More MLS games won't upgrade U.S. team

By Ridge Mahoney

U.S. national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has joined the chorus of those who believe MLS teams don’t play enough games. He’s not wrong, but he’s not right, either.

According to a former national team player, ex-head coach Bob Bradley occasionally rankled his MLS players by citing a dearth of what Bradley called “meaningful” games in the domestic league. Klinsmann is already following suit to some extent, and to his credit, shortly after taking the job he mentioned he needed to learn about the league and its players quickly.

What Klinsmann learned, apparently, is that not many of them measure up to his standards, at least not yet. Since he can’t wave a magic wand and dramatically upgrade the caliber of play, he’s brought up the notion that more is more.

But his logic is flawed: adding a few more games won’t further develop the elite players once they reach a certain stage, and as one case among many can be submitted that of Landon Donovan, who’s not what he was since returning from Everton a few months prior to the 2010 World Cup. For both club and country, he’s faded; not to any great extent, but most of his performances this season for the Galaxy and with the USA at the Gold Cup this past summer are a notch below.

If he were creeping up into the early 30s, age could be blamed. But he’s 29, supposedly the peak years of a player’s career, when the body is still relatively strong and the mind and psyche have been steeped in knowledge and experience. He could be a couple of years ahead of the normal age curve, or perhaps he’s laboring with the knocks and pains accrued during more than a decade of high-level competition, or he’s just not being challenged enough in league play.

In one sense, instilling a bit more competition within the squad by getting more players more time can marginally raise the intensity of play, and maybe its quality. But the technical and instinctual elements of Donovan’s game aren’t going to be enhanced by an extra derby day with Chivas USA, or an additional East Coast road trip to play Montreal. If Brek Shea hasn’t maxed out in MLS, he’s getting close. And he’s only 21. More MLS games per season can move him only so far. And as Tim Ream has shown, you can be young and pretty good in MLS, and a disaster for the USA.

As shocking as it will be for most fans and many journalists to hear it, but developing players for the U.S. national team is not a major objective for MLS. If that were the case, it would have plunged millions of dollars into its domestic scouting and player identification programs from Day 1. Instead, it has taken more than a decade for the league to implement academy and player development programs of any substance (though several teams, among them Chivas USA, D.C. United and the MetroStars got on board in their early years) and buried the Reserve Division before exhuming it this season.

If anything, MLS is doing as much as it can to find and cultivate foreign talent so its teams can win games, draw good crowds, and if not turn a profit, trim losses to a manageable level. Why else would the league permit eight international slots per team, plus green-card holders it must accommodate due to U.S. labor laws, and amend its Designated Player option so younger players – who arrive from other countries – don’t count for the full salary-budget charge?

MLS is not a charity, nor is it a benevolent social organization, nor is it a glorified academy for American players. It’s a business, a pro league, and what it does to grow and flourish is not necessarily what’s best for the U.S. national team programs. The MetroStars didn’t sell Jozy Altidore, then just 18, to Villarreal for $10 million because he’d outgrown MLS. The club sold him so it and the league could cash in.

Getting back to the topic of more games, be they in an expanded balanced schedule or a diet more rich in rivalry games as Commissioner Don Garber has indicated, what MLS teams really need is more games against non-MLS teams.

It tried to exploit the huge Mexican-American population by creating SuperLiga, but many times participants on both sides of the border fielded teams well below full strength, and rested their best. Again, those games certainly gave more fringe players additional playing opportunities but were of limited value to the big guns.

Right now, the only competitive channel is the Concacaf Champions League, and not all of the CCL participants present a stiff challenge to clubs from the major powers. Yet getting a point with a late goal in Guatemala City, as did Seattle in the fifth week of group play, is just the kind of experience that hones every player.

If anything, as Tauro FC’s 5-3 thrashing of FC Dallas earlier this month showed, additional games often translate to more travel, less rest and poor play.

Perhaps the real issue is the long offseason break, which Klinsmann also mentioned. Most coaches and players -- and team trainers – believe a break of four to six weeks allows sufficient rest, barring a major injury, to heal in time for the resumption of preseason training. Beyond that period, conditioning and muscle tone deteriorate, necessitating a longer process of building the body back up. Non-playoff teams are idle for three months (late October to late January) and cold-weather conditions on the East Coast and Midwest are formidable barriers to a longer playing window.

Making MLS games more “meaningful,” i.e., faster, tougher, harder, and thereby more competitive, is much more complex than simply playing more of them. And it will take a lot more time.

12 comments about "More MLS games won't upgrade U.S. team".
  1. beautiful game, October 13, 2011 at 10:34 a.m.

    MLS season is too short, too many games bunched and it should be spread out more...Making MLS games more “meaningful,” is crucial, as is protecting players from the defensive goons who in reality have no business on the pitch. MLS needs to reinvent itself starting with the schedule and the inconsistent officiating.

  2. Luis Arreola, October 13, 2011 at 10:37 a.m.

    What FIFA should do is demand what is does in every other country. For MLS to have a real proffessional league and have a first, second and third division. This way these MLS teams will do a better job of scouting better players, finding and developing new talent to have an edge on the competition and to improve their chances of not being demoted to 2nd and 3rd divisions. MLS also needs to let each team fully benefit from home grown player transactions so they have the full desire to truly develop players. All of these factors will help create a more competitive environment in MLS and will force these teams to look for every way possible to develop talent therefore supplying the Msnt with better players even if its against their will. Ridge states that MLS teams are not looking to develop players for USA mnst. Nobody is. The players are developed in other leagues because of the structure of their leagues and they are all under the same Fifa guide lines. These teams have to develop players so they can stay competitive always. Look at Chivas, Barcelona. They perhaps unwillingly supply their national teams with the best talent. MLS will only keep changing the rules to accommodate more foreign signings.

  3. Luis Arreola, October 13, 2011 at 10:43 a.m.

    Many pros have critisized the MLS as not being a real league because of this system. These teams spend their money in promoting and less in players to build a strong base for years to come. They sign players that are close to retiring to get the seats filled but not to win. Its a joke. Blanco said this many times and said that the MLS does not even practice as a professional club.

  4. cony konstin, October 13, 2011 at 1:34 p.m.

    What problems do our players have? Lack Creativity, first touch is weak, not comfortable with the ball under pressure, play too many long balls, weak decision making and I could go on and on. So Garber wants to control the weather and JK wants a longer season. Here is your solution. Start a MLS Futsal Pro league. Futsal will help our players to improve 100%. This is a no brainer. But people need to think out of the box. The players will love it. We need a REVOLUTION in America. We need radical thinking. The status quo is keeping us chained to a fence. It is time to cut the chains of mediocrity and unleash the dogs of war. Our players are ready for change. Just ask them. They are not idiots.

  5. cony konstin, October 13, 2011 at 2:41 p.m.

    Super Man I am not saying that Futsal should take the place of soccer. But FIFA's new mantra is Futsal is part of Football. When I was in Spain for a FIFA seminar. The President of Spainish FA said that one of the main reasons why Spain won the world cup was because of the implementation of futsal throughout Spain. That was not me saying it. It was the President of an FA who won a world cup.

  6. cony konstin, October 13, 2011 at 2:41 p.m.

    One other thing Super Man why don't you use your real name. Unless you are really Super Man.

  7. Jens Jensen, October 13, 2011 at 2:48 p.m.

    It is true that promotion/relegation will add pressure to more matches, but I understand the complications. Another tool is incentive pay - last I knew there was no system in place for incentive play so that young players who force their way into the starting lineup could make a decent wage and get to a respectable wage by winning matches. Am I wrong? Has MLS put a system in place?

  8. James Madison, October 13, 2011 at 5:37 p.m.

    If a player wants to have a maimum career, four weeks of REST/VACATION is the minimum necessary to CLEANSE the psyche. The same four or maybe up to six weeks are required to let the body recover. Serious training can then resume, but it should be another four before competing again.

  9. cony konstin, October 13, 2011 at 7:18 p.m.

    Opinions are like assho00's. Everyone has one. So it doesn't matter if your name Super Man, Joe Blow or Cony Konstin. So keep your anonymity and keep those opinions flying.

  10. Leonardo Perez, October 14, 2011 at 12:36 a.m.

    I w is correct in saying that the league plays too many games per week; ridiculous times like Tuesdays or Wednesdays---they cogest the games and then we get injuries and slow unappetizing games that make one fall asleep. Why? Because they play too short a season. If they played only on Saturdays and/or Sundays (once in awhile on Thursdays) in a 10 month season--we'd have better games and more interest in MLS. But, no, we cater to ESPN and play on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. I've been on board with MLS since 1996, it's time to get in line with the rest of the world. Don't you think?

  11. Kent James, October 14, 2011 at 8:22 a.m.

    North American weather makes a longer season more difficult (and as others have pointed out, more games in the same amount of time is asking for injuries). Promotion/relegation is a wonderful concept, but the MLS needs to be on firmer financial footing before we can get there (though it seems we're getting close), and the lower leagues need to be stronger, so that clubs can survive if they get relegated. No one wants to invest big dollars in a soccer stadium for a team that could drop to the 2nd league, where it would be very difficult to survive financially without drastically cutting all you worked so hard to put together. Maybe in a few years. Futsal is a wonderful game, but not so much to watch (at the highest levels, goals seem almost random). Tremendous for player development (I'm with you on that one Cony), but I wouldn't expect the MLS to do that with their first teams (though it might be interesting, to have MLS teams play futsal for 6 weeks prior to the outdoor season; it would solve the weather problem and extend the playing season...).

  12. Luis Arreola, October 17, 2011 at 8:56 p.m.

    Cony, Super's real name is Clarko Kento. People will invest in a structure that gives each team the right to fully profit from their developed player's contracts. The investment will go more into player development and force these so called Academies to produce and scout top talent. That creates more exiting soccer to watch and that creates more interest from better athletes and that gives USA a bigger and better player pool to pick from!!!

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