Ill-assorted signings signal more European blandness

If MLS wants to make a place for itself among the world’s top leagues -- and why shouldn’t it? -- then it will have to start paying a lot more attention to the players that it signs.

I’m not talking about the designated players. They are a separate matter altogether. I mean the other signings, mostly foreign, the ones who make up the essential supporting cast for the DPs.  

So far, in this off-season period, the league has gone out of its way -- and I mean way out of its way -- to show the soccer world that it simply hasn’t a clue when it comes to signing players who are going to add luster to the league.

First of all, there’s this plain, inescapable fact. When top leagues in Europe go searching for foreign talent, for young players, for future stars ... where do they look? Or where do they not look? The first place that the people who run the Italian or Spanish or French, or even the German, leagues do not look, is England.

Why would that be? Need you ask? Simply because England is not seen to be a producer of good players. At the moment, there are precisely NO English players at all in those four leagues.

MLS apparently knows better. It appoints Brit coaches. Even after the disastrous shambles that Mo Johnston conjured up in Toronto (almost entirely the result of his signing mediocre Brit players), the Colorado Rapids decided on the Brit Gary Smith. OK, Smith has reached the top -- his Rapids are the MLS champions. Heavens help us. Does MLS want to create and excite new fans? Or is it quite happy to have its champion team playing rustic Brit soccer, with even those very players themselves admitting that what they do “may not be pretty”?

I doubt whether MLS is too happy about the Rapids, but one thing is clear -- it doesn’t care too much, watching complacently as, in Portland, they’ve appointed another Brit -- the Scot John Spencer -- as coach of the reborn Timbers.

Well, OK, give the guy time - but that is no longer necessary. We know with total certainty, that the first move of any Brit coach will be a complete confirmation of the very provinciality that makes them so unsatisfactory. Off they go to the UK to sign obscure, and invariably, not very good players.

Johnston did that, both at the MetroStars and in Toronto, and screwed up big time. Spencer has started in exactly the same way, signing English defender Kerrea Gilbert, from Arsenal. Spencer says that Gilbert is “a typical Arsenal fullback who likes to attack for 90 minutes” which seems a strange way of praising a player who is supposed to be a defender. Not mentioned either by Spencer, or in the Timbers press release, is that Gilbert is a player with an evident attitude problem, a player who was last year convicted of a drunk-and-disorderly offense.

Very nice. But no worse than Hans Backe’s move at the Red Bulls in signing another Brit, Luke Rodgers. A player with a 3rd and 4th division background, and another guy who has been in trouble with coaches and with the law.

This is not encouraging. Such signings are, basically, indefensible. It is not as though other players are not available -- players who are at least as good, and who come without badly tarnished backgrounds. But for Spencer and Backe, what makes Gilbert and Rodgers attractive prospects is that they are easy signings. Both Backe and Spencer have Brit contacts, and that’s all there is to it. Looking further afield to other countries takes time and persistence.

One can only hope that Gilbert and Rodgers will have more success at lighting up MLS than their celebrated compatriot David Beckham, whose impact on the field so far (and we’ve had four years of him now) has been negligible.

There is further evidence that MLS coaches prefer the easy route and will prefer to sign European blandness than to take the effort -- and, yes, the risk -- of looking for more exotic talent.

We have Sigi Schmid in Seattle signing a Swede, Erik Friberg, and we have Backe trying to sign a Norwegian, Jan Gunnar Solli. The news on Friberg is this: Friberg himself says “I work hard,” while Schmid says Friberg brings “an honest work rate.”  So that’s all right then, plenty of running. Schmid adds that Friberg will “add flair” -- well, possibly, though not many Swedes get signed for that talent. And it’s probably safe to say that no Norwegian player has ever been accused of burdening his game with flair.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber is on record as saying that, if the USA was awarded the 2022 World Cup, MLS would by then be one of the world’s top leagues. The USA did not get the cup, but there’s no reason at all why Garber should abandon his aim. It is, clearly, an achievable target.

A good first step would be to upgrade the performance of MLS teams against Mexican club sides. The record in the Superliga is not good -- despite the fact that  all of the games are played in the USA.

So one looks at this ill-assorted bunch of obscure European signings and one wonders -- are these guys going to help? Either in making MLS competitive with the Mexicans, or in elevating MLS up to the level of the world’s top leagues?

11 comments about "Ill-assorted signings signal more European blandness".
  1. Loren C. Klein, December 24, 2010 at 10:08 a.m.

    Typical Gardner. Plenty happy to point out problems without offering one iota of a solution. Guess he's still hurt by Don Garber's three-second destruction of him at the MLS Conference Call back in November--truly the highlight of the year for US Soccer. ;^)

  2. Albert Harris, December 24, 2010 at 10:55 a.m.

    Actually Paul has offered his solution to the problem numerous times: Stop the knee jerk hiring of British coaches. You may not like it, and teams in the league may continue it, but you really can't say Mr Gardner hasn't made his position clear over the years. Happy Holidays all!

  3. Kevin Leahy, December 24, 2010 at 12:34 p.m.

    MLS was more attractive in years two through five than it is now. The american players are better but, the foreigners are not.The south and central american players made it that way. It never ceases to amaze me how we go back to the same things that people do not want to see. What Garber knows about soccer you could fit on the head of a pin. At least Sunil knew where to go to find the right players.

  4. Daniel Oleary, December 24, 2010 at 12:38 p.m.

    For all your knee jerk reaction to British coaches you never mention Steve Nicol of the Revolution. He does not bring in English players, in fact he has several African and South American players. His team has done well winning the SuperLiga Champion in 2008 and going to the MLS Cup finals 3 times.

  5. James Froehlich, December 24, 2010 at 1:09 p.m.

    As usual the curmudgeon has nailed it, MLS is much too reliant on the lesser lights of European football, both coaches and players. I had the misfortune of watching the Portland Timbers this fall and it reminded me of the play of relegation teams in the EPL, all physical, defensive play, interrupted by long, wayward passes. We can attribute much of this to their coach, Gavin Wilkinson and his assemblage of skill-less physical players, amongst which their target striker, Bright Dike, ranks high. All of these are now part of the new MLS Timbers. The Sounders will have little to fear skill-wise from the Timbers but they may want to wear shoulder pads when they visit Portland!!

  6. Ted Westervelt, December 27, 2010 at 10:03 a.m.

    Put a Brit accent on it, and MLS likes it. Except for Paul Gardner. He never got the Garber/Gulati "MLS is too weak in America to stand up to real criticism" memo. God Bless him.

  7. Ted Westervelt, December 27, 2010 at 10:06 a.m.

    ....and Kevin is dead on. MLS sent 22 players onto World Cup Rosters in '98, and DC United to the Interamerican Cup. Nobody would have predicted that, in 2010, the first number would have dropped to 5, (including Findley and Bornstein) and we'd still be 0 for Mexico.

  8. Brian Something, December 27, 2010 at 2:43 p.m.

    Even the best British players aren’t that good (none among the 30 finalists for world Player of the Year) and MLS is signing the third- and fourth-rate ones.

    Pretty much every foreigner that’s made a sustained impact on the field in MLS has been a Latin American, none has been English. Why hasn’t the MLS braintrust noticed this?

    Oleary: Nicol has been successful but his teams play a very uncreative (I dare say anticreative) style. I say this as a Revs’ fan who’s had to suffer through countless boring seasons. He has signed several Latin American players but none (save Cancela, who he still often clashed with) made any kind of impact and nearly all weren’t given much of a chance... not that they could flourish under his system anyway.

  9. Manny Cardoza, December 27, 2010 at 2:50 p.m.

    Actually, MLS Teams have a winning percentage of 570 againgst Mexican Clubs within the U.S. territory in friendlies and superliga play. The problem for MLS Teams is that they don't do very well in Mexico and have only won there in friendly matches. I did the research on this from the year 2000 to 2010.

  10. Nick Prodanovich, December 30, 2010 at 8:48 a.m.


    I disagree. The reason fewer US Nats starting players are in MLS is because the League has developed better players that have gone on to Europe. It's precisely because MLS has improved is better known and has established a better reputation that has caused the very best players in MLS to be taken seriously by European sides.

    I've been a full season ticket holder for DCU since day 1 and there is no doubt at all that MLS has improved significantly over 96. No doubt United was a very good side back then but don't judge the league based on United in those first 2 or 3 years. United was clearly an exception to not the rule of play back then.

  11. Benjamin Kowalsky, December 31, 2010 at 10:41 p.m.

    Gary Smith has signed... what mediocre Brit... exactly...?

    I hope you don't mean Jamie Smith, who has Championship rings from Celtic and Aberdeen? Who has played in both the SPL and the Eredivisie?

    Your pontificating, again, falls apart under the slightest scrutiny. I mean, you even undercut yourself:

    "Even after the disastrous shambles that Mo Johnston conjured up in Toronto (almost entirely the result of his signing mediocre Brit players), the Colorado Rapids decided on the Brit Gary Smith. OK, Smith has reached the top -- his Rapids are the MLS champions. " Do you... proofread at all? Mo Johnson was a bad coach and worse Director of Football. Gary Smith, a former Arsenal Scout in Spain, is a success. Your theory wouldn't hold water even if it were in some kind of sippy cup. You did know that Spain is a part of Europe, right? And that many attractive and successful styles of soccer come from Europe, right? You know what, I'm not even going to bother asking these questions. I'm going to lower my blood pressure with some alcohol and make some bad decisions. It's New Years for crying out loud and I'm arguing with a guy who couldn't even be bothered to look at a wikipedia entry for the most rudimentary of research into his ridiculous claims.

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