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MLS Suffers when National Duty Calls
by Paul Gardner, June 2nd, 2008 6:45AM
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TAGS:  mls


For the second time in two tries, David Beckham has failed to materialize at Toronto's BMO Field. The first no-show, last August, was down to his not being fit. This past weekend, he was on international duty. As an irate fan e-mailed me: "England didn't make Euro 08, so what effing international duty?" Good question.

The fan was, logically, a fan of the L.A. Galaxy, who sees his team stripped of its star player for this international duty stuff. Actually, that needs re-wording -- the team is stripped of a player it vitally needs in every game.

And that, concludes, our anonymous fan, is precisely "why I didn't buy season tickets." It's difficult to find fault with any of his reasoning. No doubt the Toronto fans, defrauded twice, might have something to say on the matter, too.

The problem, it seems to me, has two elements. Firstly: The international calendar is arranged by FIFA so that it offers the least inconvenience to European clubs. There's logic -- financial logic -- to that because all the richest clubs are European. So they get their way.

Such special treatment inevitably encourages a distasteful arrogance. Just a short while back, at the beginning of the year, the Europeans were up in arms at the Africans -- simply because the Africans had chosen to play the African Nations Cup at a time that was not convenient for the Europeans. Avram Grant (should you no longer remember him, he was coach of Chelsea at the time) no doubt spoke for all the European coaches when he complained at having to cede several of his top players, and told the Africans that, in future, they should switch the dates of their tournament, or "do something else."

Round about the same time, the Brazilian coach Mano Menezes (ex Gremio) was complaining that the Euro-friendly transfer windows allowed European clubs to make off with important players in the middle of the Brazilian season: "I think we'll have to change the season so that it coincides with Europe," he said.

And that is a pretty general attitude of the Europeans toward MLS. Why does the USA, a northern hemisphere country, have to play in the summer? Never mind the special considerations here that would make it very difficult to play a fall/winter season -- why don't we just switch? That would get rid of most of the problems -- including the big one of playing the MLS season while the World Cup itself is going on.

Secondly: The myths that surround this business of clubs releasing players for national team duty. It is my understanding that the current games that England and the USA are involved in do not come under the heading games for which FIFA stipulates a mandatory release of players by the clubs. But MLS clubs have a history of co-operating with the USSF and of releasing players whenever they are wanted.

It is quite impossible to say whether this is a good idea or not. It seems to have been agreed, between MLS and the USSF, that a successful U.S. national team is a good thing for MLS -- even though it means that MLS clubs have to field weakened teams.

The evidence for that point of view is virtually non-existent. Take the national team's high point -- its performance during the 2002 World Cup. If there is a connection with MLS, that moment should have been reflected rather quickly in increased MLS attendances and TV ratings. No such thing happened.

And what happens when the national team plays a stinker -- as it just did against England -- how is that supposed to help MLS?

Any connection between MLS and national team results can only be envisaged as a long-term one, and even then its benefits for MLS seem slender. As a growing league, MLS needs immediate benefits. What it really does not need is a scheme that deprives teams of their best players.

Years ago, there was no argument. If you were called to the national team, you went, it was the greatest honor the sport could give you, and no club would deprive a player of it. That attitude, somewhat weaker nowadays, persists, and puts further pressure on the MLS.

For the moment we have a compromise, in which MLS and the USSF work together to try to ensure that the player drain is more or less equally spread among MLS clubs. That can be made to work for American players, but not for all the other nationalities in MLS -- the Canadians, Jamaicans, Guatemalans, Welshmen, Bolivians and so on.

Contradictions abound. The national team can be at its best only by weakening MLS teams. But it is, allegedly, good for MLS that the world sees that it has good players. But if the players perform well, they are more likely to be spotted, and quite possibly bought, by European clubs. In which case MLS loses them permanently.

Though that situation offers a solution for MLS. When most of the best U.S. players are playing abroad -- why, then the national team doesn't have to call up many MLS players. That is close to the reality of the moment -- Bob Bradley originally selected only five MLS players. One of them, though, was Landon Donovan, and it is Donovan who highlights the problem, because he is the USA's key player.

But this situation -- of European clubs buying up all the best foreigners -- is one that FIFA president Sepp Blatter is trying to quash with his 6+5 plan that would require all clubs to field no more than five foreign players. Then again, the European Union bosses have made it pretty clear that Blatter's plan is illegal under EU law.

We're suddenly getting a long way away from MLS. But the very globality of soccer ensures that any change in its structure and workings has ripple -- maybe even tsunami -- effects that are felt worldwide.

For MLS, the problem is manageable, just about. At least it would be -- were it not for the fact that its biggest star, along with the key American player, both play for same club, the Los Angeles Galaxy.


  1. commented on: June 2, 2008 at 1:11 p.m.
    This was our nightmare during the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 seasons too. This year, both Beckham and Donovan gone, while Ruiz is barely getting up to speed . . . .

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