By Ridge Mahoney
It didn’t take long for the R-word to surface as the 2014 MLS season got underway with a fresh fleet of U.S. internationals back in the domestic league.
Regression is the subject, the supposed cost of coming back to the domestic league. Will Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu and Michael Parkhurst regress in MLS, and was a rather tepid showing by Clint Dempsey at the tail end of the 2013 season evidence that such a decline is inevitable for players leaving Europe, where the caliber is much higher?
While the question is valid, the answer won’t be known for some time, but that hasn’t stopped some observers from quickly drawing conclusions. Dempsey’s hat trick and Bradley’s monster game last weekend were cited as evidence that fears of regression for them and other national team players are unfounded. Edu and Parkhurst are also off to good starts and while that’s encouraging news for Philadelphia and Columbus, respectively, as well as their national team prospects, not for at least a season or two can their moves back home be properly assessed.
Regression, if it is to occur, will take some time, certainly more than the three months these players will be in MLS prior to the start of national team training camp May 14. The time to look at this issue is in 2015, when the buildup and excitement of a World Cup year will have long dissipated, and the players will have completed a full season of MLS and gone through preparations for the 2015 league campaign as well. Quakes centerback Clarence Goodson also came back from Europe last year and is expected to play in Brazil; he was on the 2010 team but didn't see any playing time.
As for the short term, those players and quite a few others are sharpening their game as the World Cup draws closer, so the caliber of teammates and opponents they are encountering in MLS isn’t as much of a factor. Dempsey, Bradley and Edu played in the 2010 tournament, and so are well-versed in the process leading up to a major competition. They know the physical and mental demands and the levels of performance they must attain.
Dempsey silenced a few critics in the 4-4 tie at Portland during which he melded his best attributes of intelligent movement and sharp touches. He drifted into a huge space left by the Timbers’ back line after a midfield turnover to tuck away a pass from frontline partner Obafemi Martins to score Seattle’s second goal. With the Sounders trailing, 4-2, in the 85th minute, he controlled a tricky, deflected centering pass with the outside of his right foot and knocked it home with his second touch. Two minutes later, he quieted the raucous Timbers Army by equalizing with a penalty kick.
Dempsey will face tougher opposition and harsher conditions in Brazil, of course, yet his knack for rising up at the critical moments is unquestioned. At the 2009 Confederations Cup, he took criticism for apparent lack of influence, yet scored in consecutive games against Egypt, Spain and Brazil. His supposed lack of effort at times is deceptive, for he’s confident in his assessment of when and where to turn on the juice. Fatigue and minor injuries bothered him last year after his stunning move to Seattle. He’s 30, so some deterioration of his abilities is inevitable in the next few years. How much of that may be attributable to MLS? Who knows?
Parkhurst, an MLS standout from the day he first wore a Revs’ uniform in 2005, came back to MLS last winter after conversations with head coach Jurgen Klinsmann regarding his lack of playing time for German club FC Augsburg. He didn’t make the cut in 2010 but will most likely be on the plane to Brazil if he stays healthy.
“He told me all along that he was bringing me in when I got things settled with MLS. It’s fortunate that it’s worked out,” says Parkhurst, who had played on three New England teams (2005, 2006, 2007) that lost in the MLS Cup final. “I’ve had a good career but the two things I still haven’t achieved yet are the World Cup and winning an MLS championship.”
For Edu and Parkhurst, coming back to MLS represented their only viable chance to make the World Cup roster and kick-start their careers. They were certainly regressing in Europe, as are Brek Shea and a few other players in the U.S. national team pool.
Parkhurst, playing centerback alongside Giancarlo Gonzalez, led a staunch defensive effort that limited the Toronto FC attack, but the Crew midfielders seldom were able to control the middle third in a 2-0 loss Saturday. Bradley followed up his strong showing against Mexico in midweek by scoring the first goal and commanding the midfield.
In the 11th minute, after one of Bradley’s passes was partially cleared, he veered across the field when possession was won and from a sharp angle fired a first-time shot through the feet of keeper Steve Clark. With a 1-0 lead, TFC soaked up pressure. KeeperJulio Cesar needed to make five saves, but only a Bernardo Anor shot really required a strong effort.
There’s no chance of Bradley regressing in the near future, if ever, whether he plays in Europe, MLS or Qatar. His work ethic and drive are relentless. His club coach isn’t worried about a drop-off.
“He’s a coach’s dream,” says TFC head coach Ryan Nelsen. “There’s literally guys you can forget about because you know what you’re going to get from them. He throws it out there every game, every training session. There’s no dips. Some players it’s, ‘What are we going to get today, [on a scale of 10], a 9 or a 4?’ You can win games with them but you don’t win championships. If you ask coaches, he’s probably the first player they’d put on a dream list, so I’m extremely lucky.”
So let’s leave the regression issue for the time being. A tough World Cup group might be beyond this batch of players, whether they be in Europe, Mexico, MLS or somewhere else. That won’t be known until June, and assessing the long-term effects of MLS will take much more than those three games.