The changing face of MLS

[ANALYSIS] With the closing of the summer transfer window in the United States and Canada, a new wave of foreigners has entered Major League Soccer. In their most recent games, only eight of the 16 teams fielded lineups with a majority of players eligible for the U.S. national team. And only 19 of these Americans -- a majority of them defensive players -- were under-23 at the beginning of the year, meaning just a small pool of young talent is available for the next national team coach to build upon. How different is the face of MLS from eight years and what does it mean?

Background: MLS was at a low point in 2002, having just folded its two Florida teams, Tampa Bay and Miami, and contracted to 10 teams. But the USA was coming off a successful World Cup, having reached the quarterfinals in South Korea, so the new national team cycle just starting was similar to the situation in 2010 when the USA came close to matching its 2002 success.

Americans vs. foreigners:

 2002: Of the 110 players who started on the weekend of Aug. 31-Sept. 1, 78 were U.S.-eligible citizens -- or 71 percent.

-- Four teams -- Colorado, Columbus, New England and San Jose -- started nine Americans.

-- All but D.C. United, which fielded six foreigners, started a majority of Americans.

2010: From the starting lineups of each MLS team's most recent game, only 89 of the 176 starters -- a little less than 51 percent -- were Americans eligible for the U.S. national team, and 17 of the 87 foreigners joined MLS since July 15 when the transfer window opened.

-- Two teams, Colorado and San Jose, started as many as eight U.S.-eligible citizens.

-- Conversely, New York and Kansas City started only three Americans. And eight teams started fewer than six U.S.-eligible players.

Of the 66 starting spots MLS has added because of expansion, 11 have gone to Americans and 55 to foreigners.

Americans under-23:

2002: Of the 78 American starters, 19 were under 23 at the start of the year (see list below). Dallas started the most with four. Those U-23 Yanks included Landon Donovan (San Jose) and DaMarcus Beasley (Chicago), who started for the USA two months earlier at the World Cup.

-- Of the 19 under-23s, 11 were midfielders or forwards.

2010:  Of the 89 American starters, only 19 were under the age of 23 as of Jan. 1 (see list below). FC Dallas again started the most U-23 Americans: four. Los Angeles started three, but five teams started none.

-- Of those 19 under-23s, a majority started in goal or on defense.


MLS has changed a lot in eight years. Its added six more teams -- and will add two more next year -- but it's also added many more new owners. That MLS was much more American -- 71 percent vs. 51 percent -- and younger in 2002 was due in part to its uncertain future and also to the reluctance of owners -- the league was funded by only AEG, Hunts and Kraft families -- to spend on foreign talent.

Spending on foreign talent -- in particular DPs -- has accelerated in recent years and quotas on foreign players have been raised. Clubs have used the summer transfer window -- when the majority of international talent becomes available -- to upgrade their lineups. The latest trend: loan deals that have allowed young players like Fredy Montero (Seattle) and Marco Pappa (Chicago) join the league.

It could be argued that the influx of foreign talent has weeded out mediocre American players and improved the overall level of play.

Young Americans now breaking into MLS starting lineups will be better than their counterparts eight years ago because they'll have faced stiffer competition just to get where they are today and will have benefited from better competition week in and week out in MLS.

But the composition of the 2010 group of young Americans starting in MLS is worrying.

There were as many U.S. under-23s starting in 2002 than in 2010 even though there were six fewer teams in 2002.

The 2002 U-23s included not only Donovan and Beasley but Taylor Twellman and Eddie Johnson, who both went on to win MLS scoring titles, and Bobby Convey, who started in the 2006 World Cup.

After 2002, the U.S. national team benefited from the development of the players just mentioned as well as goalie Tim Howard and Carlos Bocanegra.

That doesn't mean all the 2002 U-23s made it. A half a dozen starters quickly washed out.

The pool of American players for the most recent Under-20 World Cup -- Egypt '09 -- was the weakest in a generation.

Eight years on in the development of American soccer, the current group of young MLS players might be deeper -- the players coming off the bench today are certainly better than those in MLS eight years ago -- but it has few game-changers. Only a handful of the MLS U-23s in 2010 are strikers or attacking midfielders -- most of the top young forwards have bypassed MLS and moved directly to Scandinavia from college -- and you can't project six of them to be World Cup starters like from the 2002 crop.

The weakness in the current crop of young MLS players makes it imperative that MLS ramp up its own player development program -- in which some teams are aggressively signing homegrown talent, albeit not all eligible to represent the USA -- so the percentage of American starters on MLS rosters doesn't drop dangerously low.

2010 U.S. under-23s in MLS
Goalkeepers (3):
Bill Hamid (D.C. United)
Sean Johnson (Chicago)
Chris Seitz (Philadelphia)

Defenders (8):
Kevin Alston (New England)
Tony Beltran (Real Salt Lake)
A. J. DeLaGarza (Los Angeles)
Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles)
George John (FC Dallas)
Zach Loyd (FC Dallas)
Tim Ream (New York)
Tim Ward (San Jose)

Midfielders (7):
Eric Alexander (FC Dallas)
Danny Cruz (Houston)
Baggio Husidic (Chicago)
Brek Shea (FC Dallas)
Michael Stephens (Los Angeles)
Nathan Sturgis (Seattle)
Ben Zemanski (Chivas USA)

Forwards (1):
Justin Braun (Chivas USA)

(Games played Aug 14-21.)

2002 U.S. under-23s in MLS
Goalkeepers (2):
Tim Howard (MetroStars)

Nick Rimando (D.C. United)

Defenders (6):
Nelson Akwari (MetroStars)
Carlos Bocanegra (Chicago)
Dan Califf (Los Angeles)
Jim Curtin  (Chicago)
Nick Garcia (Kansas City)
Lee Morrison (Dallas)

Midfielders (7):
DaMarcus Beasley (Chicago)
Matt Behncke (Dallas)
Bobby Convey (D.C. United)
Zach Kingsley (Colorado)
Kyle Martino (Colorado)
Jeff Moore (MetroStars)
Jordan Stone (Dallas)

Forwards (4):
Chris Carrieri (Colorado)
Landon Donovan (San Jose)
Eddie Johnson (Dallas)
Taylor Twellman (New England)

(Note: in bold are U.S. World Cup players.)

13 comments about "The changing face of MLS".
  1. Paolo Jacobs, August 27, 2010 at 3:45 a.m.

    This leaves me to believe, that MLS should cap out at a max of 3 DP's,,, I like the new rule myself,,,and i think Paul is right,,, competition is getting fiercer for roster spots, so the young american players have to "up" their game... i like that...i don't want to see mediocre American talent starting for MLS teams anymore..but then again, i don't wan't to see MLS teams with 9 starting foreigners either,,, unless it's Chivas USA

  2. This Guy, August 27, 2010 at 6:24 a.m.

    Beautiful. I had JUST been looking for an article examining the numbers of Americans starting in MLS compared to past numbers.

    One question: Does Tim Ream not qualify? I believe he turns 23 in October

  3. Matt Glauner, August 27, 2010 at 9:03 a.m.

    I don't like the % analysis that is used in the article because the US National Team is a fixed amount so only the absolute # of players available matters. And that has increased which is reaffirming not worrying. Additionally while the number of players under 23 has decreased by 1 I'm sure their talent has increased. This is evident by the increasing number of players able to transfer abroad. I'd like to see the league get better by any means necessary.

  4. Vince Galloro, August 27, 2010 at 10:13 a.m.

    I agree with Matt. The picture is incomplete unless we look at what USMNT-eligible players are doing in Europe and Mexico. We're only looking at one end of the player pool.

  5. Paul Lorinczi, August 27, 2010 at noon

    Since 2002, haven't more talented players opted out of MLS direct to Europe? Do we really believe the MLS Development Academies are going to produce immediate talent? That is also a process. Even in Europe, development academy talent does not always get professional contracts. The 2002 talent obviously was not that good because a lot on the list are not even playing.

  6. Ted Westervelt, August 27, 2010 at 12:21 p.m.

    You say it's imperative that MLS ramps up development program. Is it? The stilted economics of the league allow teams to pay average players less, per year, than the cost to develop new ones. Elsewhere in the world, it's a financial imperative to develop players, both for your squad and for sale. MLS, relieved of so many market pressures by a single entity structure that turns them into a chain of discount soccer outlets, does not share that that imperative. So, it's imperative for teams to develop players from US Soccer's perspective, or from a PR perspective, but until it's actually a financial imperative for independent clubs to develop their own players, it won't be a real imperative.

  7. Aldo Baietti, August 27, 2010 at 3:22 p.m.

    Pay them more and more American talent will want to enter the MLS system rather than pursuing some other professional career. With a 40K starting salary its too risky for many of the college bound players to pursue professional soccer instead of many other careers that pay more with fewer risks.

  8. Andrew Shipe, August 27, 2010 at 9:36 p.m.

    How many young American players have opted not to sign in MLS for a bigger contract in Europe? And how has that number changed since 2002? The U20 NT Thomas Rongen just named for a tournament in Peru has seven players from the Mexican league and six from European leagues (the other seven are from MLS). Has any U.S. youth team had so many pros playing overseas?

  9. James Froehlich, August 28, 2010 at 12:16 a.m.

    The 800 pound gorilla in this discussion is where are these players going to come from. Assume that MLS suddenly offered starting salaries of $100,000 for US players. Where are these skillful creative players going to come from? At some point they will still need a coach and a team to play on -- where exactly will these coaches and teams suddenly appear that are willing and capable of nurturing the future Messi's ?? MLS youth programs are a good start but they aren't a complete substitute for a culture that doesn't necessarily enjoy and want to play skillful soccer. If you doubt this watch your local amateur leagues and see how those players feel about attempts to be skillful and creative --not very well received. Then ask yourself when was the last time that you heard a major US coach such as Arena or Bradley bemoan the sorry state of coaching in the US. There's the real problem -- there is no one of stature shining a light on the deficiencies of the US coaching and youth development arena. Until that changes there will be no place for large numbers of talented hungry players to learn HOW to play skillful creative soccer!!!

  10. Manuel Trejo-von Angst, August 28, 2010 at 3:27 a.m.

    It is an interesting if incomplete picture.

    I think the thing that has affected this the most is the sales of players recently.

    In 1996, foreign talent saw the league as a dinosaur graveyard of European wash outs. Coming here to play as a 21 year old Colombian made no sense because NO ONE was watching.

    However, the last 7 years or so have seen players like Toja sold for a good sum of money. The base salaries have improved and foreign players know they will be seen here and let's face it, in many cases the environment they will be playing is will be safer than in some places in Central or South America.
    So you are getting more players interested in trying out the league. It used to be front office execs begging players like Pappa to come to MLS but now their agents are seeking the deals to come here. It's a big difference. I for one love it. Up and coming US players see how much tougher it is and I love that. If US players have to raise their game to break into MLS, it'll only help to strengthen the national team. Developmetn is important too as many people have mentioned, but that is a topic for another discussion I think.

  11. John Hofmann, August 28, 2010 at 5:25 p.m.

    Great discussion. Some keep beating the 'dead horse' of MLS finances, ignoring the 15 yr history of MLS vs. the multi-multi-decade traditions and (in many cases) one-sport soccer societies that for the most part have the biggest financial leagues stakes and traditional soccer successes. It would certainly be interesting to see how many people, who constantly rag on the problems of MLS, do anything financially to support the U.S. professional structure. MLS season ticket holders? MLS Direct Kick purchasers? Involvement with other local or region teams? One major factor in U.S. success is going to be when U.S. investors feel they can depend upon a much stronger financial commitment of soccer by the U.S. public, and a lot of these other suggestions will follow.

  12. Paul Bryant, August 29, 2010 at 3:12 p.m.

    The MLS is a business not the proving ground for the USMNT. The owners of MLS are well aware that the fans who go to the games, myself included, want to watch quality matches. Otherwise, we'll stay home and watch the foreign leagues' on TV. How many MLS players where in the first 11 at the WC? Landon Donovan, the best player in US history, and sometimes Edson Buddle. How many MLS players were on the USMNT that went to South Africa? Maybe three. Unless we want to be like Australia, New Zealand, and North Korea, our players will need to play overseas to develop into world class players.

  13. Aldo Baietti, August 29, 2010 at 7:20 p.m.

    Just for the record, I'm not griping about the finances of MLS. Just stating a fact as the article is about the fact that there are fewer US players in MLS. Donovan just recently indicated that MLS needs to pay more to keep and draw more US talent. If you want US kids to enter MLS you have to pay them base wages that are competitive with other careers, especially if they are college bound. You can always attract talent from developing countries with much lower base salaries but that does nothing to improve MLS overall or to get more US players to make soccer their career. I am traveling in Cambodia now and I heard that here they pay professionals $10 a game and believe it or not they get many players from poorer African countries to come. The point is that the talent is also disputable. As they say, you get what you pay for. In my view there are a lot of very talented US young players out there that only view soccer as a way to get a scholarship to good university. Once they do that there is no incentive anymore for them to pursue an MLS career from a financial point of view.
    As for MLS owners, they are like any other investor and there is an element of risk taking they need to ascribe to. Increasing the base salary to 100K in my view witll not kill their budgets. If a team has 20 players at 40K the difference is only $1.2 million for the year. In my view, you can cut corners other ways if you must.

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