant in a cruder yet challenging level of play this season in the League Championship. Yet still he’ll be scrutinized mercilessly by fans and the press; performing in a highly charged environment is another facet of player development sometimes overlooked.
Klinsmann has taken some criticism for pulling players from German Bundesliga reserve squads -- such as Terence Boyd and Alfredo Morales – rather than giving more MLS products a shot. We can only assume Klinsmann believes the limitations of MLS are such that most of its American players just don’t measure up.
The trade-off going abroad is a necessity to maintain a first-team place amid stronger competition, as Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra, and many others have done. The step up in class to the Premier League is of greater importance than the particular style his team may play. Whether Cameron lining up for stodgy Stoke or sparkly Spurs, he must improve certain facets of his game while retaining its strengths.
Players who can pass the ball don’t forget how to pass the ball. If anything, tougher competition forces them to learn methods of passing more accurately and efficiently, and avoiding traps set by cagey opponents who can lure them into dangerous situations. Cameron will also become more two-footed, since he won’t have that extra touch afforded by many MLS teams to shift the ball into a more comfortable position. Once he adjusts to the pounding and the pace, he can exhibit his more refined attributes. But defending comes first, and as a converted midfielder he's far from a finished product.
Few teams can constantly field a pretty passer in the back line who can’t defend. Brazilian David Luiz exhibited great touch and skill when he first came to Chelsea, but his flimsy tackling and concentration lapses cost his team goals. Now he competes for time with a less fancy but more rugged defender in Gary Cahill, and only by forging the physical demands of European and Premier League play with his technical grace will he earn regular time. On the flip side, Cahill needs to clean up his foot skills and sharpen his passing if he’s going to be consistently reliable.
Cameron can’t match David Luiz for touch nor Cahill for toughness, at least not yet, yet those are the benchmarks he will strive to attain. Stoke City isn’t Chelsea, but every Premier League team deploys attackers of strength and speed and desire and guile who will rough up Cameron and stretch his abilities. If he’s going to transform himself from college midfielder to top-class pro centerback at age 27, the process must be accelerated. He ain’t a kid.
By beating Chelsea, 3-2, in the All-Star Game Wednesday, MLS gained a considerable measure of respect and credibility, though a one-off exhibition match can’t be taken too seriously. (Even so, the fact all three goals were scored by Americans not named Landon Donovan – Chris Wondolowski, Chris Pontius and Eddie Johnson – shouldn’t be disregarded.)
Cameron didn’t play in that game, having joined up with Stoke during its preseason tour of the USA. He doesn’t qualify for a UK work permit – which requires a player to appear in 75 percent of his team’s competitive internationals during the past two years – and his appeal is scheduled for Aug. 3. That's a big day for him, and the game in this country.
Though his future with the national team is of greatest interest to the general populace, he’s headed abroad to earn more money and grow as a player and a person. It’s a move American fans should salute, for it’s at least as significant as the All-Star result.