Despite flaws, MLS fuels badly needed passion

By Ridge Mahoney

Something Landon Donovan said in a February interview got me to thinking about what effect the U.S. team's performance in the 2010 World Cup might have on MLS.

Despite strong World Cup TV ratings, MLS numbers haven’t changed. Yet the league keeps adding teams in large markets, building stadiums, and inching toward a foothold in a country mostly indifferent if not disdainful to its professional soccer league. And, it seems, despite the development of more programs to steer young elite players away from college soccer, the quality of those college players is improving. Despite a brand of soccer inferior to many alternatives available on television, there’s more media coverage than ever before.

The influx of players from college programs at schools like Akron, Michigan, California, Oregon State and other schools not as renowned as their counterparts such as Indiana, Wake Forest and Maryland is certainly the major factor, as is the experience many of those players gain from U.S. Soccer’s developmental programs and youth national teams.

Yet a trickle-down effect from the U.S. team’s performances at major competitions has also played a role and not just on the field, but in the stands. Gone are the days when most MLS crowds were either distracted or stoic; in many cities, not just the recent expansion hotshots, more people are a lot more into it. Instead of a few dozen colorful, rowdy whackos sprinkled amongst the moderately interested, fans in the hundreds or even the thousands wear the same colors, wave the same flags, and sing the same chants.

“When I speak about the World Cup last summer, what we were able to do, I hear people say, ‘Well then how come MLS attendance didn’t go up after the World Cup?’” said Donovan. “The reality is that you may gain a few fans in the short-term, but in the long-term what we did is inspired a lot of young kids who one day may choose soccer instead of volleyball or basketball or football, because they want to be the next Clint Dempsey or the next Tim Howard. We probably also inspired some kids who never kicked a soccer ball who think they could be the next Jozy Altidore or Michael Bradley.

“Over the course of time, that’s how you build a fan base, that’s how you develop maybe one or two world-class players from all these kids who are playing soccer. You develop a lot more coaches, you develop a lot more people who are just passionate about the game, and they pass that down to their kids. It’s a cycle of passion for our sport that just builds, and the test will be in 20, 30, or 40 years from now.

“It’s a credit to how far we’ve come. It’s a credit to the coaching and a credit to the system, for sure.”

Both “the coaching” and “the system” have taken a lot of heat in this country and there’s no question there needs to be upgrading and streamlining of both. The recent failure of the U.S. U-20s to qualify for the world championships has triggered a fresh round of criticism and cost head coach Thomas Rongen his job, but a glance around MLS reveals how our young players compare to those from other countries.

The caliber of young foreign players, some in their teens, being signed by MLS teams has been overshadowed by coverage of Homegrown products, but the foreign youngsters usually have more experience and get into the lineup much more quickly. I’ve no idea how good Chicago’s recent signing, Cristian Nazarit, will turn out to be, but at age 20 he’s already played more than 40 first-team games and according to information released by the Fire, scored 16 goals.

Regardless of the drawbacks and benefits of Colombian soccer, and there are certainly many of both, imbued in that culture is intense passion for the game at all levels. It drives players to excel, fans to attend, owners to spend, and teams domestic and abroad to mine the best talent. A player who makes it as a pro might have been coached and tutored and mentored more than a dozen people, all of them zealous devotees of the game, and advised and assisted by many others.

When MLS and U.S. Soccer refine and revise their programs to find and cultivate the talented players who possess the greatest will to succeed, the game in this country will rise to unprecedented heights. We can’t replicate the feeling and emotion in Colombia nor any other country, we need to grow our own, and one of the necessary ingredients is time.

8 comments about "Despite flaws, MLS fuels badly needed passion".
  1. David Sirias, May 6, 2011 at 12:26 p.m.

    Nothing untrue in this article. But there is a glaring omission. And that is the role of the 4th Estate ( that mean you SA and all other so called professional soccer reporters and writers) Every developed soccer nations is bereft of a soft-ball press. In fact the press can be unduly harsh. But there is a reason they are harsh. Expectations-- they expect maximum effort and performance and will not hesitate to call out palyers and coaches when those expectations are not met. SA, the days of playing nice with players and coaches is over. How many times did Clint Dempsey walk through games leading up to and during the 09 Confederations Cup, with SA rating him 6 or 7 simply because he made one brilliant pass? Why was his auto-starter status not questioned? His own internal fire got him started preventing an epic falme out in the CC, not any external preessure from the press. And good ole Bob Bradley, Sunil, and the Federation--unquestioned fealty from SA except for people like Paul Gardner. A moderen soccer nation requires a vigilent and demanding press. You are part of the game's evolution here, like it or not.

  2. Mark Eyerman, May 6, 2011 at 12:53 p.m.

    Maybe the problem is the whole idea of a system -- NBA basketball players don't come from a system - neither do most baseball players. Players develop by playing - not in formal programs but in back yards and pickup games. That is where those foreign MLS players learned the game and that's why so many top level US atheletes come from families where Mom or Dad played or is the coach. They spend time kicking and passing and dribbling and learn basic skills and how to play the game. As long as we focus on the system we probably won't succeed. How many US kids can play the ball with both feet, chest down a pass, head the ball to a teammate?

  3. Polo Recuay, May 6, 2011 at 2:48 p.m.

    Good article. A few comments:
    MLS will not grow until the interest and the passion for the game increases drastically. One way to do this is to start playing the games at designated days, when all the teams play the same day, be it either Saturdays or Sundays, but it has to have a nice schedule flow. Right now, the scheduling resembles more to baseball than to the soccer leagues around the world.
    On the player development end, there is too much coaching at the early stage, like for 6 to 9 years bracket. At this early stage, there should only get guidance for development of ball skills, using BOTH feet and to enjoy the game. Get some Brazilian coaches for this age. From 9 to 12 group, then teach field awareness, defense, midfield and attacking skills, how to use speed, etc. get some English coaches for this group.

  4. Mike Gaire, May 6, 2011 at 3:58 p.m.

    I think this is an excellent article and Ridge deserves to be applauded for it. Ric and David, I do NOT share your admiration for grumpy old Gardener, most of what he writes is so blatantly racist against his former country that it sickens me, but I will admit his last article that appeared yesterday had some merit to it. What we need here in the USA is more people converts to the game like Drew Carey! I love what he does for the game and especially when he promotes it during appearances on the Craig Ferguson show!!

  5. David Sirias, May 6, 2011 at 4:49 p.m.

    Mike G No one here criticized the article above. You are missing the larger point. Are you saying you don't want the soccer press to hold player and coaches accountable? Really? As to Paul Gardner, indeed he beats the dead horse, but he's entitled to, especially if he's right. And when it comes to subjects like player devlopment and the good ole boys coaching fraternity in the is this country he is spot on.

  6. Steven Erickson, May 6, 2011 at 10:39 p.m.

    Until the very top levels of US Soccer and MLS are shuffled out the door and new managers/presidents with the desire to compete on the high, BALL SKILLED level, soccer in the US is doomed to it's boorish, crashing vision. It will flow from the top, if it's ever properly filled. I can only hope and continue to watch European/South American soccer.

  7. beautiful game, May 7, 2011 at 12:08 p.m.

    David Sirias reads into the it very well. The media covering MLS has an illusional concept of what is important. Listen to the TV commentary and marvel at the constant talk of 'great'...'terrific'...'unbelievable'...'spectacular'...'dangerousm (free kick)...'intercepted' (blatant giveaway)...and the no-talk about unforced errors, poor decision making, or any other negative factors that abound in an MLS contest. Watching the game and listening to the commentary has no synch to it...commentators are too winded and yada-yada about everything except what happens on the pitch, when they should talk less and let the game speak for itself. Unfortunately, they watch the monitor and call the game; killing it with their yada-yada.

  8. Ted Westervelt, May 7, 2011 at 10:04 p.m.

    Ridge: Soccer is growing by leaps and bounds, while MLS is doing the inching. Shouldn't we ask why, instead of concentrating on unmeasurable spirit, the influx of underpaid - or unpaid - college students? And yes, Landon Donovan is a paid spokesperson for MLS at this point. Any chance you'd give anyone with an opposing view a shout? Despite Flaws? Sheesh!

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