By Ridge Mahoney
The long-term MLS deals recently signed by U.S. internationals Clint Dempsey, Omar Gonzalez, Clarence Goodson and Landon Donovan are being cited as proof of the league’s true emergence on the world stage.
These deals are noteworthy, yes, but they don’t necessarily indicate anything of the sort. Many MLS teams have paid high prices for players before, and while each of the above signings make sense for the players and their clubs, how they ultimately affect the national team won’t be known for some time.
MLS hasn’t emerged, at least not yet, in one critical sense. While it has grown and matured financially, whether or not it has sufficiently advanced competitively to supply a significant pool of international-caliber players won’t be known until the 2014 World Cup has been played.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann was far from flowery when asked his opinion of Dempsey’s move to the Sounders, which came a year after he stepped up in class by leaving modest Fulham for Tottenham Hotspur.
While every U.S. World Cup team assembled since the league began operations in 1996 has included its share of MLS mainstays, the 2014 squad will likely contain the most impact players based domestically since the 1998 team that crashed out of the first round with three losses. Eric Wynalda, Tab Ramos, Brian McBride, Jeff Agoos, Marcelo Balboa, Joe-Max Moore, Frankie Hejduk, Eddie Pope, et al, didn’t much aid the cause of MLS.
The decisions of Coach Steve Sampson regarding tactics and personnel took much of the blame for that poor, three-loss performance, and so obviously outclassed players such as Mike Burns andBrian Maisonneuve and a few others were spared much criticism. With a smaller allotment of MLS players – albeit a good group that included Donovan, Pope, McBride, Agoos, Hejduk and Clint Mathis -- the 2002 team reached the quarterfinals. It should also be said that in the past two World Cups, MLS players not only started regularly but also came off the bench and performed well, a la Jimmy Conrad in 2006, and Jonathan Bornstein in 2010.
Yet despite fierce competition for spots from players based in Europe and Mexico, the MLS contingent figures to be increasingly important at Brazil 2014. Fortunately, Klinsmann -- unlike his predecessors -- doesn’t need to artificially roil the competitive dynamics within the squad. If the MLS players aren't better than their foreign counterparts, they must at least be equal or nearly so. If the players believe that selection decisions are based solely on performance, and not colored by the league in which they play, there won't be divisions or schisms between disparate groups.
If the form of Omar Gonzalez or Matt Besler slips, there will be Goodson and Geoff Cameron and maybe John Brooks ready to step in. During the Gold Cup, Klinsmann didn’t need to risk Herculez Gomez, hobbled by an ouchy hamstring, with Chris Wondolowski and Eddie Johnson ready to step in. And despite scoring five goals in the Gold Cup, Wondo looks like a longshot for 2014. Terrence Boyd is coming off his best pro season at Rapid Vienna and Jozy Altidore is back in the English Premier League. Projecting off his U.S. debut against Bosnia-Herzegovina, Aron Johannsson can be a serious candidate for Brazil. That is stiff competition for the MLS hopefuls, which is the way it should be.
Jermaine Jones may look like a lock at central mid, yet the case can also be made that only recently did Mix Diskerud and Liga MX product Joe Corona join Kyle Beckerman and Jose Torres among the options. A healthy Stuart Holden would further crowd the midfield and allow Klinsmann, perhaps, to pick a different partner paired with the acumen, range and drive of Michael Bradley. If not, at least Jones faces a battle to keep his spot, which is the healthiest environment for him and the squad.
Klinsmann’s preference for Jones may not stem from a fascination with European-based players, as many fans and pundits have theorized, but rather a cold-eyed evaluation of who is best for the job. He has juggled personnel and formations sufficiently to take long looks at more than 60 players in a variety of conditions and situations, and by encouraging -- and in some cases arranging -- loan spells during the MLS offseason has rated the league as subpar. A cryptic reaction to Dempsey’s MLS move clearly indicates his concerns about the league persist.
Beckerman has done a great job of withstanding a wave of changes in the squad, and if anything, is looking more secure than ever after a run of good games in the Gold Cup. Playing in MLS hasn’t seemed to harm his World Cup prospects but of course he’s not under the pressure to create chances and produce goals as are many of his MLS brethren.
Yet it’s hard to imagine any challenger dislodging Dempsey, Donovan, Eddie Johnson, and Graham Zusi from the regular rotation (if not necessarily the starting lineup). MLS players dominate the centerback corps, and the right-back slot is so wide-open the fairytale saga that is Brad Evans could yet include a Brazilian chapter.
Opening up the checkbook to sign top American players is a bellwether of stability and ambition for certain MLS teams. But the league’s competitive reputation hinges on how the USA players perform in Brazil, not how much MLS pays those who wear its jerseys.